gordonzola: (Default)
It’s hard to describe the Festival of Cheese that ends the cheese conference every year.
One the one hand, it’s amazing. 1000 cheeses this year, all made in North America. All cheese shapes and sizes are represented. Awards were given in 86 different categories , everything from flavored cow’s milk cheese to washed rind, Italian style to American Originals. While no doubt the historic cheese making countries still have the lock on quality producers of their traditional products, some American-made cheese is right up there in taste and quality.

But it’s also a crazy display of American excess. 1000 full cheeses for 1000 people. While everything was sampled, the majority of cheese, beautiful in its display was sweating and hardening under the overmatched air conditioning of Portland’s 3rd straight 100 degree day. The ACS has started selling the leftovers at whatever local farmers market is around, and it’s a good deal at the prices they sell for, even if they are not in perfect shape by the time they get there. I still remember carrying home a suitcase full of cheese when I worked the festival one year because it was just going to get thrown out. But still, entering a ballroom filled with cheese, bread, fruit and free booze… I love these moments even as they feel a little gross. Food waste still feels immoral to me even as I enjoy the decadence.

The winner of Best in Show this year: The Cabot Clothbound Cheddar. It is an awesome cheese . It’s a traditional style cheddar. Cylindrical and wrapped in cheese cloth. The outside is dusty and sometimes moldy with a natural rind, unlike the usual American 40 LB, rindless commodity block. The real secret of this cheese? It is aged by the folks at Jasper Hill Farm. I took pictures of those cheeses aging when I visited a few months ago, then stupidly opened the back of my camera when I rewound the film. You’ll have to take my word for the fact they have a very nice home.

The Cabot is awesome but I also think that in the Central Valley, both the Fiscalini Clothbound Cheddar and the Bravo Farms Silver Mountain are its equal, depending on the wheel. The Cabot, when I tasted it at Jasper Hill, is a little sweeter and smoother, whereas the Central Valley ones are more crumbly and sharp, especially the 30 month-aged Fiscalini. All great cheese that compares to the Neal’s Yard traditional English cheddars. I would still give the nod to the Montgomery Cheddar as the best in the world, but the distance now is not quite so great.

But there were plenty of great cheeses there. I only taste cheese I haven’t tried before at events like this. So with my recommendations below, keep in mind that I didn’t taste any of the great cheese that I already know. That’s why they’re mostly not from California either.

The blues were the hit of the show for me. Big Woods Blue and the Wisconsin Farmers Union were both awesome, pungent, huge-tasting raw milk sheep blue cheeses. The obvious comparison would be Roquefort since it is also a raw sheep blue, but both of these were less salty and drippy, sweeter and . Both Carr Valley entries Virgin Pine cow and Virgin Pine sheep were terrific blue with wild molds. Instead of adding mold cultures to the milk, the cheeses are pierced upon maturation, acquiring mold from the ambient environment of the aging cave.

Indeed there is almost no Carr Valley Cheese I don’t like. The Riverbend goat cheese and the 10 year aged cheddar also stood out, but that is one company I would by almost anything from just based on the name. I’d say the same for La Maison Alexis de Portneuf. Everything they made was great. And look at that cute website!

I was also impressed with all the Blue Ledge Farm cheese I encountered, especially the soft-ripened goat Lake’s Edge. Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Co-op Dante was undoubtedly awesome too, but I forgot to write a description of it. Must’ve been all the free booze.

I always get sad when the conference ends and that’s not just the free booze. It’s a weird community that comes together over the course of three or four days. Even if a bunch of the folks I see there are from the Bay Area, the reason that conferences like this are so fun is the concentration of time spent talking about a subject that would bore our real life friends in a fraction of the time. As I’ve noted before, there’s things to hate about the conferences too. But that’s the way community goes.

The air conditioned freeze and the relentless Portland heat wave had been battling it out inside the Hilton ballroom since I arrived at the Festival at 4 PM. I can only imagine what the smell must have been like to anyone walking into the room a couple of hours in with 1000 unrefrigerated cheeses and 1000 sweaty cheese workers at the tail end of a three day conference. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it was nothing like Comic-Con but it was distinct. As the hotel workers started disappearing with tubs of unconsumed beer, I felt a chill and realized that most people had left. The chill was literal because the air conditioning, with 700 less people, could finally dominate the room. The tables were littered with cheese carcasses, plucked grapevines, and cracker crumbs that weren’t already ground into the carpet. The room suddenly looked empty-ish. It was as if the remaining folks suddenly awoke from their cheese dream and realized they had to leave. Of course, that may have been because of the disappearance of the free booze. I started around the room one last time to say my good-byes. The temporary cheese autonomous zone was breaking up for another year.



clicky clicky for the big piccies )
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The last panel I attended was the best in the conference. "Conflict of Urban Sprawl Community Forum" actually got in depth about the problems of dairy farmers as the suburbs spread out into what was once only farmland. The problem is particularly tricky for both urban people who want to buy local products, and farmers trying to make handmade cheese who are losing both dairies to buy milk from and pasture land for grazing their own animals. Here is a great background website.

John Fiscalini described how 25% of human food in this country was once grown in the Central Valley but then showed a photo of encroaching housing developments where once there were farms as far as could be seen. Though his family has been dairy farming for 200 years and almost 100 in the Central Valley, he was openly talking about the day when he’ll have to move to Idaho or Montana in order to continue dairy farming.

Tax assessments to develop infrastructure for the people who don’t yet live in his county are one thing. The fact that when they do move there, there will be more regulation about things such as naturally occurring farm smells is obvious. Already the roads near his farm are more crowded with commuters who don’t like slow moving tractors, making them alter their schedules.

Also, the Central Valley is not only the World’s Fruit Basket but also its World’s Meth Syringe . It’s a so-not-funny-you-have-to-laugh problem that toxic material from the local meth labs get dumped on Central Valley farms all the time. Fiscalini told of one farmer getting charged $50,000 for the toxic cleanup by the county when he called in and reported it.

Best Fiscalini Cheese: San Joaquin Gold. He has a genius cheesemaker in Mariano Gonzales who used to work at Shelburne Farms in Vermont. This cheese is one of my California favorites, sweet, sharp, salty and earthy. The cheese mold imprints a big cow on every wheel too!

George Crave a longtime Wisconsin dairy farmer with about 1200 cows, 600 milking at any one time. He talked about family ag being an industry the is always affected by "the people who make real money". While not spreading as fast as the Central Valley, housing approaching the farm has lead to neighbor objections over their "nutrient management" systems, aka manure spreading. While I don’t wanna live next to that either, I also didn’t move next door to a farm. Like the condo owners complaining about urban-ness in their overpriced lofts, people who move in next door to the airport and complain about noise, or heterosexuals who move to the Castro and complain about signs of gay sex it leads to problems for the longtime residents.

I don’t know if people will remember the game that Sheana and I played while driving around Vermont and Massachusetts farmland. It was called "freshwater pond or manure pit?" Well the Craves are building a 7,000,000 gallon manure pond to deal with the potential complaints and other regulations. See why it’s so hard to tell?

Best Crave Brothers Cheese: Les Freres. Washed rind stinky cheese. Rich, luscious and pungent when ripe. Eat close to the expiration date if you buy the mini wheels in the little round box.

Jon Wright from Taylor Farm showed a fascinating slide show of land near his farm in Vermont. Slide after slide was area that traditionally had been farmland but now was being used in other ways. Whereas he had grazing rights all around his land with other farmers, many of those are now housing developments, soccer fields, and businesses. Not only does this make the area potentially less ag friendly, it also could lead to added costs in terms of buying feed.

Best Taylor farms Cheese: Maple smoked gouda. Unlike the processed Dutch smoked gouda loafs, this is real cheese, buttery and meaty.

Land trusts were also discussed as one of the ways to preserve farmland, some have been very successful, in paying farmers for the value of the land while allowing it to be used as farmland in perpetuity. However, in areas where housing is pricey and sprawl is fast, many folks are willing to pay more than the appraised value of the land, something the trusts won’t go beyond.

At the end one cheesemaker gave an impassioned speech about political action, talking about how the farmers had found other allies and defeating an anti-farming measure in a once ag, and now largely suburban county. I congratulated him, thinking he was talking about the defeat of eminent domain on a local dairy farm that had also been on the ballot. Oops, he was talking about defeating the ban on genetically engineered crops. Heh. Some politics overlap, some don’t.

The only other panel I attended was "Communicating Locally Made". It was pretty straightforward and mercifully the word "terroir" was not heard once!

(Next: the last Cheese Conference installment. The Festival of Cheese.)
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Two of the people I like working with best in the cheese world are Sheana Davis and Lucy Saunders. I’ve worked with them on events before so when I was asked to help work on a beer and cheese party they were organizing I immediately agreed.

Unfortunately, even though Sheana had asked months ago about open time slots during the conference because she didn’t want the non-official party to compete with the official events, and even though she sent out invites far in advance, at the last minute the conference shifted the awards ceremony to the exact same time as the party. This meant that pretty much no cheesemakers would show up. At official events, cheesemakers are the backbone of a successful non-pretentious party. Dee Harley showed up briefly but that was it. It’s like asking actors to attend a competing party during the Academy Awards. Bummer.

Then the air conditioning at the Ecotrust Building stopped working about a half hour before the event. Ouch. This was during the week of Portland hitting 100 degrees every day. The cheese started to sweat. Our ice melted in minutes. Luckily, award-winning y/a novelist Sara Ryan and cartoonist Steve Lieber fielded my emergency phone call and brought 8 more bags of ice, saving the day.

Because of the timing it became less of a schmooze fest and more a party for friends and people I like in the cheese business. It actually made for a nice break from the more serious business chatter. Cheese in attendance: Teleme, Great Hill Blue, Carr Valley, Pure Luck, Sierra Nevada, Bellwether, Marin French Harley Farms, Widmer, Vella
Ljers who made appearances: [livejournal.com profile] chloesha, [livejournal.com profile] reddawn, [livejournal.com profile] netphemera, [livejournal.com profile] arispurr, and [livejournal.com profile] magpiesf. I didn’t catch all the beers but the Rogue Morimoto Soba is a new favorite and the Russian River Brewery beers continue to amaze me. They might be the best in the country.

After clean up the elevator broke so we couldn’t load anything out. Portland really can’t handle the heat. I have to admit that this was a mixed blessing because this way I missed my chance to carry another bunch of beer cases around. It might have become a theme for the trip. I did manage to get a copy of Living on the Wedge from the film maker before she left the building.

Eventually I ended up at the Rogue Ale House where all the Pure Luck Dairy folks and other assorted Texans were. Because they were Texans they insisted it was "nice" outside and prevented attempts to move inside to find air conditioning. After a couple of beers and a salad for dinner I walked to [livejournal.com profile] chloesha’s house where we ate popsicles, lay next to the window in a failed attempt to catch a breeze, then drove around trying to find a fountain that was still pumping. We found none but did make it to some West Nile breeding ground art-swamp thing near the Ecotrust Building. It was stagnant, buggy and a little nasty, but I did appreciate her effort very much. She is a fabulous host. There’s just no place in Portland to go when it’s that hot.
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"Cheese in the Media" was the next morning’s panel discussion and featured a multi-media presentation by Christine Hyatt/ "The Cheese Chick" which featured, among other things, the history of cheese advertising in the USA and video clips like the one from The Daily Show" about the government crackdown on bathtub cheese. Basically, the theme was: "Cheese is a hot trend".

It wasn’t really the panelists’ fault, but it highlighted one of the faults of this year’s conference. At 800 people of all skill and knowledge levels, it is really hard to program a general session that is interesting to old timers and not too obscure for newcomers. There certainly were handy tips for folks who’d never thought about how to present themselves to the media, and the clips were fun and well-chosen, but it felt fairly obvious to me. At an hour and fifteen minutes, it was too long for that.

Unfortunately, my next panel, "Who Killed My Cheese" also felt that way. Covering the handling of cheese from the dairy to the retail floor, the panelists were all people I respect.** I may have just chosen poorly since I’ve been to this type of panel before, but I’m a sucker for stories of bad handling and cheese disaster . Some topics unfortunately seemed to be untouchable, like what happens when a distributor buys at the behest of a large company who then doesn’t take half the order? At what level of buying power is a company too big for you to call them on their bad behavior? Of course, no one officially wants to sell cheese in distress, but then why does so much get sold? When do folks pull the plug and dumpster it and how far are they willing to push it?

My favorite part was when the French national on the panel talked about cheese sitting out on display and getting oily. One has to factor in the amount of lost weight and flavor in this situation and calculate pricing for (literal) shrink. He has a fairly heavy accent so after he bemoaned the loss [livejournal.com profile] dairryiere elbowed me and said, "Did he just say that cheese losing moisture is like a butterfly escaping?"

"No he said it was butterfat escaping"

"Oh, but that was so poetic."

I discovered a new pet peeve at this conference. People not using their microphones. The conference organizers, in a well-planned attempt to deal with the unexpected size of the conference, had carefully set up the rooms so that audience members could be heard. However, many attendees just couldn’t be bothered. I was in the very back row at this panel and after the third or fourth person asked a question without using the mic I was fed up. Someone started to share a long anecdote while standing five feet from the microphone . I can be quite loud so I used my volume privilege and yelled in my butchest voice, "If you want us to hear you, you have to use the microphone."

The person sat down in embarrassment and didn’t finish her story. But then immediately afterwards, someone else stood up, announced, "I’m loud enough" and started another long story of maintaining cheese integrity. I had broken the ice and others started shouting at her. I didn’t mean to unleash all that so I just said, loud enough for the back couple of rows, "it’s OK, we’ll just talk amongst ourselves until you’re done."

The California cheese tasting was next and it made me proud. I’d tasted almost everything before of course, except for the new Fiscalini Cheese . It was excellent but I was warned that it will be younger on the retail level, so I am hesitant to describe it in public yet. Also excellent was the new
Sierra Nevada Cheese Company
organic vat-cultured butter. They already make the absolute best cream cheese available in the USA and this butter is right up there with Vermont Butter and Cheese Company in terms of flavor.

The aged, raw milk Bellwether Carmody , a cheese I always like, was at its absolute best that day too. Milky and tangy with a bite you don’t always get. Marin French * represented well, not only with their soft-ripened cheese but with Schloss, a smeared-rind rectangle of stink and fat that, you heard it here first, is the most underrated cheese in the whole country.



*Oldest continually operating cheese plant in the country. Don’t believe those Vermonters who say different.

**One panelist referred to my sales rep who she entrusts with "her babies", a.k.a. the specialty cheese she imports . She went on in great detail about how my rep goes into the warehouse weekly and touches and examines the cheese. This of course lead to me now calling my rep up to place my order and starting off our conversation disguising my voice and saying, "I know you touched the babies."
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My next panel was "The Structure of Specialty Food Pricing" where I didn’t learn a thing. I swear I heard the retailer on the panel say that his store had carpeted aisles but no one else I asked remember him saying it. Maybe it was my imagination. *

I hoped to get more insight on how cheesemakers price their specialty cheeses because I already know what retailers and distributors do. Unfortunately it was more of a list of overhead costs by all the panelists, not a line item with expenses and a justification for their percentage mark-up. The first conference I went to, back when there was a separate cheesemaker day, people were much more forthcoming with what could be considered proprietary information. I don’t blame ‘em really. A cheesemaker giving out that info now that the conference is bigger will have it used against them by certain chains.

Reminding me the ways I don’t belong at the conference, the retailer also said, when discussing his expenses, "We all own homes so we know about mortgages, insurance…"

I blew off the afternoon session about "Lessons from Craft Beer" because it seemed like a rehash of a panels I saw at The Sonoma Cheese conference the last two years. Suffice it to say that the hand made cheese biz is similar to the craft brewery business in 1985. And I do like the pairing of cheese and beer better than wine and beer any day of the week. Brewers are rarely snotty, for one reason.

The Portland Art Museum hosted the second largest schmooze-fest of the conference that night. I was acutely aware of this since I had delivered 24 cases of beer there earlier in the day. I set about trying to drink as much of it as I could while chatting with cheese folks. I was starved so I settled in at a table with a plate of hors d’ouevers and Little Sister. We quickly became a magnet for unaligned people looking for a safe haven. We befriended a lonely-looking cheese guy who told us about his surprisingly large dairy farm in the Midwest. He kept inviting us to come for a visit and stay in their guest house. Of course, when I got his card the company logo had a huge cross as part of the logo. I looked disappointedly at it while he simultaneously looked dismayed at my card which read "Rainbow Grocery Cooperative" which told him I was either a homo or a hippie communist.

Now it’s not like I don’t carry a cheese made by Christians or right-wingers. I have a fairly realistic idea of who lives in rural areas and they’re certainly not all hippie back to the land folks. A couple of Central Valley cheesemakers had bible verses in their logo until someone with a sense of the Bay Area market probably told them it would hurt their sales. These things can lead to awkward silences.

At some point a woman from Oakland wandered up and was shocked that my store paid for my attendance at such an expensive schmoozefest not connected specifically to the natural foods world. Shhhh, don’t tell anyone.

I saw no art, despite being in a museum for three hours.


* Any Minneapolis folks know of an upscale chain that meets this description? It seems like a last minute substitution since he wasn’t in the program.
gordonzola: (Default)
My first panel was "Fromager* Certification: Update and Next Steps". This was for the hardcore conference-goer, in fact two of my three cheese mentors were in attendance. It’s long been a peeve of mine that there are no professional standards in this business. People can get a job or start a store/restaurant and call themselves whatever they want. I did it too, of course, calling myself a "cheese monger" after I felt I had earned the title. Others may call themselves affineurs, fromager, maitre fromager, whatever sounds fancy but none of it means anything at this point.

On the panel was someone fairly famous for calling himself a maitre fromager. I was very impressed that he had the modesty and good graces to say he wasn’t sure he could pass the test they were proposing for certification. The panel, who’ve been working on this since the last conference, envisioned a three-tiered certification system: Cheese Specialist, Fromager, and Maitre Fromager. There would be a pre-qualifying exam, essay questions, and, for the top certification, an expectation of mastery of fairly obscure cheese knowledge. This was not meant to be a full proposal, just an update with a 5 year time frame for implementation.

I was itching to talk as soon as I saw the outline. The term Fromager was touted as the cheese equivalent of sommelier, something people are used to in fancy restaurants. As long time readers know, I have an aversion to the use of French names for things done in the USA. Not because the French hate our freedom, but because it continues to unnecessarily mystify food.

Take "terroir". It basically means food that has a sense of the place it is made/grown. It tops my list of hated terms because many folks want to import it and use it to market relatively new cheeses. In fact, "terroir’ was the theme for the first ACS conference I attended (in, of all places, Rodent Park, California) . The thing is though, that in France, they are talking about food that grew up together over centuries of relative geographical isolation. There has been cheese, beer, and wine made in, for example, Northern California since the land was stolen from the Indians and Mexicans. While much of it is great, its influence came from elsewhere and, with very few exceptions, it is not geographically original. A given cheese may be quite distinct in flavor, but that has a lot more to do with the skill of the cheese maker than the flora, fauna, and geography of the region.

It’s the equivalent of people who talk about their "old friends". Whether they are referring to people from grade school or people from last year tells you something about the person. The stupid thing is that there are lots of great American cheeses being made. To pretend that we have the history of the French or the Italians, as a cheesemaking nation, is dishonest and makes people rightfully suspect other claims made about taste and quality.

I got to speak towards the end of the Q&A and I praised them on the work they had done over the last year because they really did get a lot of the needs outlined and organized. I think actual certification will encourage people to learn more, and a more educated body of cheese folks will only help the cheese makers. I like the idea having a body of peers evaluate my professional level, depending on what they are evaluating of course. I think it’s possible that professional certification could lead to better pay for some cheese sellers, since watching the way that buyers turn over at every store but ours, the Cheese Board and the Pasta Shop is kind of disheartening.

It’s always more fun to complain so I quickly got to the heart of the matter. If people are serious about supporting local cheesemakers, and comparing North American cheese to European cheese, the title of achievement has to be an English one for use in the US. While I would prefer "Cheese Monger" with degrees of competence, I understand that distributors and some others don’t really fall into that category. But "Fromager" encourages all the pretension that many of us are trying to kill off. It’s just cheese, dude. When I said I would be embarrassed to use that title in our store, other cheese mongers in attendance applauded.

The other major problem with the proposed certification was that there was no requirement for experience. I don’t really see any reason to do a certification unless it’s limited to professionals. I am told that one can get a sommelier certificate by passing a class, and I guess I’d be ok with it on the "Specialist" level as a way for people to get cheese jobs, but it seems like a watering-down of the certification before we’ve even begun. I did say that if the intent was job creation, then they better provide an oral and/or Spanish language option because there are certainly people who could pass the Specialist part of the exam who may not be able to write essays in well-written English.

Hopefully as an oversight, not foreshadowing, the one glaring topic left of any part of the certification was demonstrating safe food handling skills. Heh. Uncomfortable giggle. If you can’t wash your hands, you can’t sell the cheese. It was wonderful recently when a new hire, in his self-evaluation, said that one of the biggest differences between his old store and working with us is how much we wash our hands and how much we clean the counters.

Of course, there is some danger that the certification process is simply a way for people to make money off of the booming cheese industry. The final steps were not outlined, but as much as parts of the American Cheese Society annoy me, they are the most impartial body to oversee this type of professionalization. Though maybe not since, looking at the list of BOD members I see I have professional relationships with 9 out of 16 of them. It’s not like they’d wanna tell me I failed the test. However, a private organization won’t survive long if people don’t pass so there would be a built-in incentive to make the test easier. Flunking people doesn’t exactly lead to good word of mouth.

I think my critiques were on the mark because a lot of other folks came up to me after the panel and said they appreciated my little speech. While the women tended to come up to me at the "networking breaks" all the men waited until we were in the bathroom together. I have never been patted on the back so many times over the course of two days while standing at urinals. Still, as cheese conference bathroom stories go, nothing will top 2001 in Louisville when a certain cheesemonger (not me) waved his penis at a delegation of Italians, saying, "I got your provolone right here!"



*For pronunciation, think of Bob and Doug Mackenzie, "Hey what smells?"

"I think it’s the fromage, eh?"
gordonzola: (Default)
This is the last year I share a bed at the conference to save money, I’m just too old for it. I hardly slept at all before the first day’s events and it wasn’t for any reason your collective dirty minds can dredge up. Plus we had that first night thermostat thing where the room went from unbearably hot then freezing cold. Urgh.

Once again I attended the conference with my cheese travel buddy Sheana and her sister. Those are the folks I was drinking beer with in yesterday’s entry. We have traveled well over the years but after a day of cheese-eating, beer tasting, and schmoozing, having a little of my own space would have been nice. Yes, I should have known this in advance.

So I walked in, bleary, cranky and sleep-deprived, to the biggest American Cheese Society conference in history. It sold out for the first time ever with nearly 800 cheese folks. The first conference I attended was a much more intimate event. Even though there are people who’ve been attending for a decade or two, I was approached more than once by folks looking for other "old-timers". I refused to accept that title, it doesn’t seem appropriate in an industry that is often multi-generational, but it does show how popular cheese has gotten in the last few years.

Juliet Harbutt started off with a keynote on "Exploring Cheese Frontiers" which addressed this increased profile of our trade. She’s been in the cheese world a long time, and shared a lot of her experiences from the early days when there was less of a demand for artisianal cheese. And indeed, in her own store she single-handedly helped some cheesemakers from quitting the business back when the term "hand-made" was more of a liability than an asset.

I also loved her story about being called disgusting by a customer when she was selling Welsh cheeses but as a retailer I did see the punchline coming a mile away. If only someone thinking cheese from Wales was really "cheese from whales" was the most absurd thing I’ve heard…

(Edit: ok, I didn't realize how long that was. I'm cutting off part and posting it tomorrow)
gordonzola: (Default)
The tricky thing about the annual American Cheese Society Conference is that it is part trade show and part community. I wasn’t around for the beginnings twenty-three years ago, but I know it started as a mutual aid organization for traditional cheesemakers. Outnumbered by corporations, out-volumed by factories and unknown, for the most part, outside their regions, cheesemakers, and a few supporters banded together to help preserve and promote hand made, American cheese. By extension this also supports family farming, pastureland, and better quality food.

The point of tension at the conferences is caused by the ACS’s own success. Government statistics show that Americans are eating three times the amount of cheese they were 30 years ago. Too be sure, much of that is from factory made mozzarella and eaten on pizza, but awareness and demand for small, specialty cheese keeps increasing. My LJ is a testament to that. Starting as a small group of people I knew personally, many folks "friended" me after finding out I buy and sell cheese for a living. (and I’m glad you did!)

This attention however has changed the conference. Media passes? Enthusiasts willing to pay $450 out of pocket? Big corporate players wandering the aisle at the Festival of Cheese? It’s a brand new "artisan" cheese world.

Don’t read this as vitriol and denunciation. In some ways it was inevitable. And the popularity of hand made American cheese has enabled a whole bunch of folks to stay on the land instead of selling to agribusiness or housing developers. To me this year’s conference was a conference of growing pains. Considering there were about 25% more folks than last year I think the organization handled it extremely well, but the whole way through I kept getting a sense that this was the end of the intimate conference era. But hell, people were probably saying that when it got to 200 people and I showed up in 1999.

Still, it’s telling that the first thing a longtime cheese person said to me upon entering the hotel was about all the new faces and the opulence of the Hilton Portland. "We should divide this conference in two. Have this public event and festival for the networkers and then have an educational conference at some ugly college campus for those of us who really want to learn about cheese."

The conference is part schmooze fest, part seeing people I really care about. I live in the city and dairy farmers don’t so this is an excellent time to talk to people I only see once a year. Professionally, I need the networking to some extent too. I will leave the details murky but I get deals at this conference. Some of those aren’t even price deals, just having a cheesemaker agree to sell us some of their rare cheese.

It can be a little overwhelming. I didn’t get into the hotel before running into some nice folks who run a store in Utah. I met them a couple of years ago in a refrigerated warehouse during a distributor show in Oakland. Then there was the guy from the University of Vermont dairy program. Then the once local cheese importer who consults cheesemakers. It took about a half hour to get to the registration desk.

Luckily, this year I had no official role so I could take my time and not feel like I had to be somewhere at any given moment. There was an optional cruise around Portland that I wouldn’t dream of asking my co-op to pay for. Instead I went with the travel sisters to find beer and ended up at the Rock Bottom Brewery.

The seasonal beer was really good. None of the others really grabbed me but I wouldn’t spit any of them out either. Can you tell?

Gordon Cassey Sheana
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How many of you live in Portland? It seems like a lot.

and if you do live in Portland, how do you feel about cheese?

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