Food Matters: Sharp notes from 34th annual American Cheese Society Conference | AspenTimes.com

Food Matters: Sharp notes from 34th annual American Cheese Society Conference

by Amanda Rae

MATT BONANO hoists open the back door of a 55-foot trailer truck and leads me into a chilly refrigerated compartment. It's a goosebumps-inducing 45 degrees, but the unmistakably funky, umami aroma invites us in further. We're facing hundreds of pounds of cheese, stacked neatly on dozens of rolling racks, each labeled with coded letters and numbers. I salivate immediately. This is my Graceland: a colossal corridor of cheese.

"And this is my Wall of Cheddar," Bonano says proudly, beaming before a stack of hulking, 40-pound blocks in shades ranging from cream to sunflower. "I calculated: I have 45 pieces of cheese that are 40 pounds each right here. The cheeses come in, I stack 'em up. For judging, I take 'em off, onto a rack. After judging they come back. Since Friday morning I've lifted about 15,000 pounds of cheese. That's not including opening the door or pushing carts. My arms are like noodles right now!"

We're at the loading docks behind the Denver Convention Center, my first stop during "Cheese at Altitude," the 34th annual American Cheese Society Judging & Competition. Cheesemonger and owner of Brooklyn South, a specialty shop in St. Petersburg, Fla., Bonano serves as "cooler captain" for the cheese industry's premier conference, held annually in a different city. For five years he's been charged with cataloging—confidentially—all cheese inventory entered in the competition.

The array fills five of these cooler trucks: Monterey Jack, Colby, Brie, Parmesan, feta, Gouda, sheep cheeses, goat cheeses, blue cheeses, cheese curds, clothbound cheddar, wax-covered cheddar. One rack smells like barbecue—all smoked cheese. There's butter, cultured yogurt, and miniature tubs of brightly hued "cheese product."

All of this is American cheese— 2,024 entries in this year's ACS conference, a record. Even Bonano is impressed: "There's a lot of freakin' cheese in here!"

As we walk the cheesy corridor, he shares his views: "I believe we are having a flavored-cheese revolution in this country," Bonano says. "People are getting really creative with berries, jams, chile peppers…black coffee and lavender. We had one—I didn't see it this year, maybe somebody finally realized it was a stupid idea—a giant pink wheel of cheese … coated with crushed Red Hots!"

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American cheese, clearly, isn't just Kraft singles. Other morsels from the ACS conference in Denver:

American cheese is a serious industry.

Some 1,333 cheese producers, farmers, retailers, distributors, academics, and other industry professionals showed up to the annual ACS conference in Denver—the largest attendance ever, noted ACS executive director Nora Weiser in her keynote speech on Thursday morning. That, she said, represents a 15 percent increase from 2016.

According to the Specialty Food Association, cheese topped specialty food sales in 2015, representing more than $4 billion— a 15 percent increase from 2013.

By 2024, the American cheese industry is expected to grow by an additional 10 percent, including an 8 percent growth in the number of American cheese producers. That last stat indicates legit growth; it's not just about big companies churning out more cheese.

STILL, American cheese professionals are, well, cheesy.

"The food industry is great because people LOVE food," Weiser said. And there were plenty of curds, fun, and bad puns at Cheese with Altitude. A cheese-block carving competition began with an announcer declaring, without a hint of humor, to begin "cutting the cheese!" A "cheese rave" raged late-night at SPACE Gallery in Denver's Art District. Seminar sessions covered topics including best cheese storage and distribution practices ("Good Cheese Gone Bad") to unconventional cheese pairings ("Far Out!"). Such cheese humor can skew stunningly specific: Last year during the first annual, costumed "Cheeseletes" 5K charity run, for example, one participant dressed up as a nontoxigenic E. coli. Yep.

Colorado—and the Roaring Fork Valley—produces exceptional cheese.

Though the American Cheese Society is headquartered in Denver, 2017 is the first year that the annual conference has been held in the Mile High City.

"We joke that Denver is cheese-neutral—the Switzerland of the American cheese world," Weiser said. Simply put: Colorado lacks the history of cheesemaking found in, say, New England or the Pacific Northwest.

Still, this year nine awards were given to Colorado artisan cheese- and butter-makers. Fruition Farms won two honors, first and second place in two distinct categories; Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy took four awards, two first-place and two third-place.

Closer to home, Basalt's own Avalanche Cheese Company landed a first-place award for its Hand Bandaged Goat Cheddar and second place for Midnight Blue. Owner and Wendy Mitchell also nabbed an induction into the prestigious Guilde International des Fromagers.

A cheese named SNOWMASS debuted—and it's delish.

During Wednesday's pre-conference Cheese Crawl near Denver's Union Station, I met the fine folks of Haystack Mountain Cheese. Last month, while editing the forthcoming autumn issue of culture: the word on cheese, I'd read that Haystack would be launching a new variety. I hadn't forgetten the cheese's name: Snowmass.

"We have it! Would you like to try some?" replied Haystack's sales and marketing manager Katie McMurray, when I inquired. Absolutely!

"Raclette is a mountain thing—it just fit," she continued, though clarifying that the eight-pound Snowmass wheels are smaller than traditional. The cheese smells appropriately funky, and tastes as good raclette should: nutty, milky. I suggested a launch party in Snowmass this winter; McMurray seemed keen on the idea.

"We'll make it rain—no, waterfall—raclette!" she quipped. Stay tuned….

The struggle is real for cheesemakers in hot climates.

"Refrigeration is an issue," explained Travis Hughes, a cheese specialist with Regalis TX, based in Dallas. He told me that sourcing and distributing certain cheeses in the hot summer months is tricky. "We must collaborate (among distributors), to get a (refrigerated) truck. UPS is too hot."

Indeed, of this year's record-setting 2,024 American cheeses entered for judging in 123 categories at the ACS conference in Denver, only about 1,900 cheeses were, in fact, judged.

"They didn't all make it [here]," said judging and competition committee chair Stephanie Clark, of Iowa State University. "Shipping problems!"

Once cheeses arrive at the ACS conference, pressure is on cooler captain Bonano and crew to ensure that they're handled properly. Adds Clark: "We're constantly working to make it a more efficient process as far as getting cheese into the place quickly—and keep them cold."

Amanda Rae has been a main copy editor of culture: the word on cheese since the magazine launched in 2008. amandaraewashere@gmail.com