Cheese conference coming to Pittsburgh in 2018

Pittsburgh has the moniker Smoky City that is so outdated, it ought to be retired. How about adopting something more with the times such as Cheese City?

Before you go, “Huh?” consider the fact that the cheese cognoscenti will be descending on town when the esteemed American Cheese Society brings its annual conference here next summer.

The nonprofit group, which just wrapped up its 2017 conference in Denver, initially used to hold the annual gathering in San Francisco, New York and the Midwest. But in recent years it has sought out Des Moines, Iowa, Burlington, Vt., Raleigh, N.C., and Montreal.

So how did Pittsburgh get on the list?

“We look at the logistical issues,” says executive director Nora Weiser. “We bring five 55-foot refrigerator trucks, and we have 1,400 members, and so we need a convention center. We look at cost. And our members are from the surrounding states, and so Pittsburgh is convenient to get to for our constituents.”

She added that the host city does not need to be cheese-related but should have an active food scene, and Pittsburgh fits the bill. The conference will be held July 25-28, 2018, at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown.

ACS was founded in 1983 by Cornell University to help in understanding the technical, artistic and scientific process of making better artisan cheeses. Two years later, it began holding a competition for the best cheeses and dairy products in which little-known farms as well as famed dairy producers from the U.S. began participating. Today it has grown to include four Canadian provinces, Mexico and Colombia. The number of categories at the contest also has grown in the 32 years to keep up with the shifting trends. For instance, sheep’s milk and mixed or other milks are recent adds because of the sheer number of entries. In Denver, there were 2,024 entries for 123 categories from 281 producers — a 10 percent jump from 2016.

At every contest, ACS goes back to its founding tenet of giving positive recognition to cheeses that have the highest aesthetic and technical quality. In some respects it is more than just a contest as experts talk to contestants about their cheese and how it can be improved. Judges not only assess minute details of the cheese but also its visual appeal, mouthfeel, aroma and technical aspects. Each category has two judges — the technical judge deducts points for the flaws while the aesthetic one adds points for positive attributes.

ACS also offers a scholarship to a chef to attend the conference for free. Anyone — be it an up-and-coming chef or a pro — can apply for it.

“But ideally, we would like it to be someone local,” Ms. Weiser says.

The three-day event in Pittsburgh will culminate with a cheese festival, which is open to the public. It will feature all the cheeses that were judged and foods that can be paired with cheeses such as charcuterie, chocolate, jams and breads.

Ms. Weiser says the show cannot go on without volunteers, and ACS is looking for people to sign up in Pittsburgh.

“It’s a great way for them to explore and taste cheeses that they have never seen before,” she says. Also, volunteers will get a free ticket to the cheese festival.

Arthi Subramaniam:, 412-263-1494 or on Twitter @arthisub.


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