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America’s New Love: Celebrating Artisan Cheese

A cheese fan gets a chance to sample a blue-ribbon cheese from Carr Valley Cheese Co. of Wisconsin at the American Cheese Society’s 2013 Festival of Cheese in Madison, Wisconsin. Credit: Copyright 2016 Marie Ketring

A cheese fan gets a chance to sample a blue-ribbon cheese from Carr Valley Cheese Co. of Wisconsin at the American Cheese Society’s 2013 Festival of Cheese in Madison, Wisconsin. Credit: Copyright 2016 Marie Ketring

Fans squeal with delight, marked-up tickets show up online, people travel across the country.

The latest boy band? Broadway’s “Hamilton”?

No, these days all that excitement is for cheese. On the heels of a busy spring of cheese festivals and competitions that drew nibblers by the thousands, more summer events across the country will connect many more cheese lovers with the people who make their favorite food.

This isn’t grocery store sampling. At these events, mountains of cheeses await hungry visitors — some lavishly styled, some pulled from the 40-pound blocks that judges had been sampling earlier in the week. With a game plan in hand, cheese lovers head for their favorite cheddar or brie or a hard-to-categorize original creation by a favorite maker.

“American consumers’ education about cheese has just skyrocketed,” said Wisconsin-based Jeanne Carpenter, who has organized cheese festivals throughout the Midwest since 2009.  “They know what it is, they know the cheese-makers by name.”

In early April, a whopping 500 tickets were sold in two weeks to Chicago’s first-ever CheeseTopia, organized by Carpenter. The tickets sold for $75 a pop, but Carpenter, whose Wisconsin Cheese Originals organization has been hosting festivals and classes since 2009, said she saw CheeseTopia tickets for sale on Craigslist “for high amounts, which doesn’t make me happy, because I don’t like people scalping tickets.”

Cheese on the rise

Cheeses from around the world were available to be sampled at the World Championship Cheese Contest in March in Madison, Wisconsin. All were entered into the competition. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jane Burns

Cheeses from around the world were available to be sampled at the World Championship Cheese Contest in March in Madison, Wisconsin. All were entered into the competition. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jane Burns

Carpenter hosted her first cheese festival in Madison, Wisconsin. Held in the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Monona Terrace, it was designed to promote Wisconsin makers and educate consumers. It included seminars, tours and “meet-the-cheese-maker” receptions full of sampling.

“I had a hard time filling seats,” Carpenter said.

Now, Carpenter’s festivals aren’t the only thing moving tickets for cheese fans in Wisconsin. In March, the World Championship Cheese Contest in Madison quickly sold out the 500 tickets for its award ceremony and tasting event.

Cheese is creating a frenzy outside of America’s Dairyland. California’s Artisan Cheese Festival in Petaluma, California, home of Cowgirl Creamery, was held for the 10th time in March. There were three days of seminars, tastings and farm tours, capped off by 1,500 fans gathering under a big-top tent to sample cheese, cider, wine and beer, meet the producers, get books signed and watch demos. Also in March, the Oregon Cheese Festival had 4,000 attendees at its 12th annual event, sampling cow, sheep and goat’s milk cheeses made by Oregon creameries

And tickets are available for the annual American Cheese Society’s Festival of Cheese. The July 30 event, held this year in Des Moines, Iowa, charges $60 to sample the 1,500 cheeses entered in this year’s contest. Organizers expect 1,000 people to attend. On July 17, Shelburne Farms hosts the Vermont Cheesemakers Festival, which has sold out its 1,750 tickets the past three years and is expected to do so again this year.

Rock-star status

Cesar Luis, a cheese maker from Wisconsin, demonstrates how he makes his award-winning Queso Oaxaca at CheeseTopia in Milwaukee in 2015. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jane Burns

Cesar Luis, a cheese-maker from Wisconsin, demonstrates how he makes his award-winning Queso Oaxaca at CheeseTopia in Milwaukee in 2015. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jane Burns

At Carpenter’s events, she requires the cheese-maker to be present. People want to meet them, she said, and then they treat them like rock stars.

“I see women squeal like schoolgirls seeing the Beatles when they see Andy Hatch for the first time,” she said of Hatch, of Uplands Cheese Co. of Dodgeville, Wisconsin, who makes the much-celebrated Pleasant Ridge Reserve. “It’s so embarrassing for him, he just lets it pass and says, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’”

For Hatch, it just goes with the territory.

“Aside from occasional blushing, I do enjoy the general buzz at these events — the sense that cheese is something exciting,” he said. “It’s flattering that people go out of their way to pay money and stand in line to taste cheese and ask a few questions. If people are willing to do that, I’m willing to go out of my way to be there for them.”

Chris Roelli is a fourth-generation cheese-maker best known for Dunbarton Blue, the cheddar-blue he introduced seven years ago. He enjoys the events, though it’s a far cry from years of anonymous commodity cheese production of the early part of his career. Now people line up to talk to him.

“I never expected anyone to ever ask for my autograph,” said Roelli, whose eponymous cheese company is based in Shullsburg, Wisconsin.

The main event

Visitors to the Vermont Cheesemakers Festival last year got a chance to sample Eleven Brothers, an award-winning goat’s milk cheese made by the state’s Boston Post Dairy. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sabin Gratz

Visitors to the Vermont Cheesemakers Festival last year got a chance to sample Eleven Brothers, an award-winning goat’s milk cheese made by the state’s Boston Post Dairy. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sabin Gratz

While drinks and other local foods are often featured at these festivals, there’s no doubt cheese is the star of the show. At the contest events, displays resembling edible sculptures are made from the blocks used for judging. Veteran contest-goers bring plastic bags so they can take home what remains, knowing the blocks that made up the entries are just big chunks of cheesy leftovers. A plan of attack is necessary; it’s impossible to sample everything.

Carpenter’s event was in Madison for four years, but has expanded its reach. She moved it to Milwaukee last year, and 750 tickets quickly sold out. This year it traveled to Chicago, and next year will be in Minneapolis. From there, Carpenter said, she’s debating whether to keep it in the Midwest or go national.

People have come to her events from across the country, including a couple on their honeymoon and a woman from Nashville who has been at every event Carpenter has created.

“There are cheese groupies out there, I don’t know what else to call them,” Carpenter said. “It’s so cool that people care this much about cheese.”

Main image: A fan gets a chance to sample a blue-ribbon product from Carr Valley Cheese Co. of Wisconsin at the American Cheese Society’s 2013 Festival of Cheese in Madison, Wisconsin. Credit: Copyright 2016 Marie Ketring



Zester Daily contributor Jane Burns has worked as a reporter and editor for the Des Moines Register, Minneapolis Star Tribune and the Wisconsin State Journal. She lives outside Madison, Wisconsin, a vibrant community that includes a deep-rooted local foods movement and a creatively evolving artisanal cheese and dairy market.

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