Showing Best of Show
By Christine Hyatt
Our country’s cheese industry observes a milestone this year as the American Cheese Society celebrates 30 years in Madison, Wisc., Aug. 1–4.
What began as a grassroots coalition of small-scale and hobby cheesemakers, cheese enthusiasts, academics and retailers — 150, to be exact — converging at Cornell University in the summer of ’83 has grown into a major movement, fostering nothing short of a renaissance in American cheese.
Led by Dr. Frank Kosikowski of Cornell, those cheese pioneers are quick to explain there was no roadmap to success, no established way of producing or promoting this “new” type of cheese, which was in direct opposition to the growth in commodity-style processed cheese.
The visionaries who embraced the challenge of producing cheese with unique flavors and stories — often from milk supplied by their own small herds — had little support from the mainstream dairy, academia and retail. This acceptance would take a few more years. What they possessed was a passion and determination to re-envision what American cheese could be.
Over the last three decades, the evolution has come to pass. And by rediscovering the ACS’s “Best of Show” cheeses, it’s easy to see the tasty transformation. So I decided to create a photo retrospective of the top winners. It was an absolute joy to photograph these gorgeous and memorable cheeses.
ACS has been holding an annual judging and competition since its third annual conference in 1985. That year, 89 cheeses were entered. Founder Kosikowski led the panel, tasting and critiquing each submission with his focus on improving the quality of each entry.
The growth of the competition — and the beauty and style of its winners — mirror the expansion and maturation of the cheese industry. In the early years, there was a slow and steady increase: 170 cheeses in 1987; 320 a decade later.
And then an explosion, of sorts, occurred. Over the last decade, numbers increased dramatically: 468 cheeses in 2003 to 1,794 entries in 2013. A growing demand for artisanal and farmstead cheese throughout the U.S. has made a huge impact on these numbers that are sure to grow.
In all, 19 different cheeses have won Best of Show, with four taking the top title multiple times. The fact that all the winning cheeses are still in production is a testament to their quality and the dedication of the cheesemakers who make them.
Best of Show cheeses represent a gamut of milks and styles: from the diminutive, surface-ripened Bluebonnet (Westfield Farm, Massachusetts) and Wabash Cannonball (Capriole Farmstead, Indiana), to Alpine styles like Grand Cru Surchoix (Roth Käse, Wisconsin) and Pleasant Ridge Reserve (Uplands Cheese, Wisconsin), to a bevy of clothbound cheddars, two washed-rind beauties and even our favorite, Oregon’s leaf-wrapped Rogue River Blue (Rogue Creamery).
Winning producers range from small, farmstead goat dairies to larger cooperatives, from relative newcomers on the cheese scene to well-established brands with deep roots and wide distribution.
Winners represent all regions of the country, too. Wisconsin, affectionately known as America’s Dairyland, has taken the top prize seven times, with West Coast upstart California claiming the title six times. New England represents with six wins for producers from Vermont and Massachusetts; while the Northwest has won the top title three times in the last four years.
Pulling off such a complex and complicated feat involves a highly dedicated committee and 19 teams of judges — technical and aesthetic — who taste hundreds of cheeses over two days, scoring and whittling down the cream of the crop to represent best in class in each of the 22 main categories.
As the competition has grown, winning the blue ribbon in the category comes with big bragging rights and is the entry ticket for the final round of judging and eligibility for Best of Show honors.
Earning a Best of Show can launch a cheesemaker onto centerstage, propelling his or her business toward even greater success. But, perhaps the best part of winning is making American cheese history.
Christine Hyatt promotes the wonders of fine cheese through food writing, recipe creation, food photography and video. Connect with her on Facebook or Twitter @cheesechick1.