Record 1,200 entries thought to be the largest competition ever in the U.S.

BURLINGTON, Vt.-Leelanau Cheese Company, Suttons Bay, Mich., beat out over 1,200 entries to take the “Best of Show” award for its Aged Raclette at the 24th annual American Cheese Society cheese competition. The competition took place at the Sheraton Hotel in Burlington, Vt., the site of the organization’s annual conference. 

John and Anne Hoyt, the owners and cheesemakers of the Leelanau Cheese Company at Black Star Farms, make the winning Aged Raclette with pasteurized milk from just one farm, located on Michigan’s northern lower peninsula.  The Aged Raclette is a labor-intensive cheese made in nine-pound wheels and is aged nine months. It earned a perfect score of 100. The same cheese took first place in its category at the 2006 conference in Portland, Ore.

“The number of cheeses in this year’s competition represents a 27% increase over last year, making it the largest cheese competition in American history,” said David Grotenstein, chairman of the judging and competition committee and gen. mgr.  and Merchandiser for Union Market in Brooklyn, N.Y.

For the first time this year, awards were given for first and second runner-up for Best of Show.  Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, Seattle, took the first runner-up spot with its Flagship Reserve traditional Cheddar while Roth Kase USA Ltd, earned second runner-up honors for Roth’s Private Reserve, entered in the American Originals category. The same cheese took the first runner-up prize in the U.S. Cheese Championship in March. Roth Kase’s GranQueso took first place in the Hispanic Cheese category for the third year in a row, and the Wisconsin company earned several other ribbons.

As in past years, Carr Valley Cheese of Wisconsin walked away with a multitude of awards including several blue ribbons.  Oregon’s Rogue Creamery won the blue ribbon in the Blue-Veined Made from Sheep’s or Mixed Milks category with a cheese that has turned heads in several competitions this year-Echo Mountain Blue.

Tillamook Cheese entered the competition for the first time this year after helping to host the 2006 conference. Two of its specialty cheddars-Garlic Chili Pepper Cheddar and White Cheddar with Smoked Black Pepper-took second place and third place ribbons in the Cheddar category.  Organic Valley, also a newcomer to the competition, received a second-place for Organic Pasteurized Sharp Cheddar.

 “The ACS competition, featuring entries from a record 200 cheese companies, really showcases the emerging trends and the leaders in the world of American artisan cheese,” said Allison Hooper, president of the ACS board of directors and co-owner of Vermont Butter & Cheese Company. “This year’s conference saw record participation by more than 800 attendees with over 1,000 people expected to attend the Festival of Cheese.”

“It was an absolutely wonderful location., says ACS executive dir. Marci Wilson. “The Governor  was at the opening reception, the cheese organizations were wonderful hosts-Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese, and the Vermont Cheese Council, and the New England Culinary Institute. And Burlington is a nice small town and gave us a very warm welcome.  Vermont was really outstanding in terms of rolling out the welcome wagon.”

The conference, which brings together cheese makers, academicians, enthusiasts, marketing and distribution specialists, food writers and cookbook authors, and specialty food retailers from the U.S., Canada and Europe, celebrates the widespread enthusiasm for American specialty cheese with educational seminars on subjects from cheesemaking to the art of maturing cheese, and a Chef’s Cheese Cook-Off. Every year, the conference culminates in the celebratory Festival of Cheese, where all the competition cheeses are on display and available for tasting.

Conference programs this year included Meet the Cheesemaker event, Good Milk Quality and Good Cheese, Flavor Characteristics and Chemistry in True Cheddar, Size and Farmstead Sustainability, Affinage-a Trip Through Environmental Requirements, Of Grass and Fermentation-the Marriage of Beer and Cheese, Traceability, Merchandizing Artisan Cheese, and Dessert Wines and Hard Ciders paired with cheese.

While the Vermont setting was ideal in some respects, some programs had to be held in a tent outside the hotel. The conference has grown rapidly, and it moves to a larger stage in 2008 to make room for the growth. 

“Next year is the 25th anniversary of the conference and the 24th competition, and it will  be held in Chicago at the Hilton,”  Wilson says. “Chicago is a first-tier city and the travel is easy and inexpensive, and we will have plenty of room. The conference is really too big for a town like Burlington.”

But bigger doesn’t always mean better.

“The cheese society started as a grassroots organization, and there remains a grassroots element to it, so I don’t think the size of the hotel will change that,” Wilson says.

Circle the calendar for July 23-26, when the most exciting cheese community in the world will visit Chicago.

The American Cheese Society is the premier platform for cheese industry research and education in America. Founded in 1983, the ACS has grown to include approximately 1,200 members. Among other things, the members of the Society work with the federal government on issues that involve accepted standards in the production of cheese and fermented dairy products.  For full competition results, please visit www.cheesesociety.org.

An abbreviated list of first place winners from the competition appears on page 30. For a pdf of the complete list, and to find out more about ACS, visit www.cheesesociety.org.