Years ago I contacted the American Cheese Society to see if I could become a member. At the time the only option open to me was to become a “Cheese Enthusiast” member, now flash forward several years and I am now a full “Industry” member and I attended my first conference and brought home an award for one of my cheeses.
The idea of attending the conference and entering cheese, started back in November of last year. I hosted a few sales reps from the Enzyme Development Corporation (EDC), the company that I get my cardoon enzyme I use. I showed them how I had been able to make cheese with the enzyme on a commercial-scale, albeit way smaller than the larger cheese producers.
We began talks about the possibility of me going to the conference in Denver, to answer any production questions at their table in the “trade-show” part of the conference. Thus we started on the Winding Road to the American Cheese Society’s 34th Annual Conference. I am going to break up the trip by days of the conference.
Wednesday – Travel Day
I left our acreage around 12:45 am, I had to catch a 6:10 am flight to Denver, plus clear customs. Fun times. I learned a few things about Edmonton International Airport at 3:30 AM
- Sometime US Custom Agents can be grumpy at 4:30 AM – Bonus note sometimes saying “Have a nice day” will not help.
- You HAVE TO go through the Duty Free Shop on your way to the departure lounge
- Apparently you can get a beer at any time once you are past customs.
The flight was uneventful and landing in Denver was easy.
I collected my bags and took a train to Union Station and waited for a friend from the EDC to pick me up. We spent some time at his place before the last member of our group arrived. Denver, though a city large enough to have 4 pro sports teams, still has a small town feel to it. I have to say the views are spectacular as well. I attended the new member/attendee meet and greet that evening.
Day 1 – Cheese Geek Heaven
The first day was an amazing day of learning and meeting some of my cheese heroes. As an added bonus I was able to meet a few people who I had only communicated to via social media. The Keynote speaker, Jim Davison, spoke about Leadership and Resilience based on his experiences on Mount Rainier and Mount Everest. He was a perfect speaker for this conference given the economic challenges everyone faces in the cheese industry.
In between stints at the EDC’s table I attended a session on “Pairing Beer and Cheese” and later that night I was treated to one of the best steaks I have had in my life, and given I am from Alberta that is saying something.
Day 2 (Morning and Afternoon) – The Day Of Days or The Calm Before The Shock.
Day 2 is where I discovered that what can make you tipsy at 1.6 km (1 mile) above sea level, is less than what it takes you at your home town (600 m above sea level) so I was a bit rough the next morning. I also discovered that Biscuits and Gravy are the cure-all for ones first hangover in a decade. I had a few meetings and then we went to a session called “Far Out! Unconventional Cheese Pairings” I was sceptical given the description mentioned something about Fruity Pebbles. It turned out to be an amazing session and opened my eyes to a few new combinations that I never would have thought of.
Day 2 – Part 2 (5 PM on) – The Awe & Shock
At 5 pm we were herded into the main conference area, Cheese Makers were asked to sit on the right hand side of the room. I realized afterwards it was so they could get to the stage easily and keep the awards ceremony moving along.
A little perspective on the awards. There were 2024 entries in 123 categories, from Canada, Columbia, Mexico and the United States of America. Each cheese is judged on its own merit, not against the other cheeses in their category. Cheeses are judged by two judges, a Technical and an Aesthetic Judge. Cheeses are scored out of 100. The Technical Judge starts out with 50 points and takes away points for flaws, the Aesthetic Judge starts out with 0 points and adds points, up to 50, for good characteristics. The scores are combined and that becomes the cheese’s total score out of 100. Easy, right? Well on top of that you have to meet a minimum score to place 1st, 2nd or 3rd. There were a few categories where no wards were given out, and a few were there were only a 2nd or a 3rd place awards given.
As the awards started, they go fast and they have to with 123 categories, I was in awe watching some of my “Cheese Heroes” take home awards. Seeing the large contingent of California Cheese Produces, proudly waving their state flags when one of their own take home a ribbon. I was seated next to Chris Osbourne, the Cheese Maker at Blackberry Farm in Tennessee, really excited as he received 3 wards for his cheeses. He nudged me and said “this is your Category!” I had two cheeses in two washed rind categories. I was sure that as a first time entry none of my cheeses would even place. They announced a 2 way tied for 3rd place, both cheese companies are ones I look up to, and then I though, well we have another cheese in another category, lets see what happens there. I then received another nudge from Chris and I looked up to see this on the screen.
I was in shock and I exclaimed a comment, a little to loud, that was very un-Canadian. People around me laughed and understood my shock, because at one point they were in my shoes. To be honest I was a giggling idiot when I picked up my ribbon. I was greeted near the bottom of the stage by my fellow Canadian and friend Kelsie, who was there to give me a huge hug. I am not a hugger by nature, but it was welcomed as it helped me to start processing what just happened. Our other cheese did not place, it was the next category announced. I started texting and emailing various people to let them know. For the first time since I arrived at the conference I felt like I belonged with these group of extraordinary cheese people.
After the awards, and the reception afterwards, a few of us Canadians and new American Friends headed out for dinner. I called it a night around 10 PM and tried to get some sleep. We still had day 3 to get through.
Day 3 – The Final Day Blur
I don’t recall much from this day, other than we had a meeting at lunch, I attended a session on pairing beer, chocolate and cheese, it was ok but I did not like a few of the pairings. Oh and the festival of cheese, yes a chance to sample all the cheeses entered in the competition.
This was an amazing experience and I am still in a little shock about our showing in the competition. I wanted to thank the Enzyme Development Corporation for sponsoring my trip, my assistant cheese maker Alex for handling everything while I was away, my business partner Aurelio, and my Wife and Family for following me while I chase this crazy dream of mine.
I can’t wait to go to next year’s conference in Pittsburgh where things will be “Forged In Cheese”