Running the Numbers

Red Hawk

Which cheese will take Best of Show in the American Cheese Society’s annual competition this week? We’ll know soon enough (award ceremony is July 31 in Sacramento), but in the interim, I gathered some stats on prior winners. Could the judges’ past preferences help us predict who might get the gold?

I’ve judged several times (including this year) so thought I had some inkling about what the critics liked. But some of the data surprised me.

The competition began in the mid 1980s but record-keeping was spotty in the early days, so the archives confirm only 25 Best of Shows to date.

Among those winners, here are some stats to ponder.
Goat’s milk cheeses: 6 (more than I thought)
Sheep’s milk cheeses: 4
Blue cheeses: 5 (another surprise)
State tally: California (6); Wisconsin (6); Vermont (5)
Repeat winners: 4

Those over-achieving repeaters were Westfield Farm’s Hubbardston Blue, Yerba Santa Shepherd’s Wheel, Upland Cheese Company’s Pleasant Ridge Reserve (three times!) and Rogue Creamery’s Rogue River Blue.

Certainly winning becomes more prestigious and meaningful every year, as the competition swells—from fewer than 90 entries initially to 1,800 last year. The Best of Show, selected from all the blue-ribbon winners, tends to be an aged cheese—probably because judges want to honor the skill that goes into bringing a wheel to maturity. But Franklin Peluso’s supple Teleme, a relatively young, semisoft cow’s milk cheese, took the top medal once, so we can’t rule out a winner from the fresh ranks.

Once the Best of Show is announced, practically every cheese shop in the country wants some. I’ll be lining up, too, because I hope to secure some for my World Cheese Tour class on October 7. I’ll definitely be serving other blue-ribbon category winners, so you can get an overview of the best American cheese making today.