While the ACS conference is a great way to spend some time in a huge group of like minded cheese nerds, one of the best parts is the access to information that is everywhere. From tasting sessions to history lessons, the information is wildly dynamic and reaches a scope that everyone in the industry should find useful. It can be difficult because there are often concurrent sessions that you have to make the choice as to which one is more pertinent to your life/job/interest. I'm just going to talk about the ones I went to.
The Opening Session:
This is always a keynote speech during breakfast that kicks off the conference and sets the tone for the weekend. This year was no exception. Ari Weinzweig is widely known in the cheese world because he owns the empire that is Zingerman's in Ann Arbor, MI. This deli/cheese shop (now with a bakery, roastery, cheese making facility, catering, mail order, leadership training, etc. Basically, they do it all) is widely known to be one of the most unique stores in the country and a lot if it has to do with the fact that Ari is an innovative business man and does things a bit differently. Ari recently released his newest book called "The Power of Beliefs at Work" and it addresses how a positive belief system can change the atmosphere and end outcome in a place of business. Ari is a dynamic speaker and he is very keyed in to what people need in their businesses and in their lives. We had group exercises that we talked about what we believed or moreso, what we believed about ourselves and our businesses. It was an interesting exercise and one that I actually feel impacted me in a way I wasn't expecting. We all have a set of beliefs based on things that have occurred in our lives and sometimes those beliefs need to be shaken up and looked at again to make sure they are best serving us. This is what a lot of this was talking about and I'm honestly pretty interested in reading the book to learn more.
"All of us are in the same gutter but some of us are looking at the stars" Oscar Wilde
Session 1: Better Butter
Tasting sessions are everywhere during the conference and I usually don't partake in them because I don't drink. There are many that are pairing sessions with local cheeses and beers/wines. They sell out quickly and often have a lengthy line for people trying to get in.I'm more than happy to leave a place in line for those that are more interested in these sorts of tastings. I will say though, the butter tasting was the first thing I signed up for.
The session was run by Bob Bradley, PhD, from the Center for Dairy Research and Elaine Khosrova, author of Butter: A Rich History, due for release in November. It was an interesting take on the different ways of making butter. Elaine shared with us her travels of butter making from around the world. Small batch, cultured butters being churned by hand and cultured naturally whereas Bob showed us how industrial butter is produced and what producers are looking to make on a large scale basis. Then, we tasted butter. It was a blind tasting so we didn't know what we were sinking our teeth in to but the butters from the milk of sheep or goat were pretty obvious from the outset. It was immensely satisfying and even more so when I was able to pinpoint one of my favorite butters on the plate.
I actually scooped up the leftovers of my favorites in a cup because I couldn't bear for them to be wasted. I was seen walking around the conference with a cup of butter and I'm not sorry.
Yes, even at nerdy cheese events we get even nerdier. Zoe Brickley works for the Cellars of Jasper Hill in Vermont, who are a major source of scientific information in the cheese world. They have a microbiologist on staff and are committed to researching every aspect of microbiology in dairy and in the cheese making process. So much of that information can go over most people's heads, so this session was an addition to one she did last year where she broke down some of that scientific information in a way that was accessible to those of us that that are a bit more scientifically dense. This is not information that a customer would ever ask you about but the desire for more information is needed and desired by those of us in the industry. The Cellars are also on the front lines in any squabbles with the FDA because they have the science and ability to bring to light any unnecessary actions from the government agency. As nerdy cheese people, we want to know more also. It was a heady and intense session but thats why we were all there.
Improving Profits by Analyzing Data: Understanding All the Rules and When to Break Them:
Hosted by Hunter Fikes from DiBruno Bros in Philly, this session was all about how to maintain a cheese selection that appeals to consumers yet drives the passions of the mongers while still making a profit. It's a finely tuned balancing act that all cheese buyers play because if given the choice, most would buy artisanally crafted and small batch cheeses but we all know that most consumers balk at the price tag. Finding that balance can be tricky because sometimes our perceptions of what is selling is much different then what the numbers tell us. Using the data at our disposal, and some carefully crafted tricks, can make it easier for retailers to curate their selection in a way that makes those three cross sections find the perfect balance. Though I knew a lot of this information and have been using the practice for years, it stood as a great reminder to the industry that though we need the passion and drive in our mongers, we also need to be making money and giving consumers what they want.
General Session: FDA update
Lunch time saw a huge group of people in the room due to the fact that it was the annual update from the FDA. If you may not know, the cheese industry has taken some hits from the government agency and we, as an industry, are doing our best to work with them and help educate them to what we do. The artisanal cheese industry is still pretty new in the United States so the need to have this conversation is necessary. We all want the same thing, healthy and safe food for everyone. It can be frustrating when talking about microbes with a government agency because where we see flavor and biodiversity, they see sickness and danger.
The biggest take away from this was that the FDA is pausing testing of non-toxigenic e-coli in cheese, including raw milk cheese. This is huge because we've had issues getting imported cheese in the country (like Roquefort) due to this testing and some small companies have scrapped making their beloved seasonal cheese due to the possibility of the FDA coming in and deeming the product unsafe and destroying months worth of work. They determined that this testing did not prove that harmful e-coli would be present in testing the non-harmful strains. If you'd like to delve in to the specifics of the update, you can find them here. It was a quiet and somewhat tense lunch, though there were moments and outbursts of clapping and cheering, but the air afterwards felt light and wonderful. It is clear that all of our hard work in educating the FDA and the general public is working.
This was a panel talk from some people on the front lines of making things happen and how they gained (or are gaining) the capitol to build the enterprises of their dreams. Oliver Dameron and Sarah Dvorak from Mission Cheese in SF, Seana Doughty from Bleating Heart Cheese in Tomales, CA, and Elias Cairo from Olympia Provisions in Portland, OR, sat down for a very frank discussion about how to raise money and continue to get money for growth in an industry that isn't know for profitability. From crowd funding, to grants, and risky ventures in between, they really laid it on the line as to what you need to have to get the capitol to create the businesses you see today. It's not easy and most of the time you have to put everything and then some on the line to be able to get something off the ground. So many of us dream of starting something for ourselves but the realities of the situation can be very scary and overwhelming. It was an amazing conversation about the side of things that people don't often think about.
All Cultures Great and Small
Tom Perry was the DZTA recipient last year and this year he presented his session after months of travel and research. DZTA is the Daphne Zepos Teaching Award and it is a grant that is given to people to learn and to educate others on the history, culture, and techniques in making, aging, or selling of cheese. Tom is the third recipient and his presentation was all about the cultures that cheese makers use to craft and flavor their cheese. Nearly all of these cultures come from abroad and he posed the question about how terroir (the taste of place) in the US is affected by using microbes created elsewhere and what it would look like to start creating our own microbes here. Studying abroad and seeing what they do poses so many questions for us here at home. How will we create a terroir based solely on microbes harvested from our own areas? Where/how do we even begin to do this? What would this look like and better yet, what would this TASTE like? Once again, another heady and nerdy subject, but one that I'm excited to see explored.
Closing Keynote with Sandor Katz:
This year we had the pleasure of bringing Sandor Katz to give our first ever closing keynote. Sandor is widely known in the food world due to his books and lectures about fermentation. He considers himself a Fermentation Revivalist. We've seen so much growth and popularity in the realm of fermentation in the last few years. Kim Chi, sauerkraut, kombucha, and the old classics, beer, wine, and cheese are more popular than ever before. Sandor has helped spurn this along with his book Wild Fermentation. I feel like Sandor was a great way to end everything. We talk a lot about cleanliness and sanitation throughout conference, which is extremely important, but it was nice to see such a focus on microbes and how they benefit and are instrumental to our industry. Learning how to harness those microbes and make them work for us is exciting, crazy, and wonderful. Sandor helped remind us of that.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the sessions that happen at this sort of conference. There were at least 3-4 concurrent sessions going the entire time. I also took Saturday morning off from conference so I could go and enjoy Des Moines farmer's market, which was just as wonderful as everyone said it would be. I was a little bummed I was leaving the next day so I couldn't stock up on lots of goodies.
If you are at all interested in the full line up of sessions offered this last year, head over to the American Cheese Society website for all the info. They also offer webinars and updates around all things cheese.
Conference, to me, is the time where we all get to come together and share in this slice of thing that we love. It's not a sales event, though sales meetings do happen. It's more about camaraderie and education. I'm fortunate that I get to meet so many people and learn so much every year I'm a part of this world.
My focus on the ACS conference is far from over though. Next up: PARTY TIME. Cheese people know how and love to party. I also still need to talk about the Festival of Cheese! And the awards ceremony! And the DZTA run! So much happens in the course of a week!