The Cheese with Altitude conference took place in Denver July 26th –July 29th. It is an annual conference for artisan, farmstead and specialty cheese producers and other industry professionals. KGNU’s Fiona Foster attended the conference hosted by the American Cheese Society, a non-profit whose mission is to promote and support artisan, farmstead, and specialty cheeses.
Matthew Gill, who works as a private buyer in San Francisco, started a project called THCheese, the medication of fermented and savory edibles. He says there is crossover between cheese and cannabis, particularly with Terpense, a family of naturally occurring aroma compounds found in plants such as hops, citrus fruit, and cannabis. Terpenes also play a role in the complex flavor development in many cheeses.
“What the cannabis industry is studying now is Terpenes, these volatile aroma compounds, and what we know is that THC will get you high but it is the volatile aroma compounds around the molecule that dictate how your body is going to feel that.”
Nora Weiser, Executive Director of the American Cheese Society, based in Denver, says this is the 34th annual national conference the ACS has hosted, and as is the mission of the ACS, there is a focus on sustainability.
“We mean sustainability in a very holistic manner. It’s not just environmental sustainability, which is a major concern for these producers but we mean sustainability as an industry…and for family farms.”
Molly Brown, who was a cheese-monger at Cured when it first opened in Boulder, says that the cheese is a way of connecting.
“I think that changing our agricultural landscape is going to be a really important part of the future of humanity and I think that cheese-makers are sort of at the forefront of that. As a cheese monger it was a good way to be a conduit from people in cities to farms, and farm animals. Those people who live in more rural areas need those dollars from big cities, right, to come back. And it felt really good to see them put something in their mouth and watch them smile.”
Brown now works for Vermont Creamery in Wisconsin. She says that we are still very disconnected from our food.
“I think there is a really big disconnect between people who live in cities and the way that food just shows up on a plate or a grocery story, I think it is really easy to forget that there are people and land and animals behind all of those products.”
Every year a cheese is awarded Best in Show through a blind taste test, and this year there were 2,042 entrants, up 10% from last year. Placing in this competition is a big deal for producers. It validates their discipline, attention to detail and hard work, and affords them the opportunity to tell their story to consumers.
This year’s Best in Show winner was Tarentaise Reserve from Spring Brook Farm in Vermont. They also run Farms for City Kids. Nora Weiser explains that it is important that we cultivate a connection between people and food, and working with kids is a great way to start. They’ve had over 12,00 kids from the New York and Boston areas, kids that don’t have exposure to a farm, come up for a week at a time. Weiser says makes cheese not only connects these kids to their food, but demonstrates practical applications of math and science. In order for consumers to be better educated, Weiser encourages consumers to ask a Certified Cheese Professional at the grocery story, and don’t feel shy to ask for a taste.
“You know you don’t want to spend a lot of money on a cheese if you don’t know if you’ll like it, so ask at the counting if you can taste it. And they you’ll feel more confident in your purchase”
But you don’t have to go to the cheese counter anymore. The internet is a great place to buy cheese, which is an exciting challenge for Molly Brown and Vermont Creamery.
“Sort of the way we’ve done it in the past is you put something on promotion, at wholefoods, a customer goes in, it is five bucks off a pound, you sell a lot of cheese. But those promotions aren’t always communicated via a digital platform and I think it is really cool to be able to figure out ways to use that new technology to our advantage, but I think it will be a couple of years.”
Consumers desire for local food is driving a lot of growth in the industry, but there are still a lot of challenges. The market is becoming saturated, which increases competition and slows growth for individual farms. Additionally, looming FDA regulations have unknown impacts on small producers. The American Cheese Society wants to ensure that small producers have a seat at the table, and the resources they need to thrive.
October has been designated as American Cheese Month.