2019 American Cheese Society Conference


I had never been to Richmond, Virginia before this year’s American Cheese Society annual conference. From my very short observations, it looks like a city on the rise, in the food world sense. We had some excellent seafood, but our real focus, of course, was on the cheese!

Brie, our cheese buyer and one of the managers at the shop (yes, her name is really Brie, yes, she was destined for greatness in the cheese world), went to Richmond a couple days early because she was selected to judge cheese for the ACS competition. Cheesemakers from around the country send in about 2000 cheeses for judging, which means two days of intensive tasting for professionals like Brie. Judges work in teams of two – a Technical Judge who is often a food scientist and an Aesthetic Judge who has years of cheese industry experience. There are usually about twenty judging teams; judges spend 7-10 minutes on each cheese, and assess appearance, aroma, texture, and flavor, filling out detailed score sheets and providing as much thoughtful feedback as possible. The Technical Judge looks for flaws in the cheese and deducts points for imperfections. The Aesthetic Judge, in contrast, awards points for positive attributes. The two totals are added together and the cheese receives its final score. Brie was an Aesthetic Judge, and spent two long days carefully examining, tasting, and writing about 100 American cheeses. And even though this is an enormous and exhausting undertaking, Brie was JAZZED on cheese afterward. I mean, she’s always jazzed on cheese, but after these sessions she is, incredibly, ready for more.

And more certainly came with the rest of the conference. After the days of competition for the judges, the rest of us in the cheese industry – cheesemonger, cheesemakers, importers, distributers, food writers, shop owners, cheese consultants, etc. – descend for three days of educational sessions to learn something new and hone our skills, and to catch up after a year in our own little bubbles. Brie is also the chair of the ACS Education Committee (does a lot, that one), so she was very excited to see all her committee’s work from the year come to fruition.

I went to sessions on everything from Introduction to Lean Management, to Dairy Milk vs. Non Dairy: A Look At Consumer Trends, Nutrition Research and Sustainability Findings, to Natural Wine Natural Cheese. And that’s just a taste! It was a freaking blast! So much to learn! One of my favorites was Living Servant Leadership with Ari Weinzweig (an owner of the Ann Arbor based gourmet food business group Zingerman’s). We use the Servant Leadership model in our own business, meaning a leader’s primary goal is to serve the organization not the other way around. Since we opened, the leadership at our store has worked to practice this, primarily through the positive environment we try to create for everyone who works in the shop. It was inspiring to hear about it from Ari who teaches this stuff all the time. He is a great storyteller, makes his points clearly and he has an infectious positive energy, all making him a wonderful speaker. 

Simply walking around the conference with Brie was also a highlight of the conference. It was like walking around with a mayor! People stopped her every ten feet to say hi or ask questions. Even though it was my first conference, it was clear to me that this was a happy time for the cheese industry, a time everyone wants and needs to reconnect with friends and colleagues. It really felt like a giant reunion with lots of hugging. This industry really loves hugs. And beer. I’m already looking forward to next year’s ACS conference in Portland, Oregon. As usual, I can’t wait to learn what I’ll learn!

For the love of cheese and coming together as an industry,