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Nov. 24, 2020 – The American Artisanal Cheese Industry is defined by hints of European inspiration but is flourishing on its own at a level few outside culinary circles realize. Sheri Allen, American Cheese Society (ACS) Certified Cheese Professional (CCP), ACS Certified Cheese Sensory Evaluator (CCSE), owner of Artisanal Touch Events and Professional Member of Confrérie de la Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, travels the globe to experience the cultural and culinary intricacies of artisanal, farmstead and specialty cheeses as only an expert can do.

Some of her travels are nearby. Just a short excursion from her home base north of Salt Lake City is Rogue Creamery, a Certified “B” Corp,* near Medford, Oregon. Founded in 1933, the creamery makes organic Rogue River Blue Cheese, one of its many blue cheese and cheddar varieties. Produced seasonally around the Autumnal Equinox when milk from their grazed cows is the richest, Rogue River Blue Cheese is the first American-made cheese to be named World Champion, earning that prestigious honor at the 2019 World Cheese Awards held in Bergamo, Italy, Sheri said to Chaîne during a Nov. 20, 2020 phone interview.

“It’s incredibly expensive but it’s worth every penny and it’s worth every bite. It’s my favorite Blue. I absolutely adore it,” Sheri said. At a 2019 event she planned, she paired the Rogue River Blue with a sweet Riesling. “Blue cheese is a great pairing with any kind of sweet Riesling, sweet dessert wine or Port, something with some body and richness and mouthfeel to it.”

Last June (photo below) Sheri conducted a virtual cheese-only tasting for all Chaîne members. The event was so successful Sheri orchestrated a wine and cheese pairing event in October for Chaîne members. Janie Brooks Heuck from Brooks Winery of Amity, Oregon, an award winning winery in the Willamette Valley, joined Sheri for the well received virtual pairing event. With experience near and far, Sheri is an integral part of the burgeoning artisanal cheese industry in the United States.

Since 2013, sales of artisanal/specialty cheeses have increased 15 percent to more than 4 billion dollars, the top category of specialty foods, according to the ACS and the Specialty Food Association. There are nearly 1,000 artisan and specialty cheesemakers in the United States. While every state is home to a community of artisanal cheesemakers, Wisconsin, California and New England, especially Vermont, are the three top regions for production, Sheri explained.

ACS Definitions
What is the difference between artisan, farmstead and specialty cheese? The following are ACS definitions as stated on their website.

Artisan
The cheese is produced primarily by hand, in small batches, with particular attention paid to the tradition of the cheesemaker’s art, and thus using as little mechanization as possible in the production of the cheese.

Farmstead
The cheese must be primarily made by hand with milk from the farmer’s own herd, or flock, on the farm where the animals are raised. Milk used in the production of farmstead cheeses may not be obtained from any outside source. Care and attention must be paid to the purity, quality, and flavor of the milk. The cheese must be ripened naturally, with emphasis on development of characteristic flavor and texture and without the use of shortcuts and techniques to increase yield and shelf life at the expense of quality. Respect for the traditions and history of cheesemaking are expected regardless of the size of the production.

Specialty
Specialty cheese is defined as a cheese of limited production, with particular attention paid to natural flavor and texture profiles.

This knowledge is just a tiny fraction of the tip of the iceberg there is to learn about cheeses and cheesemaking.

With more than 12 years dedicated solely to the artisanal cheese industry, Sheri is deep into the iceberg of knowledge about the hundreds of families and types of cheeses.

Sheri (above photo) completed an affinage internship in France with renowned affineur Herve’ Mons. Sheri is in an aging cave washing wheels of French Sheep Milk Cheese. (Photo: Courtesy of Sheri Allen)

She began her career in the late 1990s when she was employed at a food brokerage and then in 2008, she went to work for a specialty cheese importer. In 2014, she learned of ACS’s new certification as a cheese professional, the Certified Cheese Professional (CCP), which requires 4,000 hours of experience in order to apply to take the certification test, a three-hour test with 150 questions. After studying for one year, she traveled to Rhode Island to take the test. Administered by the same testing company that administers the Bar Exam to law students, Sheri found herself socializing with law students in a bar after taking her test. When asked if she took the Bar Exam, she replied she took “the Bar Exam for Cheese.” Needless to say, she received a few quizzical looks.

Of 500 people who took the Bar Exam for Cheese in 2015, 55 percent passed. Sheri was one of them.

In 2015, she went out on her own as the founder of Artisanal Touch Events.

In 2018, she was asked to take the test for a new ACS certification – Certified Cheese Sensory Evaluator (CCSE). Fifty people took the test during which they were given 12 cheeses to evaluate and 10 glasses of milk with aromas they had to identify. Sheri was one of 30 who passed.

Sheri said to think of her as a Master Sommelier for cheese. “I think cheese education is up and coming. A lot of people know their wines but they don’t really know their cheeses.”

She plans and participates in a myriad of events from cheese-only tastings, cheese pairings with wine, spirits or beer, and cheese education to pass on some of her extensive knowledge and experience.

In 2018, she toured northern Italy with the global cheese buyer for Whole Foods. She visited a Gorganzola cheesemaker, a cheesemaker who uses thistle as the rennet for curdling, and the area’s well known Parmigiano-Reggiano production where copper vats hold enough cheese to make two, 90-pound wheels.

As an educator with the U.S. Dairy Export Council, Sheri created the training curriculum manual for the USA Cheese Specialist Certification Program for Retail Professionals and has traveled twice to the Middle East in that capacity.

With her global perspective, she encourages Americans to think of cheese as a daily part of the diet and not merely a food for a cheese board at a holiday party. In Europe, cheese is the final course. A little nibble goes a long way. “I don’t eat a lot of cheese. I taste a lot of cheese. There’s a difference,” Sheri said.

Sheri recommends getting to know a cheesemonger. “Make your cheesemonger at your local retailer your best friend because they are usually very knowledgeable and can help direct people to trying different things,” Sheri said.

Three farmstead cheesemakers Sheri mentioned surely are on the radar of their local cheesemongers. They are: Marieke Gouda of Thorp, Wisconsin; Veldhuizen Cheese of Dublin, Texas; and Sweet Grass Dairy of Thomasville, Georgia.

Marieke Penterman’s husband emigrated from the Netherlands to Wisconsin in 2002 to start a dairy farm. Marieke followed one year later. Missing Dutch cheese, she is the founder of Marieke Gouda. In 2006 shortly after producing her first batch of Gouda, Marieke Gouda won a gold award and in 2013, her Gouda was named United States Grand Champion.

There are always surprises around the corner for Sheri. While most people do not think of Texas as an artisan cheesemaking center, she recently received samples from Veldhuizen Cheese of Dublin, Texas and was very impressed. Begun in 2000, the company recently added cheese made from sheep’s milk.

Sweet Grass Dairy of Thomasville, Georgia is a farmstead cheesemaker started in 2000 by Jeremy and Jessica Little. On their website, they say cheesemaking is equal parts art and science. With just four ingredients – milk, salt, rennet and cultures – more than 900 types of cheese can be made, they explain. Because of Georgia’s climate, Sheri said Sweet Grass Dairy cows can graze 365 days a year.

With so many wonderful options for artisan cheeses that can be purchased online, the holidays provide an opportunity to broaden one’s palate beyond the basics to develop a new outlook on cheese as a daily treat, suitable even for dessert. “It’s a wonderful way to be,” Sheri said.

Meet Sheri

Sheri will be a panelist on Dec. 1, 2020 at “Four Cocktails and Cheese for the Holidays,” a virtual event hosted by Michael Landis, ACS CCP, ACS CCSP. Click in to watch Sheri’s pairing of a Liquid Bourbon Ball cocktail with Beehive Cheese “Pour Me A Slice.” That sounds like just the ticket for these challenging times! The event is free but registration is required.

Sheri is available for Chaîne in-person or virtual events. She can be contacted at 801-699-0440 or email: artisanaltouchevents@gmail.com.

*A “B” Corp is a company that has met specific guidelines for community and sustainability.

Links

American Cheese Society

Brooks Winery (Oregon)

Rogue Creamery (Oregon)

Marieke Gouda (Wisconsin)

Veldhuizen Cheese (Texas)

Sweet Grass Dairy (Georgia)

Beehive Cheese (Utah)

 

 

 

 

 

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