America’s Best Cheeses ~ 2007
The American Cheese Society Awards
CAPSULE REPORT: For the past three years, the American Cheese Society (ACS) cheese competition has expanded by more than 25% in terms of both cheeses entered and attendees. This year, at the 24th annual show, there was a 27% increase in cheeses entered—1,208, making this the largest cheese competition in American history—and almost 1,000 attendees. There were 318 awards given—making it easy for you to round up an evening of award-winning cheeses for your friends. The 2008 American cheese Society show is in Chicago, July 23 to 26.
One might think that the big news in New England was that France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy—who could spend his vacation anywhere on earth, and probably outer space for that matter—had chosen to vacation on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. Perhaps, as a cheese-loving Frenchman, he donned a disguise and drove three and a half hours to the American Cheese Society gala in Burlington, Vermont, where he could taste 1,208 of America’s finest and watch the crowning of the greatest cheeses of the land.
For four days in the first week in August, the university town of Burlington, Vermont entertained American Cheese royalty—the country’s greatest cheesemakers—plus up-and-coming cheesemakers, the scientists who help create new cheeses, the distributors and retailers who bring them to the cheese-loving public and the journalists who write about all of it.
Best Of Show
Among the hundreds of awards given for gold, silver and bronze in upwards of 90 different categories, all eyes were on the coveted Best Of Show award. This year, to recognize that extent of greatness, Best Of Show was expanded to include two runners up.
- Grand Winner: Aged Raclette from Leelanau Cheese Company of Suttons Bay, Michigan. A Swiss-style cheese made at Black Star Farms with pasteurized milk from a local farmer who keeps just 35 cows, the cheese is handmade by proprietors John and Anne Hoyt. Aged Raclette is a labor-intensive cheese made in nine-pound wheels; it is aged for nine months.
- Second Place: Flagship Reserve, an aged Cheddar from Beecher’s Handmade Cheese of Seattle.
- Third Place: Roth’s Private Reserve from Roth Käse USA of Monroe, Wisconsin.
On their way to becoming “Best Of Show”
Aged Raclette: the young wheels from
Leelanau Cheese Company, prior to aging.
Best Of Show cheeses are chosen from the blue ribbon winners in 22 categories. More than 200 cheese companies from 30 U.S. states and Canada entered 1,208 cheeses and cultured dairy products, a 27% increase over last year (157 companies and 941 products, and 749 products in 2005).
Leelanau’s Aged Raclette received a perfect score of 100, which is rare in the history of the competition. Last year, it came in a close second to 2006 Best in Show winner Cabot Clothbound Cheddar. As invariably happens to the winner, the Hoyts’ phone has been ringing off the hook, but there’s not much cheese to be had. A small operation, the Hoyts make only 3,168 eight-pound wheels per year, or about 25,344 pounds of cheese, divided between aged and mild raclette. Mild raclette is a good melting cheese, popularly used in fondue. Aged raclette is drier, and does not melt well; however, drying brings out sharper flavors that make it a more complex table cheese.
Black Star Farm, where the cheese is made, is a bed and breakfast with winery and stables. Special events, including weddings, are held on the grounds. If you’re traveling through Michigan, stop by...there just may be a piece of aged raclette somewhere with your name on it.
The highlight of the annual event is the national cheese competition where the cheeses compete in their 90-plus respective categories. Within the 22 major categories (Blue Mold Cheeses, Cheddars, Flavored Cheeses, Fresh Goat’s Milk Cheeses, Aged Goat’s Milk Cheeses, Fresh Unripened Cheeses, Italian Type Cheeses, Smoked Cheeses, Soft Ripened Cheeses, Washed Rind Cheeses, Cultured Milk Products, Butters, etc.) there are sub-categories. Entrants include:
- Cheeses made from the milk of cows, goats, sheep and water buffalo
- Plain cheeses, flavored cheeses, marinated cheeses, smoked cheeses
- Artisan cheesemakers who own no animals but purchase milk to make a few dozen wheels a week; farmstead cheesemakers who own and tend the animals whose milk they make into cheese; and cheeses made by huge companies who buy millions of gallons of milk a year and make millions of pounds of cheese.
After three days of tasting by top-qualified judges (who are professional experts in their particular categories of cheese), winners were crowned on Saturday night, August 4 (you can download the list of winners from the America Cheese Society’s website, CheeseSociety.org). On Sunday, August 5th, at the The Festival of Cheese, many of the cheeses were available for tasting.
If you have the fortitude to even look at more than 1,200 cheeses, and want to attend next year’s event, you need to join the American Cheese Society. Membership is open to lay “cheese enthusiasts” as well as professionals.
A field of 1,200 entries might sound intimidating, but with 318 awards given (plus the three Bests Of Show, chosen from the gold medalists in all categories), the odds are 1 to 3.8 of getting a first-, second- or third-place award. Here are some of the cheeses that we know and love, which received first, second or third place honors. They are shown in their respective categories:
- American Originals/Cow’s Milk: Roth Käse Roth’s Private Reserve; Roth Käse Valfino; Crave Brothers Petit Frère.
- American Originals/Goat’s Milk: Carr Valley Cocoa Cardona, Cypress Grove Chevre Humboldt Fog.
- American Originals/Mixed Milk: Carr Valley Mobay, Canaria and Shepherd’s Blend.
- Blue Mold Cheeses: Two of our favorite blues, Rogue Creamery’s Crater Lake and Rogue River Blue, tied for second; in first was a cheese unknown to us, the Montforte Gorgonzola from the Wisconsin Farmer’s Union. We must get our hands on a wheel!
Carr Valley’s Mobay—a layer of sheep’s milk
cheese and a layer of goat’s milk cheese,
separated by a layer of vegetable ash.
- Cheddar: In addition to the Flagship Reserve from Beecher’s, which was first runner up Best Of Show, we’re delighted that three of our favorite cheddars were medalists: Cabot Creamery’s Clothbound Cheddar and Private Stock Cheddar, and Carr Valley Sharp Cheddar; as well as the fabulous Chipotle Cheddar Curds from Rogue Creamery. Carr, Cabot and Widmer’s swept most of the awards in the different Cheddar categories (the categories are based on age), and our favorite Fiscalini Bandage Wrap Cheddar joined them in the Mature Cheddar category.
- Fresh Unripened Cheeses: Mozzarella Company Goat’s Milk Ricotta; Crave Brothers Mascarpone, Bel Gioioso Mascarpone, Mozzarella Fresca Whole Milk Ricotta.
- Soft Ripened Cheeses/Goat’s Milk: Redwood Hill Camelia.
- Soft Ripened Cheeses/Sheep's Milk: Old Chatham Sheepherding Company Camembert Button.
- Washed Rind Cheeses: Following up “Best Of Show” Leelanau Aged Raclette was one of our all-time favorites, Cowgirl Creamery’s Red Hawk.
- Butter: In cow’s milk, go for Cabot and Vermont Butter & Cheese. For fabulous goat butter, Meyenberg can’t be bleat. Newcomer (and NIBBLE Top Pick Of The Week) Epicurean Butter won honors in the flavored butter category.
- Cultured Milk Products/Milk: Liberté was honored for its Plain 2% Low Fat Yogourt.
- Cultured Milk Products/Goat: Cypress Grove Chevre received a second place award for its amazing Fromage Blanc. We would love to taste the first place winner, Harley Farms, but they have never managed to return more than a dozen emails and phone calls from us.
You can download the complete list of winners and participants at CheeseSociety.org. Remember that awards are only the opinion of professional judges who have different standards of evaluation than you, the consumer. Don’t be disappointed or confused if something judged “the best in the country” doesn’t taste particularly interesting to you. In your home, you are the judging committee.
Based on your interests, look over the list of winners and call around (or click around) to see what cheeses you can acquire easily. Many of the top winners, like Cabot, Carr Valley, Cypress Grove, Mozzarella Company and Widmer sell their products from their website, and online cheese stores like iGourmet.com carry many of the cheeses.
- If your group of food friends likes cheese, consider having a monthly “Winners’ Circle” cheese tasting. Try the Cheddars one month, the blues the next, the sheep cheeses the next and so forth. With 22 master categories of cheese, you could do this twice a month.
- Or, just pick the gold medalists from each category and do a Solid Gold Tasting. With the 90 or so sub-categories, that’s a lot of gold.
- If you’d like to educate your friends about cheese, you can do more than present a washed rind cheese, a young goat/sheep, an aged goat/sheep, a blue, a mixed-milk cheese, etc. Now, you can share your love of cheese by treating them to the best America has to offer—and know that these cheeses earn their share of awards in international competitions as well.