Last week, over 1,000 cheese people from all over descended on Sacramento for the annual American Cheese Society conference (“ACS” for short). I had never been, it’s not far from SF, and my sister has an extra couch, so figured this was my chance!
I decided not to attend officially, but rather volunteer so I could work behind the scenes. There, I also got to experience the wonderful leadership of the conference’s official cheesemongers, Randall Felts of Whole Foods (Alabama!) and Kelsie Parsons of Sobeys in Canada. These two gentlemen made sure thousands of pieces of cheeses were prepared for breakout sessions, food/beverage pairings, and the Festival of Cheese. They ensured that cheeses were uniformly but beautifully presented, properly cut and stored, and brought to the right temperature and sessions for service. Kelsie and Randall armed themselves with diagrams and tables of the plating for every session. These guys really did the industry proud.
As for me, I spent many hours in the chilly cheesemonger hall carving up cheeses, plating them, wrapping, and running them to carts. The first day, we prepared about 40 plates (maybe more?) of a California-only platter, 65 plates of a Karoun cheese platter, and some honey (as in hundreds of little cups) for the cheese and honey session. At one point, I snuck over to help another team, where Waldemar Albrecht, fromager extraordinaire, was cutting up enormous blocks of cheese destined for the Festival of Cheese and closing cheese sale. The day closed with the Meet the Cheesemaker event, where I got to see many of the California cheese people like Nicasio Valley Cheese Co., Shamrock Artisan Goat Cheese, Weirauch Farms, Bleating Heart, Gypsy Cheese Co., and way more, and taste some new ones, like Nicolau Farms from California, Kennys Country Cheese in Tennessee, and Baetje Farms from Missouri (I’ve been waiting to try their cheeses forever, but haven’t seen them at home).
Day 2 was more of the same, except this time I got to meet some more cheese folks! I ended up pouring wine at It’s Not You, It’s Brie Kirstin Jackson’s wine and cheese event, and FINALLY got to meet Matt Spiegler of Cheese Notes! When it came time for the awards ceremony, the California Artisan Cheese Guild decided to welcome everyone Tupac style with a flashmob dance rendition of “California Love.” Even Cowgirl Creamery’s Sue Conley joined in. Sacha Laurin, cheese maker, designer kombucha couturière, yoga and fitness master, and source of my first kombucha SCOBY, organized the dance.
My third day was spent preparing for the conference’s grand finale—the Festival of Cheese—where over 1,600 cheeses were laid out for attendees, press, and the general public. The enormous hall was sectioned off by cheese category. I was sent to the “American Originals” table, right next to the farmstead cheese table, and spent the next 7 hours prepping great hunks of cheese, including Humboldt Fog by Cypress Grove, Freya’s Wheel by Briar Rose Creamery, Kinkead by Sprout Creek Farm, and Rumiano Cheese’s Dry Monterey Jack. I don’t even know how to convey the scale of this event! Photos don’t even do it justice. Along the way that day, I got to catch up a bit with Triple Crème Decadence blogger Tiffany, the San Francisco Milk Maid Louella Hill, and even got to snap a picture of Louella with the Festival organizer, Debra Dickerson, of Cowgirl Creamery.
There is indeed a competition at the conference—it’s like the Academy Awards of cheese. The winning cheeses arrived for prepping toward the end of the day, and all us volunteers crowded around to see them. Tarentaise Reserve from Spring Brook Farm/Farms For City Kids Foundation in Vermont took home the Best of Show, Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co. (hey, a local!) took home 2nd place for their new Bay Blue. There was a tie for third place between California’s Oakdale Cheese and Specialties for their aged gouda, and Sprout Creek Farm of New York for their Eden. The room was full of winners, though, official and not. There are all sorts of categories a cheese could win a prize under. And in most cases, non prize-winners were wonderfully delicious as well. You can read the full list of results online.
After it was all over, I walked away with a charming scarlet t-shirt proclaiming me as part of the “Cheese Guard,” a brown “American Cheese Society” baseball cap, and about 20 chunks of cheese, most of which I had never tasted before (and a couple from Canada!). After I had been away from home for three days, M. Cheesemonger was especially happy to see the cheese.
Thank you, ACS, for throwing such a great “cheese camp,” and showcasing North American cheeses so beautifully! If you want to attend next year, especially if you’re in Rhode Island (wink wink), I would highly recommend it!
More photos below!