If Willy Wonka had a factory full of cheese then it may have looked like the David L. Lawrence Convention Center last week, where pillars of brie balanced beside cubed Colby, mozzarella mounds and gorgeous Gouda. With stacks of cheese everywhere in sight, entrants to the downtown hall resembled toothpicks on a heaping catered tray, with nearly 1,900 attendees slicing, serving and plucking chunks from tons of delectable dairy.
Amplifying the aura of the 2018 American Cheese Society Conference and Competition were cheesemakers, cheese mongers, cheese consumers and even a cheese artist who indulged in informational sessions, networking opportunities and the penultimate Festival of Cheese — a Saturday evening affair where eaters enjoyed 2,000 varieties of the celebrated comestible.
Having now aged into its 35th year, ACS’ annual gathering is akin to “cheese camp,” explained attendees.
“It’s about the people and the relationships,” said Kathleen Shannon Finn, past president of the organization.
“You see each other every year. It’s like a cheese family, so it’s really fun to come back,” echoed Maegan Olsen, R&D food technologist at Cabot Creamery in Vermont.
The 2018 convention, which spanned July 25-28, marked ACS’ Steel City debut, and though the area may be better known for Iron City beer than grass fed cows, it impressed both industry insiders and those simply fond of fontina.
Nora Weiser, executive director of the 1,800-strong ACS, praised Pittsburgh for its “burgeoning food scene, great chefs” and accessibility.
“It was a good fit, it was a good size for our organization,” said Weiser. “The city was very welcoming in bringing us here, so we’re excited. People are pleasantly surprised about what they’re discovering about Pittsburgh.”
Cathy Gaffney, the organization’s incoming president, agreed.
“Pittsburgh people love cheese it seems, so that’s a great place for us to be,” she said.
While the yearly event affords ample chances to ingest everything from Acapellas to Zwitsers, it is really about the learning, explained John Antonelli, the organization’s president. “When folks come here they are getting an opportunity to get access to education.” Panel presentations and lectures from leaders in the field allow many rural based “dairy men and women” to hear from those who “have the expertise that you wouldn’t necessarily have access to in your home city.”
Especially edifying was the newly published “ACS Cheese and Dairy Product Lexicon and Glossary.” Intended to “facilitate conversations across the supply chain of cheese by creating a credible, modern resource that provides a greater understanding of the myriad ways in which cheese is discussed and described,” the lexicon is “a way for us to communicate better with all of the folks in cheese,” said Weiser.
“Taste is very subjective,” noted Gaffney, “so being able to help folks understand how to taste and how to communicate that is going to be essential to the growth and the success of our organization and continued growth of our cheese.
“You can liken it to a program for sommelier,” Gaffney added. “There’s a language around wine. There’s a history of where the product comes from and what tastes you expect, and that’s what this is for cheese in many ways.”
At the organization’s initial conference in 1983 judges selected from 89 entries in a best of show competition; 35 years later, experts reviewed the attributes and defects of 1,954 cheese and cultured dairy products from 259 companies representing 35 U.S. states, five Canadian provinces, Mexico, Columbia and Brazil, said Ashley Greco of Fresh Ideas Group.
Several participants marveled at the sheer volume of cheese and cheese-related services on display.
“I had no idea there were all these different kinds of cheeses, and the way they make them and they wrap them … it’s unbelievable,” said Leslie Frischman, of Squirrel Hill.
Of particular note, added Frischman, who was volunteering at the conference, is Beehive Cheese’s “Barely Buzzed.” Described as a “unique espresso and lavender hand-rubbed cheese with subtle notes of butterscotch and caramel,” the “full-bodied cheese with a smooth, creamy texture product” is “made from the milk of Jersey cows.” After the “unique espresso blend is mixed with French Superior lavender buds and freshly ground onsite, the mixture is diluted with oil to suspend the dry ingredients in the rub,” aged in a “humidity controlled facility and then moved to two different temperatures during the aging process to develop texture and flavor.”
Though “Barely Buzzed” placed first at ACS’ competition in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2015, “Harbison” from Cellars at Jasper Hill in Vermont took this year’s top prize.
The “soft-ripened cheese with a rustic, bloomy rind” is described by its makers as “woodsy and sweet, balanced with lemon, mustard and vegetal flavors.”
Much in the same way that people “care so much about how food is made and where it is made,” the industry is noticing similar interests in the production of kosher cheese, said Weiser.
“Especially in the United States, when we’re doing these major food shows I’m having these conversations about kosher products, and the more shows we attend, the more people who are asking about those products and how many do we offer,” said Anthony Constantine, national sales manager at George DeLallo Company.
Being able to offer kosher cheese, kosher culture products and kosher butter is “really important to us,” said Olsen of Vermont’s Cabot Creamery. “And I think it’s something that makes us stand out.”
Situated behind gobs of a certified kosher Swiss Valley Farms item, DeMetria Isabel, of Davenport, Iowa, agreed.
“Who doesn’t love a bagel with cream cheese? Who doesn’t love that,” she said.
“The biggest perk for me” is elsewhere, said Finn, a past president of ACS. “My focus has always been the cheesemakers. They are wonderful, hardworking, good people from all over the country.”
Jessica Little, co-owner of Sweet Grass Dairy, drove 14 hours from Thomasville, Ga., to attend ACS. At a meet the cheesemakers session on Thursday evening, her sons carved chunks of cheese the size of marbles for sampling. Eduardo Rodriguez, founder of My Artisano Foods in Cincinnati, operated a table nearby.
Being a cheesemaker offers much gratification, he said.
But there’s a lot of responsibility, offered Ephraim Miller, of Lancaster, Pa.-based Alpine Heritage Creamery. “I do everything from answering the phone to washing the drains.” PJC