Put me in a lovely studio with great light, my camera and a talented food stylist, 18 incredible cheeses from some of my favorite cheesemakers and I’m a pretty happy camper. As with all projects that resonate with me, this one celebrates community, history and a shared journey of growth and passion.
The project, shot during my birthday week back in March, was certainly a labor of love. It chronicles the growth and evolution of American cheese over the last three decades through the lens of the winning cheeses at the American Cheese Society Judging and Competition (see history of Judging & Competition here)
The Judging and Competition was first held at the third annual conference in Bird-in-Hand, Pennsylvania with “an extremely well aged gouda” taking top honors. There were 89 cheeses entered into competition that year.
Over the years, nineteen different cheeses took home the Best of Show ribbon, three winning multiple times. Two cheesemakers won top honors for two different cheeses. Eighteen of the nineteen cheeses winning are represented in this project.*
Best of Show cheeses hail from all regions of the country and represent a variety of styles, milk types and producers – from small, farmstead dairies to larger cooperatives, running the gamut from well-established brands to relative newcomers to the cheesemaking world. The fact that all these cheeses are still in production is testament to their quality and the dedication of the cheesemakers.
The growth in the size and scale of the competition has been remarkable as well. The 2013 competition will welcome more than 1700 entries – ten times the entries of the early years. Something that bodes well for the industry and cheeselovers alike – much of the growth has been in the last ten years. In 2003, the Judging and Competition welcomed 468 cheeses. Two years later, in 2005, 725 cheeses were entered. In 2007, the number jumped to 1201 and, by 2012, that number had jumped by 500 cheeses, to 1701 entries.
Not only have the numbers grown, the quality and availability of American made artisan and specialty cheeses has grown as well. When I first entered the cheese industry in 1998, the majority of cheeses – and the most interesting cheeses – were from Europe. Today, the finest cheese shops carry a wide variety of homegrown cheeses, and a few focus exclusively on American cheeses. Quite a sea change in fifteen years.
As the competition has grown, winning top honors in one of 22 categories comes with big bragging rights and is the entry ticket for making it to the final round of judging and eligibility for Best in Show honors. Taking Best of Show can launch a cheesemaker onto center stage and help propel a business toward even greater success. For a number of small producers, winning the accolades really put them on the map.
In the lead up to the 30th Anniversary ACS Conference, I will be blogging about each winning cheese and cheesemaker along with my favorite photos from the shoot**. If you are in the cheese biz, I hope to see you in Madison, August 1-4. Cheese lovers in the Madison area are invited to the Festival of Cheese on August 4th and the Cheese Sale on Sunday, August 5th.
In the meantime, I invite you to sign up for my monthly e-newsletter to get the best cheese photos and top stories on all my cheese-centric projects.
* Yerba Santa Shepherd Tomme from California is a two-time winner (’91 and ’97). It is an extremely limited production cheese and there was none available at the time the photos were made.
**Full Disclosure: This was a 100% cheesemaker-sponsored project designed to provide an archive of images which capture and celebrate the history of fine cheese in the US in honor of the 30th Anniversary of the American Cheese Society. Cheesemakers supplied cheese for the shoot and underwrote the photo shoot and processing as well as production of a commemorative poster. A huge “Thank You” to the 16 participating cheesemakers who supported this creative vision.