September is that time when the summer heat begins to dissipate, when people become suddenly excited about impending autumn and pumpkin spice lattes, and when the cheesemakers of Washington State come together for their yearly expo.
The Washington Artisan Cheesemakers Festival, which is held annually in the Seattle Design Center, gives people the chance to eat their fill on samples of cheese and things that go with cheese, taste beer, wine, and cider, and meet the people whose hard work makes all of these edible wonders possible.
Last year I did a write-up of the festival as a first-time attendee. Since the festival happens every year, just like Halloween, Thanksgiving, and New Years, I decided to make my pilgrimage—and the accompanying write-up—an annual affair.
In 2016, my strategy for approaching the 26 cheesemakers’ booths and 11 pairing booths was to try everything being sampled out at every table, in clockwise order as I moved around the room. And on top of that, I attended the seminar that ran right through the middle of the four-hour festival (and coincided with the end of the ice cream samples that ran out before I had a chance to try them, RIP). It was a lot to accomplish in what is actually not very much time.
This year, as a seasoned veteran, I attended the festival on September 9 alongside my earliest cheese mentor (an even more seasoned veteran). Her recommendation was only to try things that I hadn’t tried before. There were only 23 cheesemakers’ booths this year, with 14 pairing booths. And yet, that is still a lot to pick through for new things to taste.
It’s worth pointing out that the numbers don’t reflect a decline in artisanal cheesemaking in Washington State. Even though there were three fewer cheesemakers’ booths at the festival, this year’s Washington cheese map points out 68 creameries across the state, compared to 69 last year. That’s a difference of one, with some lost and some gained over the course of the year. Not bad, really.
It’s also worth noting that before the festival began, we had actually attended the Washington State Cheesemakers Association general meeting, a fitting warm-up for the celebration of those same people’s artisan cheeses.
The meeting room was full of cheesemakers and people who support them (retailers, distributors, government administrators, and safety testing professionals, for example). Anyone who supports the work of Washington’s cheesemakers—whether by selling their products or by eating them—can actually join the organization or volunteer to help them out.
The group does a lot of work each year to promote Washington’s cheeses (of course) and educate the public about them. The association’s incoming president, Dan Wavrin of Ferndale Farmstead Cheese, talked about Washington being one of the top-five “cheese states” in the country, on par with Wisconsin, Vermont, and California.
Regardless of whether or not we’re at that point yet, there are a lot of people working very hard to create beautiful cheeses so that we can all eat them and be happy. So it was fun to be a part of seeing those people discuss the coming year’s plans—and to be called upon for advice!
I sat on a panel at the meeting with two other Seattle cheesemongers, Elle Gaarder of PCC Natural Markets and Rosie Shestak of DeLaurenti Food & Wine. The cheesemakers had a list of 12 questions for us, burning questions about what they can do more of, do better, or what their consumers really want.
They were especially interested in how people view Washington cheeses (favorably, of course!), how to get more people more excited about their local cheeses (education!), and what types of cheeses are missing in our cases (locally? Aged goat’s milk cheeses, washed-rind cheeses, a Washington cheese for every category of the case).
It was neat to be on the hot seat in front of all the cheesemakers, who are usually the rockstars for us cheesemongers, and then to go out into the expo room and sample their cheeses.
My favorites this year were actually some new-to-me treats from some of the cheesemakers whose cheeses I already loved.
I was very excited about Tieton Farm & Creamery’s Black Pearl, which PCC’s booth was actually sampling out in a cheese-and-cider pairing with Snowdrift Cider Co.’s Red Cider, which I loved on its own and with the cheese.
I also got very, very excited about Cascadia Creamery’s Celilo, which is an organic, semi-soft, raw cow’s milk cheese washed with Bainbridge Distillers’ Heritage Doug Fir Gin. It was meaty, fudgy, and nutty, not too funky, and just all-around yummy.
Laurel’s Crown brought in a new version of their Badger Blue this year, this time smoked by Cured of Leavenworth, Washington. While the smokiness wasn’t consistent from wheel to wheel, the cheese still had a sharp spiciness to it that makes the cheese a good candidate to compete with (but never replace!) Rogue Creamery’s more sultry, beefy Smokey Blue.
Lakewolf Creamery brought a host of Mexican-style cheeses, and I definitely took home a wedge of their red pepper-finished Queso Enchilado, which they sampled out fried in butter. (Seriously, how could I not?)
Speaking of butter, I am always and forever a fan of Cherry Valley Dairy’s award-winning, amazing, divine butters. I consider myself lucky to have scored a four-ounce gray salt butter before the festival shop sold out.
Acme Farms Cheese brought a new Camembert to the table this year, and it was mild, creamy, and pretty darn good. Good enough, that is, that it won third-place in the People’s Choice Award competition.
Cascadia Creamery’s Glacier Blue (one of my personal favorites) won second place, and Tieton’s Rheba took home the first place award.
Tieton just can do no wrong, which is fine by me. Rheba, which is a sheep and goat Reblochon-style softie, is complex and luxurious on the tongue. But I was more excited about the aforementioned Black Pearl (which I brought home with me) and about Velvet, another washed-rind, goat-and-sheep softie, this one washed in pear brandy.
There were plenty of other wonderful cheeses, and I’m sure I missed some good ones, too.
Pairings not to be forgotten, I cannot implore you enough, if you are ever in the position to do so, to get your hands on some of Beeworks Farm’s Mt. Baker honey. I bought a jar last year; I bought a jar this year. Never have I in my life wanted to eat honey by itself—until I tasted this high-altitude honey, which is made by bees feasting on Alpine flowers at 3,400 feet up.
The Troubador Baker is also worth naming. We sold tons of their Smoked Paprika Coins and Semolina Nigella Biscuits (read: savory cookies) when I worked at the Admiral Metropolitan Market. I can never pass up an opportunity to buy the Paprika Coins, and they also hooked me at the festival with their Turkish Hot Chocolate and Spiced Chai mixes. (I sense some unconventional pairings in the future!)
As for the boozy side of things, two beers spoke to me the loudest at the festival: Sound Brewery’s Abbey-style Dubbel, and Mollusk Brewery’s Orange Milkshake Ale. (Yeah, you got that right: Milkshake.) I can imagine myself sipping the Dubbel with some of Cascadia Creamery’s Celilo and Sawtooth, or Tieton’s Velvet and Rheba (washed rinds!), and I see the Orange Milkshake Ale creating an interesting pairing with a soft, clean chèvre like the ones from Gothberg Farms and bright newcomer Harbor Home Farm.
At the end of the day, most of these Washington cheeses, brews, and pairings are likely only available in Washington and maybe in Oregon, so you’ll have to travel to enjoy them if you don’t already live here. (Not a bad proposition, I’ll say.) And for many of them, distribution doesn’t go much further than the farm’s own shop or local farmers’ markets, so you’ll have to get down to the local scene to find the rarest of local gems.
But there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it stretches us to find new ways of discovering foods to enjoy, stumbling across something exciting in a place we didn’t expect. And for those other times, we are lucky to have an event like the Washington Artisan Cheesemakers Festival to really showcase the great things happening in Washington cheese.
No matter where you live, you should always support your local cheesemakers. The end.