It’s Friday at the American Cheese Society conference in Seattle. That means, like every year, it’s about the time I remember why I take a week out of my schedule, experience the transit from hell (whether it be by plane, train or automobile), and trek to an annual meeting of cheese geeks from across the continent.
Here’s the long and short of it: I come here because of the people. Just as I live in Wisconsin because it’s full of nice people (and great cheese), I go to ACS because it feels like coming home. Whether they be cheesemakers, cheese scientists, cheese nerds or cheese writers, some of my very favorite people on the planet (notwithstanding my beloved Wisconsin cheesemakers) gather every year at the American Cheese Society and inspire me to forge ahead another year in spreading the gospel that is American Artisanal Cheese.
So who are these happy shiny people? Here’s a sampling:
Every couple of years at ACS, I work up the nerve to introduce myself and say how much I admire her work, and every time, she graciously assures me how nice it is to see me again. This year, she even asked for my card, which was an especially nice touch. But let’s face it, Daphne Zepos has no idea who I am. A mere cheese blogger does not register on the radar of a woman who owns her own cheese importing business in New York and who is regarded as one of the most outspoken and dynamic cheese advocates in the United States. This year, Daphne led an AMAZING 90-minute seminar at ACS, providing a vertical tasting of cow, goat and sheep dairy products, from fluid milk to yogurt, to fromage blanc to different-aged cheeses. This seminar alone was worth my entire trip, and Daphne Zepos is one of the reasons I’ll trek to ACS again next year.
At 19 years old, Galen Musser is one of the best young cheesemakers in the United States. Last year, his Prairie Breeze pulled a giant coup, winning first at ACS in the All Milks Cheddar class, beating out the likes of Beecher’s Flagship Reserve. Galen is the lead cheesemaker at Milton Creamery in Iowa, founded in 2006 by his parents, Rufus and Jane Musser. I first met Rufus and Jane in 2003, when they, along with a van load of their Amish neighbors, all sporting matching unibrows – trekked to Madison to meet with Dan Carter, Norm Monsen and I as we were just starting the Dairy Business Innovation Center. Since then, they’ve built a highly successful creamery and now make cheddar cheese, colby and fresh curds. This year, Galen says he didn’t enter Prairie Breeze into the ACS conference. “We can’t keep up with the demand now,” he told me. “We don’t want to win again and get even more orders. We’re trying to keep our current customers happy.” I think that pretty much says it all.
Judy is another cheese legend, of whom I usually admire from a distance, and again, occasionally work up the nerve to find an excuse to chat. This year, we were both on the Wednesday ACS bus tour of the Olympic Peninsula, and after sitting behind her for eight hours, I remembered why I like her so much. Judy is the founder of Capriole Farms in Greenville, Indiana and is the creator of such celebrated cheeses as Wabash Cannonball, Old Kentucky Tomme and Piper’s Pyramid. Confident, funny, vivacious, but never pretentious, Judy is a trip. She makes me laugh, she makes me think, but most of all, she makes me relaxed. Plus she continues to crank out awesome new cheeses like Juliana, named after a former intern who is now making cheese in England and selling it to Neal’s Yard Dairy. What’s not to like?
A native of Britain, Kate is one of the most unassuming, yet highly-regarded cheese geeks in the world. She’s done everything from work as wholesale manager for Neal’s Yard Dairy in London, to help start Cowgirl Creamery in California. Since 2003, I’ve been lucky enough to work with her occasionally at the Dairy Business Innovation Center, where she helps small-scale cheesemakers develop and launch new cheeses. Her latest venture, of course, is as one of the Founders and Editors of Culture Magazine, showcasing the world of artisanal and farmstead cheese, and for which I’m lucky to write for. I only get to see Kate once or twice a year, but every time I see her, she gives me a big hug and kiss on the cheek, and visits with me until we’ve run out of things to catch up on. She’s not the type of person who’s always looking over your shoulder, scanning the room for someone more important. She genuinely cares about people, goes out of her way to help cheesemakers whenever she can, and has a huge heart. She’s a keeper.
Two years ago, some dude named Gordon Edgar emailed me, asking if I was going to be at ACS because he was a fan of my blog and wanted to meet. Little did I know that Gordon was a force to be reckoned with, having worked as the cheese buyer at the Rainbow Cooperative Grocery in San Francisco for 15 years, and author of his own blog, Gordonzola. This year, he came out with a new book, Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge, which I picked up one morning to review for Culture, and didn’t put down until I finished it around noon. I’ve written before that Gordon is the Barbara Mandrell of the cheese counter, but he’s also the type of guy who welcomes and nurtures newcomers to the cheese industry, can laugh at himself (quite often and quite heartily), and who carries one of the most awesome bags I’ve ever seen in my life (pictured above). He’s cool, and his cool factor radiates across the room. He makes me want to laugh at myself more often (which as you know, is quite easy to do).
I could go on, but time is short and there is more cheese to eat. Stay tuned for tomorrow’s announcement of which Wisconsin cheesemakers take home blue ribbons, and of course, which North American cheesemaker wins Best in Show. I’ll be blogging live amidst 1,462 cheeses in Seattle’s Benoya Hall, where hundreds of people will eat themselves into cheese comas. Can’t wait.