The rise of Southern cheesemakers | Food Feature | Indy Week
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The rise of Southern cheesemakers 

Alexander Kast recalls a day at Neal's Yard Dairy in London when he sold nearly 7,000 pounds—three-and-a-half tons—of cheese. "That's obviously an incredibly, incredibly busy day," he says, sitting in the lobby of the Raleigh Convention Center. "But think about that. That's kind of nuts."

It is nuts, especially if you try to imagine that kind of volume in the United States, where cheese is rarely sold by the wheel or half wheel, as is often done in Europe. It becomes even more difficult to visualize in the American South, where warm climates have long hampered widespread cheese-making traditions from taking root.

In recent years, however, that's changed, as Kast's presence at the convention center indicates. Kast, who runs the cheese counter at A Southern Season, was selected to serve as one of two official cheesemongers for the American Cheese Society's 29th annual conference and competition held Aug. 1–4 in Raleigh.

In that role, he was in charge of copious amounts of artisan, farmstead and specialty cheeses from America, Canada and Mexico, squashing his record day at Neal's Yard.

In a chilled ground-floor space of the convention center, he worked alongside the conference's second cheesemonger, Rachel Perez of San Francisco, to oversee, care for and prepare cheeses that filled almost three tractor-trailers.

On Saturday evening, the festival took over a ballroom with 14 tables devoted to different styles—from American originals to feta, cheddar, washed rind and smoked cheeses. Some 1,700 platters were presented with portioned samples. Scattered between were (thankfully) an array of crackers, grapes and dried fruits to cleanse the palate. It was too much to contain or consume. Cheese cubes toppled to the floor, where they were smeared and smashed onto the patterned carpet.

"You're never going to see so many varieties of cheese in one room," said Rebecca Sherman, marketing and communications manger for ACS.

Admittedly, the society's decision to choose Raleigh was curious. "It's a city without an actual cheese shop," Kast explains.

But to hold the convention in the region was a good fit. "We have a pretty tight community in North Carolina," he says. "And we have a growing community in the Southeast."

Kate Elia, who manages the cheese program at Wine Authorities in Durham, agrees. "I thought it definitely showed that Southern cheese is making progress by the fact that [the conference] came here."

Patrick Coleff of Reliable Cheese in Durham adds, saying, "Southern cheesemakers are just now coming into their own. There's not this huge history of it here like in New York and Vermont."

Increased access to refrigeration allowed the industry to grow. And holding the conference in the Triangle, Coleff says, "put the spotlight on a lot of our local cheesemakers."

More than 800 members of the society—from cheesemongers to cheesemakers, and from distributors to writers—attended the event, which included lectures, tastings and tours of the Triangle. Participants visited the Carrboro Farmers Market, Chapel Hill Creamery, A Southern Season, Fullsteam brewery, Bull City Burger and Brewery and Reliable Cheese Company before settling into a series of talks held in Raleigh.

There, alongside heavy hitters in the cheese industry such as Max McCalman of Artisanal Premium Cheese Center in New York, many locals made presentations. David Auerbach of North Carolina State University helped lead a tasting session devoted to fermented foods. Steve Tate of Goat Lady Dairy, who was on three panels, discussed planning, seasonality and the recruitment of a new generation of cheesemakers. Colin Bedford of Fearrington House, along with Portia McKnight of Chapel Hill Creamery and Jay Pierce of Lucky 32, discussed local food.

"People were wowed at what's going on [in this area]," says Coleff, adding that many people who attended the convention also visited his shop.

Coleff saw the conference as an opportunity to "meet cheesemakers on my home turf that I work with." That was the case for many locals, who were able to find many of North America's best cheeses and cheesemakers in one place.

"For me, it was just great to be in that cheese world and see how serious it was," says Susan Rains, who works as a guide for Taste of Carolina and volunteered for three shifts at the conference.

Matthew Glassman, an IT analyst at UNC-Chapel Hill, was also among the volunteers. He prepared cheeses for Saturday evening's capstone Festival of Cheese, where winning cheeses were presented among hundreds of varieties entered into competition. From the experience, Glassman says he learned "different types of cheeses, how to tell what kind of rind it has, and how to tell how old a cheese is." After hours of working with huge chunks of cheddar and various knives and wires, he also kids, "I learned that breaking down cheese is not something I want to do regularly."

At the festival, attendees stretched over the American originals table to chisel their own hunk from a 16-pound drum of Beecher's Flagsheep—a semi-firm sheep and cow's milk clothbound cheddar from Seattle that took best of show.

At a table nearby, there was nothing left of Goat Lady Dairy's Smoked Round, save for a blue ribbon and a few smeared bits of the tangy goat milk cheese. The North Carolina dairy was one of several regional winners that included four Tar Heel varieties. The Smoked Round took first place in the smoked cheeses open category (goat, sheep or mixed milk). Another North Carolina winner included the ashen Ellington by Looking Glass Creamery of Asheville, which garnered second place in the soften ripened cheeses open category (sheep's milk).

Elia admired those winners along with co-workers from Wine Authorities, including owner Craig Heffley. They had come to sample some of the top selections of North American cheese. And the high marks for regional cheesemakers didn't surprise them. "I couldn't agree more with the results," Elia said.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Finding their whey."

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