In May, my partner Joe and I took a road trip across the top of the US.
We drove through Washington, Montana, North Dakota, and most of the way across Minnesota. Our end destination was Minneapolis and the American Cheese Society (ACS) Judging and Competition. I was an invited judge for the 2023 Competition. Although I had been invited other years, due to Covid and other pesky factors, this is the first time I had the chance to participate.
The ACS is a large group made up of cheese makers, distributors, cheesemongers, cheese journalists and members from the US, Canada, and Mexico. It is a really interesting group of people with the common goal of making better cheese and making great cheese more accessible.
One important annual event is the Competition and Judging, as well as the Annual Conference, where the results of the competition are announced. It is a huge competition, with almost 1400 cheeses entered in a diverse number of categories, from drinkable yogurt to blue cheese. The goal is for ACS members to have the chance to have their cheeses evaluated and judged and hopefully get useful feedback about how to make improvements if necessary. Cheeses are entered from the US, Canada, and Mexico.
I was paired up with one other judge out of a group of 36 judges in total, and we had two full days of tasting and judging. We were assigned a steward who prepped and organized the cheese for us, so we could just concentrate on the evaluation. It was an amazingly well-organized event, especially when you imagine receiving 1400 entries from all over the continent marked only with their entry numbers, so they aren’t recognizable at all, and having to keep them all refrigerated and safe until the judging starts. It is an enormous task!
My teammate and I were scheduled to judge seven categories over the two days, with some categories having thirty-plus entries and some just two. We ended up being so efficient with our time because of the great assistance from our steward (a cheesemonger in Minneapolis) that we judged an extra two categories for some other teams who were flagging. So, in the end, we tasted and critiqued over 140 cheeses, in categories that I loved, like soft ripened mixed milk, to categories that I didn’t love quite as much, like smoked Italian style.
Regardless of the cheese style, you can really appreciate the hard work people have gone to to make a great cheese and the trouble they have gone to to enter it into the competition. At the end of our two days of judging, they round up all the category winners, and all the judges taste again and pick their top three, and none of us will know the winners, or best in the show, until the announcements at the conference at the end of the month.
As with all other cheese judging I’ve done, it was a very intense but really rewarding experience. It’s amazing to see how many really well-made cheeses there are out there, and the passion of the cheesemakers is truly evident when the cheeses are all on display. Kudos to all the cheese makers and the high standard of quality they put forward. I look forward to telling you about some of the winner’s cheeses next time.
Until then, I will leave you with another great cheese to look for if you’re in the US: Uplands Cheese in Wisconsin. Their most famous aged cheese, Pleasant Ridge Reserve, has been a winner many times in past years of the ACS competition, and it is a great pairing with a lovely glass of Riesling. Nutty, slightly grassy with a lovely sharp finish, this is definitely one to be on the lookout for.