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American Cheese Society 2013 Conference starts in Madison, Wisconsin

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The American Cheese Society kicked off their 2013 conference today in Madison, Wisconsin. This year’s conference marks the ACS’ 30th anniversary, with the theme “In a Dairy State of Mind.” Wisconsin has been America’s Dairyland for more than 100 years, making it a fitting venue for this year’s event.

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Although the official starting date of the conference is tomorrow, August 1st, a series of “pre-events” for attendees provided a day of classes, including a cheesemaking demonstration for flavored cheeses, and another focused on food safety in artisan cheesemaking. A series of tours covered the heart and soul of Wisconsin (at least for some of us): Cheese and beer!

I participated in the Classic Wisconsin Cheesemaker tour, which visited three of my favorite cheesemakers: Roelli Cheese in Shullsburg, Hook’s Cheese in Mineral Point, and Bleu Mont Dairy near Blue Mounds. At each stop, participants were treated to a session with the cheesemakers, who gave a tour of their facilities and spoke of their passion for their particular cheeses.

Our first stop was Roelli, hosted by cheesemaker Chris Roelli. Their facility has been in the same family and location for generations, since Chris’ great-grandfather came over from Europe to settle. The family cheese operation went into hiatus due to economic conditions some years ago, but Chris was determined to restart the cheesemaking operation, and did! Initially, their cheeses were made at their current location, then aged in Blue Mont Dairy’s aging cave. Roelli finally built their own facility, and now make and age their cheeses on-site. Roelli makes two of my favorite cheeses: Dunbarton Blue and Red Hook.

Next on our route was Hook’s Cheese, hosted by cheesemaker Tony Hook. Their facility in Mineral Point is surprisingly small for the 30 varieties of cheese that they produce but it obviously works well, as they have garnered numerous awards. Just past the production vats, we gathered around tables of Hook’s Original Blue, freshly curing in the molds. Tony offered a rare treat for our group: tastes of his 10- and 12-year old cheddars. He claims to have one coming up on 15 years, still tasting pretty good.

Our final cheesemaker stop was at Willi Lehner’s Bleu Mont Dairy, near Blue Mounds. Lehner took the extreme step of constructing his own below-ground aging caves to better manage the environment so critical to making great cheese. Lehner comes from a family of Swiss cheesemakers, and that influence shows in his work. His Bandaged Cheddar is rich and complex, and his Alpine Renegade creamy and delicious. Lehner doesn’t make his cheeses on-site, instead using local facilities to make the cheese, then returning it to his aging cave to mature.

Our bonus stop was a beer-and-cheese pairing at The Grumpy Troll Brewpub in Mount Horeb. There, our intrepid (but tired) group was treated to six of the Troll’s custom beers paired with six delicious Wisconsin cheeses. Turns out that beer works quite well with cheese – maybe even better than wine!

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