The 31st American Cheese Society conference has come to an end. If these annual meetings could last a few days longer it might be easier to take part in all the highlights–and spend more time with friends you only get to see once a year. But if the amount of work going in to executing the conference is taken into consideration, a shorter version might make more sense.
Each year’s conference seems to get better than the last; this places pressure on future conference organizers. How they manage to cram all the various highlights into a tight 72-hour agenda must be the greatest challenge. Before the keynote address gets the ball rolling the organizing committee has to set aside a day to administer the Certified Cheese Professional exam. If it took place during the formal conference the candidates would miss important meetings, sessions and other opportunities. This adds a day to the agenda: the afternoon before the start of the conference for the exam itself, and preparing for it the full morning before: allowing time to set up the registration area, giving the proctors their assignments and instructions, and outfitting the exam room with electrical outlets, microphone and monitors, as well as loading the exam software into the rental laptops.
At the rate we are going, it appears we may be adding a second seating during the morning for next year’s exam, so this would require a much earlier start for the setup. As recently as late June we were expecting a total of 260 exam takers this year – maximum capacity for the room. There were some last-minute deferrals which brought the number down to 230, leaving a bit more elbow room. If we continue to see this uptick in enrollments, a second venue on a different date may be required. One option under discussion is to host an exam during the winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco. This may make sense for the coming year, when the ACS conference is on the East Coast, offering greater accessibility. We will have to monitor enrollments before we schedule an additional exam at a different location on a different date. On the years when the ACS conference is held on the west coast it would be a little unfair for candidates from the east – which could suggest the Fancy Food Show in New York as a possible exam venue. This is not an immediate concern but again, with the fantastic growth in enrollments since the first exam in 2012, we must be prepared to come up with solutions; there are already over 60 signed up for the 2015 conference exam in Providence.
Adding two more days ahead of the CCP exam is the judging and competition. With over 1,600 entries the logistics of managing the judging are already stretched – a process that cannot be rushed and crammed into one day. To run one day of the judging process during the exam day would strain resources and manpower. Before the judging begins, the cheeses have to be received, checked in, and assigned their codes. This adds another three days on the front end. Few volunteers can justify being away from their regular jobs more than one week and in many cases even two days can be tough. This would prevent them from attending invaluable parts of the conference, including the awards ceremony and the closing Festival. With the amount of physical work involved, many volunteers would be exhausted and besides, suitable conference facilities available for more than a week are either hard to find or overly expensive.
Visits to farms, creameries and other sites have to be scheduled before the conference or after. It makes sense to add these days to your itinerary before the regular conference if you have travelled from farther away. Visitors from other countries and continents are often eager to see the American operations so they can be counted among those taking the tours. It is remarkable that there is such a growing international interest in what is going on here in the United States today. Board member Kate Arding believes our young Certified Cheese Professional program has a lot to do with this focus from outside. They may have their organizations and guilds, and excellent dairy sciences universities, but there is nothing quite like our CCP program. Other countries are watching our little program take off and the wider dairy industry is realizing the benefits. In countries where the industry is a little flat, a certification such as ours might help boost appreciation and sales.
There is so much going on during the ACS conferences it is impossible to get to everything. Yet if the conference were spread out over a longer period there probably would be more meetings and sessions added to fill up the time. It would be kind of like moving into a bigger house: you would tend to fill it up with things you might not actually need. There are the unscheduled meetings that pop up while the concurrent sessions are going on. Add to that the one-on-one networking and socializing; these conferences fly by quickly. No wonder some people feel like they have had enough before they end, well before the closing Festival of Cheeses.
The awards ceremonies are anticipated by everyone, not only by the cheesemakers, even the judges do not know the winners. They may recall a few when the winners are called up to receive their ribbons but putting a cheese to a name has to wait until the Festival on the following evening. This is the first glimpse they have to find out who crafted the cheeses judged to be the best.
The mix of winners was spread out well this year. Some of the newer creameries picked up a number of ribbons, like California’s Bleating Heart Cheese, for their pretty little sheep milk Blue, Ewelicious Blue – highly recommended – and their original cheese, also made from sheep milk, Fat Bottom Girl – equally delicious. Wisconsin’s Hidden Springs owner Brenda Jensen had a great day at the ceremonies, picking up more ribbons than any other producer. She won a Blue Ribbon for her excellent Timber Coulee Reserve and a Red Ribbon for another wash rind sheep cheese, and another for her Meadow Melody, and yet another Red for her younger Timber Coulee. Vermont’s Consider Bardwell won a Blue Ribbon for Rupert, a cheese we have loved since we first tasted it less than five years ago. Connecticut’s Cato Corner has been one of our favorite dairies of the Northeast; its Dairyere was another winner.
Indiana’s Capriole won Blue Ribbons for the lovely Sofia and for the outstanding O’Banon. Legendary cheesemaker Paula Lambert won Blue for Deep Ellum Blue and one of Wisconsin’s greatest recent success stories, Holland ‘s Family Cheese, won Blues for Marieke Gouda Jalapeño and Marieke Gouda Smoked Cumin, unrivaled flavored Gouda styles.
Vermont had a good day, as is often the case. Two years in a row that it has won Best-in-Show, this year with Farms for City Kids Foundation’s Tarentaise Reserve, and with several Blue Ribbons to follow: the same producer’s Tarentaise, the Cellars at Jasper Hill’s divine Harbison, Boston Post Dairy’s Très Bonne, Vermont Creamery’s Bijou and Feta, Grafton’s Queen of Quality Clothbound Cheddar and Shepsog, and Cabot’s Monterey Jack.
It has been an eventful seven days in Sacramento. Seeing old friends, making new connections, and tasting amazing cheeses. It is fascinating how this seemingly simple dairy product brings together such an extraordinary group of individuals from all over the country and from all over the world. I cannot wait to see everybody again at the 2015 ACS Conference in Providence!