Yeah, I went there—with the bad “what happens at _______ stays at ________” reference in the title AND to cheese camp. You’re welcome.
So I went to Cheese Camp last week. And if you are wondering what that means, sit tight; I’m about to tell you all about it.
For the uninitiated, “Cheese Camp” is a fond name for the American Cheese Society’s annual hullaballoo, er, conference. The ACS is an organization focused on promoting cheese—cheesemaking, selling, educating, buying, etc.—in the US (and Canada, too). This year the ACS really took the conference up a notch (hur hur) by hosting the shindig in the Mile High City and calling it “Cheese with Altitude.”
Not only is Colorado great and wonderful and also my dad’s childhood homeland, but Denver is a fun city. Conferencey business aside, I enjoyed Denver’s Downtown skyline as seen from my 16th-story corner hotel room, the fun bars and restaurants, and the application of the neat idea that if you’re going to build a (insert business idea here), you might as well put it inside a defunct industrial building. Also, there are so many local breweries that I could subsist for at least a month on trying a new brew for every meal.
Prior to the conference, I didn’t realize how cheesy Denver is; it is, in fact, cheesier than Seattle. Independent cheese shops abound (like The Truffle, St. Killians and Cheese + Provisions to name just three), there are all sorts of stores with cute little cheese counters in them (I’m looking at you, Mondo Market), and there are plenty of creameries in the state putting milk to highest use as cheese (MouCo and Haystack are just two of them). Plus the ACS is headquartered in Denver, of all places.
But no matter how cheesy a place is on its own, things obviously get a lot cheesier when you invite 1,300 curd nerds to town so that they can geek out over at least 2,024 cheeses and all of the cheese celebrities. (Would you call them cheesebrities? Celebrecheese? Definitely celebrecheese.)
Yes, 2,024 is how many cheeses were entered into the ACS cheese judging competitions this year. That number is not even representative of all of the artisanal cheeses being made in America right now—holy cow (and sheep and goat and water buffalo), right?
Of course, I was there first and foremost (literally) for the CCP exam. I have mentioned the exam in brief before, most likely as the thing standing between me and more time spent writing for y’all over the past six months. The CCP (Certified Cheese Professional) exam is the ACS’s certification standard for anyone working in the cheese biz.
“Anyone” could be a monger, a cheese shop owner, a distributor, wholesaler, broker, or retailer, a cheesemaker, a cheese scientist, a chef or a baker, you name it. The CCP is considered “the highest standard for cheese professionals.”
In short, the exam is a three-hour, 150-question, multiple-choice test that covers nine areas (“Body of Knowledge”) that anyone working with cheese could reasonably expect to encounter on a daily basis. I believe the number of people who took the exam this year might have been close to 400. And no, we won’t know how we did until the end of August.
After the exam, the conference began. There were a good number of receptions and parties. There were motivational speeches, author book-signings, panels, networking sessions, and tastings. There were vendor booths, freebies, and books and shirts and paintings for sale.
(I personally can’t wait for summer to be over so that I can bask in the warmth of my new ACS fleece sweater.)
But really, the best parts of the whole shebang for me can be summed up by three bullet points:
- Getting to meet your cheese heroes;
- Learning more about cheese, how to use it, and the role that it plays in the world; and
- Spending quality time in the company of cheese people.
At a cheese conference, cheesemakers are the real celebrities (celebrecheese). In Denver, I got to meet Vermont Creamery’s Allison Hooper for the second time (the first time was at Counter Culture in Portland, and my friend Chelsea and I cried because she gave us each a pen when we met her; I still have that pen). I met Ryan Trail of Mt. Townsend Creamery, Judy Schad of Capriole Goat Cheese, and Mary Quicke of freaking Quicke’s Traditional in England!
The best thing about meeting all of these people who make the cheeses we cheesemongers adore and sell in our shops is that they are just normal people who happen to make cheese.
One of my favorite memories from the conference was during the party 34 Degrees hosted at a wine bar (The Infinite Monkey Theorem) on Friday night after the awards ceremony. People were wearing neon and glow sticks, and there was this 80s cover band, and then there were these cheesemongers dancing with their first, second, and third-place ribbons clipped onto their outfits, jubilant at the recognition given the fruits of their hard labor. It was pretty darn amazing.
But there were other superstars roaming among the cheesemakers and mongers. For example, before I sat for the CCP exam, cheese guru Max McCalman checked my purse for me (I own four of his books). Cheese writer Laura Werlin sat in front of me at one of the sessions (I own two of her books). And I got to have breakfast with another cheese writer, Janet Fletcher, on the last day of the conference (I own two of her books and read her newsletter). These are all people many of us admire in our everyday lives, and during the time of Cheese Camp, we all get to coexist and chill and eat cheese and butter together.
Celebrecheese aside, there were informational panel discussions and excellent tastings every day of the conference. We learned how a group of cheesemakers are using their cheese businesses to exact social and economic improvements on their local economies and environments, how to pair cheeses with hoppier or maltier beers, and how the American artisanal cheese movement has evolved as seen through the eyes of the three grand dames of goat cheese, Judy Schad, Cypress Grove’s Mary Keehn, and Allison Hooper.
In tasting sessions, we learned more about olives and chocolate than I ever thought I’d know. For example, did you now that conventional olives are cured with lye, or that chocolate is fermented before it starts to taste like chocolate as we know it?
We also learned how to go out on a limb with unconventional cheese pairings (think Camembert with nori, or Swiss-style Chällerhocker with smoked brussels sprouts) and how to pair cheese with chocolate AND beer at the same time.
There was also a networking session on blogging about cheese and food, and I was honored to meet Erika Kubick of the Cheese Sex Death blog—and be the only other person in the room with her who actively blogs about cheese. Intimidating!
In much of what I’ve seen written about Cheese Camp, both by people who attended and the media at large, the greatest emphasis tends to land on the Festival of Cheese, that event on the final night of the conference during which attendees take part in a cheesy debauchery of sampling 2,000 of the contestants that were judged in the cheese competition. While the festival is truly a delicious sight to behold–it’s amazing and emotional for anyone who is passionate about cheese–and my non-curd-nerd cousin who accompanied me was definitely (justifiably) intimidated by the over-abundance of cheese, it wasn’t my top highlight from the conference.
For me, the best part of Cheese Camp is the time spent with all of the cheese people. The makers, the mongers, the distributors, the sales reps, the supporting actors in the beer, wine, olive, chocolate, jam and jelly, charcuterie and cracker businesses, the whole lot of ‘em. Together, this beautiful community of people keep the cheese wheel spinning, and that’s definitely something to celebrate.
It is often said that “cheese people are the best people.” And folks, it’s the truth.
Anybody who can survive almost a full week—or two weeks, in the case of the judges—of eating mostly cheese, butter and yogurt has got to be a pretty cool dude or dudette.