Sampling cheese, learning about cheese, seeing cheese made, discovering new cheese and talking cheese.
That's what the 1000 or so cheese lovers who found their way to Madison last week for the 30th anniversary conference of the American Cheese Society (ACS) did over the course of the five day event.
Many of them came from New England, the area that is seemingly the hotbed of artisan cheeses, a goodly number came from California, a land of emerging farmstead cheese operations and many found their way to America's Dairyland from states in between.
Of course, the number one cheese state Wisconsin was represented in force in terms of both cheese makers and as welcoming hosts to visitors.
In contrast to some annual conferences(of other groups) I've attended over the years where attendees see the event as a vehicle to sight-see, shop or vacation, this assemblage seemed to have but one thing on their minds: Cheese in all its aspects from making to marketing to eating.
The American Cheese Society is young in years as nationwide organizations go - just 30 years out from its formation in 1983 when a group of 150 cheese lovers first got together at Cornell University at Syracuse, NY.
The acknowledged instigator of the now booming organization was Dr. Frank Kosikowsik, professor of food science at Cornell, who saw the need for a grassroots movement aimed at cheese appreciation and the advancement of home and farm cheese making.
In his discussion of the history of the ACS presented at the conference, Peter Dixon, Dairy Foods Consultant from Vermont, said that Ricki Carroll, owner of the New England Cheese making Supply Company at South Deerfield, MA, had similar thoughts as did Professor Richard Klein of Rutgers University.
"You also must include Dan Carter, of Mayville, WI, as one of the visionaries who brought the organization to where it is today," Dixon says.
The result was a group that today calls itself "the leading organization supporting the understanding, appreciation, and promotion of artisan, farmstead, and specialty cheeses produced in the Americas. At 1,500 members strong, ACS provides advocacy, education, business development, and networking opportunities for cheese makers, retailers, enthusiasts, and extended industry."
It would be hard to argue with that widely encompassing statement when looking at the program offered during the group's five days in Wisconsin.
SEEING WISCONSIN CHEESE
The program began with a full day of touring five different themed tours:
• "Classic Wisconsin Cheese maker Tour" that included Roelli Cheese, Shullsburg, Hook's Cheese, Mineral Point, Bleu Mont Dairy, Blue Mounds and its man-made underground cave and The Grumpy Troll in Mt. Horeb, one of Wisconsin's 75 craft breweries.
• "Wisconsin Beer and Cheese, Please" began at Widmer's Cheese Cellars in Theresa, Tyranena Brewing, Lake Mills, Sassy Cow Creamery, Sun Prairie and Cesar's Cheese, Sun Prairie and tour of the Baerwolf dairy and Ale Asylum Brewery, Madison.
• "Wisconsin Cheese, Wine and Spirits, Oh My!" that visited Cedar Grove Cheese, Plain, Carr Valley Cheese store in Sauk City, Wollersheim Winery, Prairie du Sac and Death's Door Spirits in Middleton.
• "Exploring Wisconsin's Driftless Sheep and Goat Dairies" that included stops at Dreamfarm in Cross Plains, Hidden Springs Creamery and Nordic Creamery, both at Westby.
• "The Scenic Wisconsin Cheese Experience" at Chalet Cheese Cooperative and Emmi Roth USA, both at Monroe.
Visitors on each of the tours had a chance to see some of the best in farmstead and artisinal cheese operations Wisconsin has to offer and to view the rural countryside at its greenest and most picturesque.
The next three days were filled with some 30 hour-and-a-half long seminars ranging from "Cheese making 101" For The Beginner," (the basics) to "The How To's of Direct Marketing at Farmers Markets" (it's hard work) to "A Cheese That Goes Squeak" (how the humble cheese curd became famous).
IT'S TALKING TO LEARN
Although this crowd filled the seminar rooms and took notes, my guess is that the real learning was in the halls where the "old pros" and "want to be famous" shared ideas and experiences. Unlike in some professions and businesses, artisan and farmstead cheese makers are eager to share information with beginners and encourage competition because of the interest, love and pride in what they are doing.
In spite of the good spirits that reigned throughout the big crowd, there was always the subject (lurking in the background) of the current closure of the Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese facility at Waterloo while the FDA conducts an inspection seeking the cause of the listeria outbreak that occurred in early July.
"Let them know that our hearts, minds and prayers are with them," cheese maker after cheese maker proclaimed.
MEET THE CHEESE MAKER
The ballroom at the Monona Terrace was shoulder to shoulder people on Wednesday evening for the "Meet the Cheese maker" gala where 72 cheese companies from nineteen states and one Canadian province displayed and offered samples of their cheeses.
The eager crowd was sampling cheeses from exotic named factories such as Green Dirt Farm in Missouri, Sequatchie Cove Creamery in Tennessee, Trickling Springs Creamery in Pennsylvania, Brazos Valley Cheese in Texas and Goat Lady Dairy in North Carolina.
But, they were also tasting cheeses from 24 of Wisconsin's own specialty cheese makers including long timers: Carr Valley, at LaValle; Maple Leaf of Monroe; BelGioioso, Green Bay; Klondike, Monroe; Cedar Grove, Plain; Hooks, Mineral Point; Roelli, at Shullsburg; Sartori of Plymouth, Pine River, Manitowoc; and Widmers of Theresa.
Then there were the dozen or more Wisconsin cheese makers that have made their mark in the past dozen years or so - such as Holland' Family Cheese, Thorp that came out of nowhere to win the US Championship as did LeClare Farms at Chilton - all with unique and innovative cheeses.
The ACS Judging & Competition drew attention: 1794 products entered by 257 companies a far cry from the 30 cheese makers and 89 cheeses at that first competition in 1985.
Interestingly, Cellars at Jasper Hill, VT, was adjudged the first place winner with their Winnimere, a spoonable chees , a unique and rather rare type of cheese.
Why the boom in artisan cheese making?
As many reasons as there are people doing it. Example: Larry Mattingly an Austin, KY, dairy farmer with 140 cows said he did it in 1998 with the formation of Kenny's Farmhouse Cheese, "to add value to his milk." Now half his milk is sold as cheese and he has indeed succeeded in adding that value. If cheese making is on your mind, contact the ACS at email@example.com
and get started. An idea, ambition and knowledge can get you a long way.
John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.