The American Cheese Society Conference started today in Burlington, Vermont. If you're not familiar with the ACS conference, it's a big gathering of people who make cheese, people who sell and distribute cheese, restaurant people and so on. Last year's event was held in Portland, Oregon, which made it something of a Northwest-centric event. If you've ever been to a gathering of a bunch of people in your field - accountants, writers, engineers or whatever - then imagine the ACS as something like that...except with much better cheese. One of the focal points of every ACS conference is the awards. This year's competition features over 1200 cheeses from all over the country - a new record (last year's 900+ was also a record). If they are organizing things the same way they did last year - where the judging was held prior to the conference - then this year's Best in Show has already been crowned but won't be disclosed until Friday. (I was a judge at last year's event - see my recounting of that experience here).
What's the point of cheese awards, anyway? It all seems a little arcane from the outside...but it's significant for the industry in several ways. Any time you compete with others in your field the result is better cheese for all. When one goat cheese maker puts their cheese up against another goat cheese maker, both learn something and both get better. Awards also give the world something to talk about - so and so won 14 blue ribbons! - sounds pretty exciting and makes a consumer want to try the product that was so recognized. Retailers can then talk about ribbons to customers, and journalists write up things about award winning products. The cheesemaker sells more cheese. And prior event winners tend to remain familiar to many consumers well after the event .... Cabot Clothbound Cheddar (last year), Uplands Cheese Co.'s Pleasant Ridge Reserve (a two time winner in 2001 and 2005), Cowgirl Creamery Red Hawk (2003) are perennial cheese favorites and will almost certainly remain so for a long time to come.
Unfortunately I can't be in Vermont for this year's conference, but I'll list competition results for Northwest cheesemakers as soon as I can get them. Until then....enjoy your local artisan cheeses!