Volunteering at the American Cheese Society Conference

If you love cheese, then Sacramento was the place you needed to be. Over the last 10 days the American Cheese Society was in town to hold their annual conference. Along with typical seminars and mixers, they also determine the best cheeses of the year for the Americas, both North and South.

As soon as I heard they were coming to Sacramento I immediately emailed them to see if they would need volunteers. Turns out they rely heavily on volunteers and there were plenty of jobs and shifts to choose from.  I worked on three different days and got a good look at the behind the scenes in regards to the actual handling and judging of the cheeses.

The first two days dealt with the arrival of cheeses shipped overnight from all over the United States and other American countries. Over 1,600 cheeses from about 250 cheesemakers are arriving by the truckload in ice chests and other makeshift packaging. 

The sorting takes place in a VERY cold part of the convention center to help keep the cheeses cold. They had the air conditioning cranked! The trucks would come in and we would sort the boxes alphabetically. Someone opens the box and checks the inventory, makes sure the cheeses have arrived within an acceptable temperature range, and then the cheeses are sorted by type. Most of the cheeses had been well packed with ice packs and in Styrofoam coolers, but the most creative and "green" cheesemaker sent his cheeses chilled by recycled soda bottles filled with ice. 

The judging is split into 160 categories and so the cheeses need to be separated.  All of the cheeses have coding on them and are not supposed to have any names, brands, logos, or identifying marks on them if they want to be judged. The code indicates the category, the number assigned for the company, and then a number indicating the number cheese entry it is.  Let's say Cowgirl Creamery is the 152nd company to send in their entry registration months ago, they get a 2 letter code for the category, their number, and the number for the cheese. So an example would be XX-152-09, meaning they sent at least nine cheeses to the conference.

The cheese is now sent to one of four refrigerated semi-trucks parked at the loading docks. They each have a cheese captain that is wearing plenty of warm clothing as they are inside the closed semis for hours on end. One truck has blues, one has smoked, one has the huge blocks or wheels, and one has everything else. They are very careful with the temperature control of the cheese.

My second day of volunteering was on the first day of judging. There are two days of judging to handle those 160 categories. There are main categories and then sub-categories. For instance, under Cheddars there is a sub-category of Cheddar Wrapped in Cloth, Linen - Aged Up to 12 Months, All Milks. 

There are 19 teams of judges. Each team consists of a Technical judge and an Aesthetic judge. The work with score sheets where the top point value is 100. The judges are encouraged to take notes and give encouragement to the cheesemakers so that they can learn and make improvements for the future. Each category has a winner and the winners from each category then go to be judged for Best of Show.

One of the judges I met was Max McCalman. He is one of the most well known and influential people in the world of cheese. He's written several books including Mastering Cheese and The Cheese Plate. At the time I had no idea who he was. We were asking him if he used the spit buckets on the tables. Yes, they spit just like for wine tasting. He said that most of the time he ate the cheese because he didn't want to waste such great product. 

After the cheese was judged it was up to my team to re-wrap the packages to send them back into cold storage. It was a long 12-hour day of handling cheeses of all shapes and sizes. Some cheeses were the big wheels or even 45 pound blocks! I was told later that all the cheeses, after judging, are split - half set aside for the Festival of Cheese and the other half set aside for the cheese sale on the very last day.

Judging Results? Best of Show went to Farms for City Kids Foundation in Vermont for their Tarentaise Reserve. Second place was closer to home: Point Reyes Bay Blue from the Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company. Third place was a tie, of which one was another California cheese, the Aged Gouda from Oakdale Cheese & Specialties.

All this volunteering had guaranteed me a ticket to Friday night's Festival of Cheese. Amazingly, you can get tired of cheese really fast. I'm glad I didn't pay because there was no way I ate $60 worth of cheese. It doesn't take long to start getting a little uncomfortable with digestion. But I did stick around for a long time to watch and check out all the cheeses. And as much as I wanted to take notes so that I would be prepared for the cheese sale the next day, it was just too overwhelming. Turns out it didn't matter anyway.

My last volunteer day was for the cheese sale. Although we started out the day trying to be somewhat organized with certain cheeses in certain areas, it soon just came to just finding enough table space to put all the cheese out, no matter the type. We did have some general areas - a smoked table, a blue cheese table, a goat/sheep cheese table. Forget about being able to easily find a specific cheese. You have to scrutinize each table and hope you find the brands/kinds you want.

The best part was that volunteers were able to pick whatever they wanted first and for free. Because I wanted my cheese to last, I mostly chose small pre-packaged cheese or cheese in sealed tubs. But I love Fontina and also had to get Parmesan for any future cooking. That went into the freezer.

If you missed the sale, you were able to buy a large, insulated shopping bag for $50 and fill it with as much cheese as you could. As long as you could zip it closed, you could keep everything in it. We actually ran out of those bags and so started selling small bags for $25. Not as good a deal, but you snooze, you lose. And many people did lose because we sold out in record time! We started at 11 and by 12:15 we were pretty much wiped out. I was told all the blues and the goat/sheep cheeses were gone as quickly as 11:30!

I'm happy to say that the ACS was very impressed with Sacramento. We had plenty of willing volunteers and, of course, our Farm-to-Fork city is perfect for such a conference. I talked to a past Board president and she told me that we they could no longer afford the big cities and they had grown too large for small cities. Like Goldilocks would say, we were "just right".  Hopefully that means we will see their return sooner rather than later.