The American Cheese Society celebrated its 25th anniversary in Chicago a few weeks ago, and now, after a short breather, it’s back to work on helping to guide America’s hands-on cheesemakers toward its next milestone and beyond. 

Contributed by David Phillips

The American Cheese Society celebrated its 25th anniversary in Chicago a few weeks ago, and now, after a short breather, it’s back to work on helping to guide America’s hands-on cheesemakers toward its next milestone and beyond.

The Chicago conference and celebration included vocational tours, great programs, chances for industry people to meet cheesemakers, and of course, the grand festival of cheese.

“The conference was wonderful. Chicago was great, and I think the attendees enjoyed some outstanding programs,” says David Gremmels, who began a three-year term as ACS president at the conference.

“ACS’s silver anniversary conference was a time to reflect back on the leadership and direction that conceived the association and maneuvered it with passion and a lot of hard work over the years,” Gremmels added. “It is a great moment in time to celebrate the accomplishments of ACS’s membership in increasing awareness of American Cheese and supporting the cheesemaker. The organization remains volunteer driven and focus on supporting education and awareness of American Cheese.

“ACS’s leadership since 2000 has been focused on membership growth and building networking and educational opportunities. The last three years, the ACS board under Allison Hooper’s presidency, has built a strategic plan and organizational board structure to support our diverse membership. Moving forward ACS will initiate this strategic plan.”

The top honors in the Cheese Competition went to Carr Valley Cheese Company, La Valle, Wis.

While the contest is based on a blind judging, it was fitting from a couple of aspects that Carr Valley won Best of Show and Third Runner Up. 

With the conference being centered in the Midwest this year, a Midwest cheesemaker won big. And Carr Valley is a fierce competitor that consistently wins multiple medals from several categories, each featuring a different cheese.

“For the past decade, it has been a wonderful experience to be part of the American Cheese Society, which is such an excellent forum for exchanging ideas and information,” said Carr Valley Cheesemaker Sid Cook. “I was stunned and extremely excited to have a Carr Valley cheese receive Best of Show. Truly a thrill of a lifetime, since this competition is the Olympics of cheese!”

Carr Valley’s Snow White Goat Cheddar entry was singled out as the best of the best among the 1,149 cheeses submitted by more than 181 producers.

Other noteworthy winners include “Best of Show” second runner-up Galax, Va.- based Meadow Creek Dairy’s Grayson and third runner-up Carr Valley Cheese Company’s Cave Aged Marisa. Grayson took the top award for raw milk farmstead cheeses, a major feat in itself, in order to get into the Best of Show winners’ circle.

Also of interest, Tillamook Cheese, which only recently began entering cheese in competition, won a blue ribbon in the Mature Cheddar (24-48 mos.) category for its White Cheddar.

The conference officially kicked off on Wednesday July 23 with a tour of four Chicago area cheese retailers. There were also a handful of unofficial social events including a fantastic rooftop party hosted by Pastoral Artisan Cheese, Bread and Wine, and Curds & Ale II, a cheese and beer event produced by members of the Chicago beer community. 

The parting day cheese sale at Kendall College, Chicago raised $12,440 for the ACS scholarship fund, which provides funding for qualifying members to attend the conference each year. 

Nearly 1,000 cheesemakers, retailers, academicians, enthusiasts, restaurateurs, food writers and cookbook authors convened at the Hilton Chicago, the site of this year’s conference, to celebrate the widespread enthusiasm for American specialty cheese.

Every year, the conference culminates in the Festival of Cheese, where all the competition cheeses are on display and available for tasting.

“Because it is the 25th anniversary of our conference, we were thrilled to have 1,149 entries, sustaining our momentum from last year’s record number of entries in the cheese competition,” said David Grotenstein, Chair of the Competition and Judging Committee. “The competition is truly remarkable because it brings together the cheeses that represent emerging trends, outstanding examples of traditional cheese varieties and leaders in the world of American artisan cheese all in one place.”

The number of conference attendees and the number of cheeses entered in the competition have grown dramatically in recent years, but this year both leveled off. Gremmels says that there are still plenty of growth anticipated at ACS, but that the pace could very well be slower as the organization and the industry begin to mature. 

Plans for next year’s conference are already in the works, with Austin, Texas having been selected as the host city, and conference dates scheduled for early August.

Artisan Profile: Carr Valley Cheese Co. Keeps the Awards Coming

Contributed by Jeffrey Roberts

What are the hallmarks that make a cheese great? A list would include such obvious items as pasture and feed, outstanding dairy animals, distinctive products, and the cheesemaker’s artistry and scientific skills. Many American artisan cheesemakers and their products reflect these characteristics. The challenge day in and day out, one season after another, is to make distinctive cheeses that are consistently of the highest quality. One such individual is Sid Cook, owner and master cheesemaker of Carr Valley Cheese Co.,  in La Valle, Wis.

Rumors to the contrary, Sid was not born in his father’s cheese vat in Wisconsin; he does admit, however, to riding his tricycle once in a vat. What is true is his long, accomplished career as a master cheesemaker; Sid made cheese before becoming a teenager and obtained his state license at age 16. On his mother’s side of the family, the cheesemaking tradition stretches back to the 1890s. The Cook family lived at the plant, so both cheese heredity and environment run deep. Sid decided against becoming a lawyer, a decision celebrated today by his artisan colleagues and enthusiastic customers.

In 1976, after working with his father for years in the family creamery, Irish Valley Dairy, he purchased the business and with his brother made good, but fairly standard cheese. A decade later, as profit margins dwindled, Sid took a risk and purchased a separate creamery, Carr Valley, in La Valle, a business with roots back to 1902. Here he experimented with innovative, unique handmade products targeted towards restaurants and specialty cheese and food stores. He also invested time and resources to learn more about the technical side of cheesemaking and earned a Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker designation.

Today, Carr Valley Cheese Company makes more than 50 different cheeses from cow, goat, and sheep and blended milks. The company operates three plants-La Valle, Fennimore and Mauston-as well as seven retail outlets. Working with local dairies, they produce limited edition cheeses that consumers seek out. Several years ago, Sid set up an open-air cave to ripen cheese. Often it was a well-established recipe, but with the cave aging he created completely different flavors and textures.

What distinguishes Sid Cook and Carr Valley is steadfast reliability, commitment to consistent excellence, and an ability to make unusual products that never waver from the highest quality.  Often celebrated by his peers, Cook’s products are recognized by the American Cheese Society (ACS) and the US and World Championship Cheese Competitions. Over the past several years, Sid literally wore a path through the carpet as he collected dozens of ACS awards.

In 2004, Carr Valley won the ACS Best-in-Show for Gran Canaria, another excellent example of how Cook blends the artistic, creative side with a keen understanding of milk quality, chemistry, cultures (he learned to make them with his father and grandfather), and affinage. Gran Canaria is a mix of cow, goat, and sheep milk, pressed into 10 lb. wheels and aged for two years in a cave. By anointing the cheese with olive oil, the Carr Valley cheesemakers create a wonderful dark rind, a deep golden color paste, firm dry texture, and full, sweet, complex aromas and flavors of fruits and nuts.

At the recently concluded 25th Anniversary ACS celebration, Carr Valley won the Best of Show for its Snow White Goat Cheddar and Third Runner-up for Cave Aged Marisa. The Snow White, made in 38 lb. wheels, is cave aged for at least six months where it develops a natural rind and sweet tangy flavors. The 10 lb Marisa wheel, made from 100% sheep’s milk, is aged twelve months and develops a natural rind with complex buttery flavors.

These awards are testimony to great skill, artistry, and unswerving attention to detail. Carr Valley establishes a benchmark for other cheesemakers to emulate. Whether consumers or cheesemakers, our world is richer because of Sid Cook. 

Jeffrey Roberts helped establish the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese, and is the author of The Atlas of American Artisan Cheese.

Carr Valley Cheese Company, Inc.

• 53797 County Highway G La Valle, WI  53941
• Cheesemaking established 1902
• Visitors welcome
• Telephone: 608/986-2781
• On-premises retail sales and nationwide distribution