2016 American Cheese Society Conference
Each year, more than a thousand turophiles (cheese lovers) gather for a week of eating, drinking and learning at the American Cheese Society (ACS) Conference. This year’s event was held in Des Moines, IA. I’ve been to a lot of industry conferences, and I can honestly say that none compare to the ACS event. It’s not just because it involves a lot of opportunities to eat great cheese. It’s because of the cheese community.
ACS feels more like a reunion than an industry conference because the cheese community is so passionate about American cheese and so welcoming, even to a new retailer, that you can quickly feel like one of the family. We made dozens of new friends after last year’s event and made dozens more this year.
Why We Go
Our main objective in attending ACS is finding great new cheeses for the case and meeting the cheesemakers behind them. Here’s how we do it.
- Meet the Cheesemakers: One evening is dedicated meeting cheesemakers and tasting their cheeses. As a retailer focused on American, artisan cheeses, this is the most important event at the conference. There were more than 80 producers this year. We discovered new cheeses from cheesemakers we already carry as well as new cheesemakers who weren’t on our radar. In fact, we brought 25 new cheeses home with us alone to add to the case right away.
- Education Sessions. There are three days of educational sessions during the conference. This year’s topics ranged from “Sheep Milk, Sheep Cheese and Thistle Rennet” to “The Science of Taste.” Each day there are several “tasting sessions” where you sample product and explore pairings. We participated in sessions that explored “Beer, Cheese + Charcuterie,” “Sour Beers and Stinky Cheeses,” “Cheese and Honey,” and “Blues of the Midwest.” We’d be Ph.Ds if all school were like the ACS sessions!
- The Cheese Oscars. The highlight of the conference for the cheesemakers is the annual awards competition. 1,800 cheeses and cultured dairy products compete to take honors in 108 categories. Winning an award is a BIG deal, and the energy at the award ceremony is electric. Colorado cheesemakers were well represented this year, taking home 9 ribbons! See our video here.
- The Festival of Cheese. The last night of the conference all of the cheeses entered into the competition are put out for sampling. More than 1,700 cheeses were displayed this year. You spend the evening going around the convention hall, finding the best of the best at tables organized by cheese type – the Blue Cheese table, the Bloomy Rinds, the Cheddars, the Washed Rinds, etc. Our strategy at an event that can otherwise be overwhelming is to find the award winners for each category and taste those first. We’re usually pretty full after that.
- Volunteering. We come in early and spend two days volunteering at the judging of the annual cheese awards. More than 1,800 cheeses and cultured dairy products are judged by technical and aesthetic judges. As a volunteer, we get a close up view of the best cheeses in the country. Toward the end of the Conference, we spend another day volunteering to help prepare for the Festival of Cheese. We cut hundreds of pounds of cheese, but we also get access to all the award winners before the crowds arrive.
There are lots of other fun events, like farm tours and cheese pub crawls, that round out the week. Every year, we come home even more excited about American artisan cheese. Having quality time with the experts — the cheesemakers — and getting to know them is invaluable. Building and strengthening friendships with this is an added bonus.
We’re super excited for next year’s event, because it’s going to be in Denver! If you love cheese, you should make plans to buy tickets to the Festival of Cheese.