Well, guess what? This week is sort of like Wheel of Fortune on location — only better — because I’m in Burlington, Vermont at:
Buy a vowel: The Am_r_c_n Ch__s_ S_c__ty annual conference.
Considered to be the Holy Grail of conferences for artisan cheesemakers and cheese enthusiasts like me, The American Cheese Society (ACS) annual conference is not a posh event for cheese snobs and wine pairing connoisseurs. Instead, it resembles a family reunion. And that’s precisely why I like it. This is my fourth conference so I’m enjoying seeing many old friends. But even if it’s your first conference, I guarantee you’ll leave with at least a half dozen new best friends by conference end.
ACS is like the Midwest: we’re a friendly bunch, gosh darnit.
Yesterday was pre-conference tour day. I chose the Vermont Cheese Trail: Creamery Tour. This is my first trip to Vermont, so half the fun was really seeing the Vermont countryside and driving through villages that looked like museums. I kept wondering — where are all the Home Depots? Where are all the fast food restaurants? Where the hell do these people buy shoes?
But after about two hours I started to appreciate the lack of billboards, lack of chain stores and frankly, the lack of people. There are 650,000 people in this ENTIRE state. Montpelier, the state capital, has 10,000 people – and no, I didn’t forget a zero. Vermont may very well be my new favorite place.
Not only is it picturesque, Vermont has lots of cheesemakers. Jed Davis of Cabot Creamery served as our tour guide for the first half of the trip and was quick to point out that Vermont has more artisan cheesemakers per capita than any other state. He was quick to add, however, that when the population of your state is smaller than most major cities, you can pretty much secure the “most fill in the blank here per capita” titles that you want.
After touring and meeting with the cheesemakers of both Cabot Creamery and Vermont Butter & Cheese, I felt a sense of pride in a state’s dairy industry that I have never experienced before outside Wisconsin. These people are passionate and innovative.
Case in point: Vermont Butter & Cheese owners Allison Hooper and Bob Reese started their company in 1984 with $2,400 in capital — $1,200 each out of Allison’s and Bob’s pockets – as well as a $4,000 loan from the United Church of Christ and a $10,000 loan from the local bank.
Today, Vermont Butter & Cheese supports a network of more than 20 family farms and has earned a worldwide reputation for its goat’s milk and cow’s milk cheeses. My favorite part of their story has to be their 800-pound butter churn. They found it abandoned along side the road. Seriously – I’m not kidding. They then refurbished it and now make three churns of butter a day.
In fact, they were the first American company to make French-style cultured, high-fat butter. More importantly, it’s extremely yummy. I cleaned out the last of it during a tasting following the tour. If I could find this stuff in Wisconsin, I’d buy it by the case.
The story at Cabot Creamery was similar – although quite a bit larger, you can still sense the pride every employee wears inside the plant. Cabot began in 1919 as a cooperative and today has more than 20 million pounds of cheese in storage. Their specialty: cheddar, aged 60 days to 60 months. Cabot makes up to 18 vats of cheese a day, 4,000 pounds per vat.
I suspect both Cabot Creamery and Vermont Butter & Cheese will again do very well at this year’s ACS competition (winners to be announced on Friday). I’ll be cheering them on (right alongside our Wisconsin dairy artisans, of course.)