Best of Show: Beecher's Handmade Cheese, Flagsheep (First Place ACS 2012)
He was sitting on the tarmac waiting for his connecting flight to take off when the competition results were announced. “I was getting texts from people at the awards show saying that we got blue ribbons for Flagsheep and Marco Polo,” he says. “I was about to turn my phone off when I got a text saying, ‘Flagsheep, Best in Show.’ I wrote back, ‘Are you kidding me?’” But this enormous achievement was no joke. “How can you hope for best in show when you know there are more than 1,700 cheeses entered?” Dammeier asks. “We are so lucky and proud.”
Dammeier opened Beecher’s Handmade Cheese at Seattle’s Pike Place Market in 2003 with nothing but a background in cooking and a love of cheese. Since that beginning he has steadily grown the company; now Beecher’s crafts 18 different cheeses at locations in two major cities. Flagsheep is one of his more recent creations. Made with cow’s and sheep’s milk, the cheese has a cheddar-like texture and great depth of flavor. A taste yields caramel sweetness and notes of hazelnuts and cellar. “Of all the cheeses we make, this is one of my very, very favorites,” he says. Obviously, the judges thought so, too.
Flagsheep is the result of Dammeier’s lifelong love of sheep’s milk cheese. “From the beginning I have always been a fan of Bellwether Farms’ San Andreas, and I wanted to make a cheese like that,” he explains. “A mixed milk cheese sounded cool, and sheep’s milk is so expensive that mixing it with cow’s milk made it more affordable.” Beecher’s sources its sheep’s milk from the Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Cooperative and locally from Willapa Hills Cheese in Washington. Each batch of Flagsheep is made with 66 percent cow’s milk and 33 percent sheep’s milk. The milks are pasteurized and inoculated with a blend of cultures. The curds are cheddared, milled, salted, then molded into 18-pound truckles (cylinders) and bound in cloth. Each cheese is rubbed with butter and aged for at least 18 months.
Dammeier entered Flagsheep in the ACS competition last year, and although it didn’t win any ribbons, it came very close, and the judges’ comments were helpful. “I got the form back, and they had taken three points off for mold spots on the bandaged rind. It gave me insight into the fact that the judges really like the flavor of the cheese,” he says, indicating that the problem was aesthetic. When asked if he has high hopes for next year’s competition, Dammeier says, “I want to bask in the glow of this win rather than think about next year.” While basking, he may be found snacking on Flagsheep. “I like the idea of pairings, but when I’m eating my favorite cheeses, I like just a cheese board and knife. Cut it with the knife, grab it with my fingers, and nibble on it.”
photos by Krystal Kast and Nick Pironio