Last week the American Cheese Society (ACS) held its annual conference in Chicago, celebrating the organization’s 25th anniversary. (The existence of such a society confounded many of my friends: you’re going to a cheese conference? American cheese?). Founded in 1983 by a gaggle of “academics and hippie goat people” the society has since grown to 1,400 members, including cheesemakers, retailers, distributors, educators and enthusiasts. Its mission is to promote an understanding and awareness of artisanal, farmstead and specialty cheeses made in the U.S. and Canada. This year there were over 800 people in attendance, and I was floored by the passion and depth of flavor on exhibit. We’re not talking Kraft singles here, people, we’re talking incredible farmstead cheeses made around the corner by producers hell-bent on promoting sustainability, community and local food systems.
A highlight of the conference was the chance to meet and speak with the cheesemakers, who, like most winemakers, are skilled farmers and artisans with a deep love for their craft. But the cheesemakers in the US haven’t yet received the same level of recognition or acclaim as their grape-growing friends. They face a vat of challenges (the need for a strong industry identity, lack of government support, increasing costs, seasonality and the perishable nature of their product, to name a few), and have to sway shoppers away from the less expensive (and, may I inject, lifeless) industrial stuff lining grocery shelves on the one hand, and the recognized European labels on the other hand. It’s like convincing consumers from a decade or two ago to try a present day Russian River Valley Pinot Noir or Finger Lakes Riesling instead of their standby two-buck-chuck or French Bordeaux.
But to taste is to believe. And taste I did. While an early departure meant that I had to miss the Award Ceremony (which judged 1,149 cheese entries from 181 producers in 30 states and 3 Canadian provinces!) and the Festival of Cheese (where literally over 1,000 cheeses were on display for sampling!), I still managed to savor more than my fair share of spectacular cheese. And I have no doubt American cheesemakers will soon see the spotlight they deserve. I’ve listed below just a light dusting of some cross-country highlights. I’d love to hear about your local favorites.
Beehive Cheese Co., Uintah, UT
Unpasteurzed cow’s milk aged 3 to 6 months. Pure, pastoral flavor with a buttery start and slightly sharp finish. Try their Coffee and Lavendar rubbed cheese as well; a bit crazy on the palate but surprisingly balanced and certainly interesting.
Cowgirl Creamery, Point Reyes Station, CA
Triple cream made from organic milk. My notes read “I could bathe in this cheese” (alright, I admit, this was after a glass of wine). Sumptuous and yet delicate with a hint of mushrooms and a creamy yet firm texture.
Cypress Grove Chevre, Arcata, CA
While you can’t beat their Humboldt Fog and Purple Haze, I swooned over the Fromage Blanc. Such purity and simplicity with a flavor that is as fresh as spring.
Old Chatham Sheepherding Company, Old Chatham, NY
Hudson Valley Camembert Square
Blend of sheep’s milk, cow’s milk and cow’s cream. Very sexy and lush with just enough backbone to stand up to a good red wine. Humane certified production. Their delicious sheep’s milk maple yogurt is also a must-try.
Otter Creek Organic Farm, Black Earth, WI
Raw cow’s milk cheddar from pasture-raised cows. Each season produces cheeses with slightly different flavors and aromas according to the changing flora and fat content of the cows. The Spring Cheddar is mild with a slight floral undertone and a smooth curd.
Prairie Fruits Farm, Champaign, IL
Bloomy rind, made with goat milk from their own herd. Luscious and gooey in a Camembert style and yet light on the palate—well deserving of its name. Seasonal production and local distribution only.
Sweet Grass Dairy, Thomasville, GA
Raw cow’s milk from pasture-raised cows. Crowd pleaser with buttery flavor and hint of sweetness.
Uplands Cheese Company, Dodgeville, WI
Pleasant Ridge Reserve
One of my new favorites. Unpasteurized cow’s milk from pasture-raised cows, with a gruyère style. The 9-month old has a nutty flavor with notes of dried fruit, while the 14-month old has a deeper complexity with aromas of caramel and some crystallization in texture.