Honor Society - The American Cheese Society
In 1983, Dr. Frank Kosikowski founded the American Cheese Society (ACS) with a simple mission: To support the craft of home and farm cheesemakers at a time when factory-made cheese filled the American market. A professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, Kosikowski gathered his post-doctoral candidates, fellow teachers, and cheesemaking friends into a grassroots organization aimed at promoting an appreciation of these handmade cheeses.
The First Annual ACS conference was held in Ithaca in June of the same year, and played host to 150 small-scale and home cheesemakers, retailers, cheese enthusiasts, and renowned academics. According to Christine Hyatt, founder of Cheese Chick LLC of Beaverton, Oregon, a boutique cheese education and marketing company, and an ACS board member who helped put together a historical documentary on the organization for its twenty-fifth anniversary last year, “Those early years were really about getting the message out and encouraging people to embrace foods they weren’t familiar with.”
In 1985, the ACS organized its first competition, along with a mini cheese festival, at the Third Annual Conference; it featured 89 cheeses by 30 cheesemakers in 7 categories. One of these was Paula Lambert, founder of the Mozzarella Company in Dallas, Tex., who entered the competition upon the urging of a friend. She recalls, “After the conference, I got an envelope in the mail. I opened it, and all these ribbons fell out.” It was a turning point for Lambert, and for the hundreds of cheesemakers who would follow in her footsteps. “It really gave validity to what I was doing,” she explains.
By 1987, word of mouth had spread. The Fifth Annual Conference in Boston included 170 contest entries, as well as the ACS’s first cheese sale and auction, and attracted strong press coverage. Unfortunately, a year after this triumph, founding father Kosikowski became ill, and the organization went through a brief decline.
The cheese community rallied, and by the mid-1990s, the ACS was back on solid footing. It helped move more American cheeses—everything from traditional varieties such as Monterey Jack to European-style Goudas, Cotijas, and fetas—into the mainstream marketplace. The group even organized an educational trip to Greece in 1996, which proved an influential learning experience for many members.
But the ACS knew changes were needed in order to avoid stagnancy. In the early 2000s, the group redefined its mission statement and hired a management company to create a more defined, professional structure. The ACS also became an advocate by forming the Cheese of Choice Coalition, which concentrated on the preservation of raw-milk cheeses and affecting agricultural policy making.
With renewed efforts on educating the public about the quality and variety of American artisanal cheeses, between 2003 and 2008, the ACS experienced a period of explosive growth, doubling its membership (now more than 1,400) and competition entries. A better reputation in the marketplace also meant that many of the ACS’s cheesemaker members underwent their own growth, with their businesses becoming profitable instead of simply viable.
Recent years have put a premium on the annual conferences, which not only provide valuable networking opportunities for cheesemakers and retailers, but also offer educational tracks on everything from using rennet to marketing the finished product. Many cheesemakers credit the conferences with exponential improvement in their products. “I’ve learned so much just meeting all these other cheesemakers,” Lambert offers. “It’s impossible to go to a Cheese Society conference and not absorb tons of information.”
Despite the current economic downturn, this year, the ACS surpassed its 2008 numbers in both cheesemakers and conference attendees. The 2009 Annual Conference in Austin, Texas, was the stage for more than 1,300 competition entries, 600 participants, and hundreds of volunteers. “I am continually surprised by how many dynamic, passionate people have been involved over the years,” says Hyatt. “I’m amazed at how much everyone is willing to give in support of cheese.”
The ACS is now focused on acting as a mouthpiece for the American artisanal cheese movement, helping to educate the public, policy makers, and regulatory authorities, and providing constructive input for cheesemakers in order to help their products take their rightful place on the world stage.
“We really want to be an advocate and take the cheese more mainstream,” says Hyatt. “And we want to answer the question of why it’s important to know where your cheese comes from and who makes it. In this way, we can also be an advocate of locally based economics, which is extremely important.” Dr. Kosikowski would no doubt agree. As the ACS celebrates 26 years of cheesemaking advocacy, his mission stands strong.
Click to learn more about judging this competition.