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Merchants of Rot: The 2010 American Cheese Society Conference and Competition

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[Photos: Tia Keenan for]

Did you know there's an Academy Awards of Cheese? It's the annual "Cheese-a-Topia" hosted by the American Cheese Society, where captains of cheddar and monarchs of mozzarella gather to attend informative panels such as "Whey: Waste Product or Revenue Stream?" while behind the scenes a bevy of industry experts taste and evaluate cheese submitted by cheese makers from across the United States, Mexico, and Canada.

This year, over 1,400 cheeses were evaluated in 110 categories from the obvious ("Smoked Cheddar") to the esoteric ("Oka" – that's a style of washed-rind cheese originally made by Quebecois monks). The coveted prize, "Best in Show" is no joke. As a marketing tool, that little sticker saying your cheese won the Oscar (so to speak) can mean big sales and at least another year of profitability and growth for a small cheese company.

The conference, in Seattle, gathered the usual suspects for a week of planning sessions, tastings, functional alcoholism, and, unbelievably, sunshine. Who is the cheese community? Distributors, wholesalers, retailers, cheese makers, bloggers, turophiles and anyone else willing to shell out $650 to obsess over curd for four days.

The Best In Show award went to Uplands Cheese Company Extra-Aged Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Wisconsin. Cheese maker Andy Hatch was appropriately gobsmacked especially when you consider the size of production for his mountain-style artisan cheese – only 1,000 wheels. This was a poetic win for Hatch, as he has only recently stepped in as head cheesemaker at Uplands, taking the curd-wrangling reins from founder Mike Gingrich.

There was a Quinceanera feel to this year's conference, as artisan cheese mainstay Cypress Grove Chevre announced their sale to Swiss cheese giant Emmi the previous week. The cheese industry is feeling some growing pains as the first generation of artisan cheese companies confronts success and growth.

Apropos of the industry's recent expansion, this year's keynote speaker was by far the most well known in the history of ACS speakers – food activist and Omnivore's Dilemma author Michael Pollan. It was a bit of preaching to the converted, but Pollan did offer a unique re-branding idea to the artisan cheese industry, which struggles to take back "American cheese" from the likes of Kraft. As cheese making really is the controlled spoilage of milk, Pollan suggested "Merchants of Rot." But I think there's already a band named "Merchants of Rot"? They play cheese-core, right? And they stink.

—Tia Keenan

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