I’ve lost track of how many ACS conferences I have attended. I pretty sure I have attended every one not on the East Coast since 1999. Almost universally, they have been awesome experiences that have taught me innumerable things about cheese and introduced me to people I otherwise might never have met.
Back when I first started going, there were only about 300 people attending the conferences but still, I didn’t know anyone except for a handful of California cheesemakers. While I am sometimes good about faking it, I am actually kind of shy by nature, so I am humbly going to attempt to produce a guide that I would have found useful back in the day.
I’m sure this advice will be weighted to the independent urban retailer, but hopefully others will find it helpful as well. I have never had obligatory parties to attend* or – except when the conference was in Cotati and San Francisco – co-workers to divide the day with so I’ve always had to figure out how to get the most of the events on my own. I’m sure I can’t come up with everything so, Cheese Folks, feel free to add suggestions in the comments.
1. Say Hi and Introduce Yourself.
I know this is basic, but this is what the conference is for. Talk to strangers. ACS has really made this easier with both the “Meet the Cheesemaker” and “New Attendees” events. Even meeting a cheesemaker for a few minutes means that they may remember you if you call for advice or to warn them that there is something odd about a wheel you just received. Plus. This is a small world. You may see them at an event 6 months down the line where you are the only cheese people in a crowd of wine snobs and food bloggers and you will need each other for support. I have started lifelong friendships by things like striking up a conversation while waiting to wash my hands in the bathroom.
2. But Don’t Be Creepy
Cheesemakers are the rock stars of our world. Like teenager groupies, we extol their every effort behind our cheese counters. Saying something concrete about how you admire their work is awesome. “I really think your cheese has a complexity that people aren’t appreciating enough.” Asking questions is awesome, “So how many cows do you have anyway?” However, fawning is creepy.
3. Respect Cultural Differences
While cheese gatherings tend to be even whiter than anarchist gatherings, there are definitely cultural differences between the rural and urban folks there. I live in a city and work in an environment where talking fast and loud is valued. ** Also, I’m a Northern Californian so oversharing is second nature. Many people at the conferences may see livestock a lot more than people. Slow it down (which is not the same as “dumbing it down”), be respectful, and meet halfway. Actually, meet them more than halfway. This is the primarily the cheesemakers’ conference, not yours.
4. Don’t try to Impress Anyone
I won’t name any names here, but those of us who have been going to ACS for awhile can all remember people who came on super strong asserting their cheese “knowledge” to everyone around them. Some people come in with only strong opinions and plenty of assumed privilege but without any sense of nuance. “XXXXXXX is the only blue cheese good enough for me to carry.” “All American Alpine-style cheeses but XXXXXX are crap.” Etc. Many of those folks are in other lines of work now. Just sayin’…
1. Choosing Panels
I wouldn’t tell you which panels to go to, but I know that I always try to go to panels that are over my head. For example – while there are a lot of very good cheese science books out there now that non-scientists and cheesemakers can read — there were not when I first started going to ACS. I loved going to the panels that were just cheesemakers and dairy scientists arguing about things I was not near understanding. It helped (as much as possible) give me humility and made me realize how much I didn’t know about cheese. That’s a helpful reminder when most of us will know more than most of our customers after about a month of training.*** Remember to be respectful of the level of knowledge the panel assumes and who the panel is geared for. If the panel is discussing the specific flavor attributes and potential problems associated with secondary cultures in pasteurized cheese, for example, don’t ask, “What is cheese culture?” Keep your mouth shut. Soak up what you can. And do some research on your own when you get home.
Also, I differ from like 90% of you in that I decided long ago that I do not like the booze/cheese pairing workshops at ACS. It is just too big a crowd and moves to slowly for me so I never attend them even though they are always the hottest ticket. Don’t be afraid to find your own path. (Plus, getting completely drunk at the early afternoon Bourbon/Cheese pairings**** workshop at the 2001 ACS made me miss the tour of the Louisville Slugger Factory.)
2. Vote with your Feet
The ACS conference is expensive. Don’t waste your time. If a panel is bad, boring or just not geared to your needs, leave and go to another one. As a panelist, I hate this, but I understand it. Of course, I am not the kind of panelist who is using the ACS to give an infomercial. If you feel like a panel is not about sharing information but merely self-promotion, you have my blessing to leave loudly in a huff.
3. Let Your Cheese Mind Wander
Staying in a panel that is not your thing has its advantages if you do not want to vote with your feet. Sometimes just one sentence or concept has sparked great ideas for improving our department. The reason we go to ACS is that it is a cheese-rich environment. Just going there and being around the cheese community can give you profound insight. When something comes to you, write it down. At one boring panel, I made a complete draft for a new kind of cheese signage for our coolers. I might never have done that bogged down in the day-to-day back home.
4. Take Notes.
I know you think you’ll remember everything, but you won’t. There is just too much. Plus, you get great tidbits like this that will make you laugh years down the line:
The French person on the panel talked about cheese sitting out on display and getting oily. One has to factor in the amount of lost weight and flavor in this situation and calculate pricing for (literal) shrink. He has a fairly heavy accent so after he bemoaned the loss my co-worker elbowed me and said, “Did he just say that cheese losing moisture is like a butterfly escaping?”
“No he said it was butterfat escaping”
“Oh, but that was so poetic.”
Some reading are already ready to mock me for this one since volunteering at ACS can be kind of a mixed bag. Let me mention first that a new management team is organizing the conferences so my previous experience is not indicative of future activity. I have had great times volunteering to plate for tastings and to cut for the Festival of Cheese***** Plus, at those things you get to meet the hard workers instead of the pretentious and flaky. If I don’t know anyone, give me some people to work on a big production project on and we will be friends for life in two hours. Just make sure you ask questions and know what you are getting yourself into. I am, frankly, still bitter about the time I was asked to deliver “a few” cases of beer to an event and it turned out to be 80 cases to two different venues, one of which didn’t have an elevator to get to the beer drop off spot. We missed lunch and the next panel!
Extra Curricular Activities
1. Visit Farms and Cheesemakers in the Area of the Conference
ACS is a busy time for the locals but it is also the time that they are expecting visitors, for the most part. Scheduling an extra day or two to the trip may seem like a hardship to your business, but it is invaluable to your ongoing cheese knowledge. For example, your regional cheesemakers may have different traditions, water use issues, equipment, philosophies, etc. than those in another region. As a Californian, when am I ever going to be in North Carolina again? Make use of the plane fare you’ve already spent. I don’t have to mention NEVER go to someone’s farm without asking first, do I?
2. Go to the Bar
This is the unofficial center of the conference. Everyone meets here on their way to dinner, everyone hangs out here after they come back. Some people actually never make it to dinner. You don’t need to drink alcohol, but this is the best chance to really get to know people and learn things about them that you probably shouldn’t talk about over the cheese counter. Do I have to say though, that no one likes a sloppy, bitter drunk? Take yourself away if you feel the need to start complaining about your boss or other people who are known in the small, small world of cheese. Oh and remember some people may actually be having business meetings here so ask if it’s ok to join people before you set up camp.
This is a tricky one. Going out with folks to a nice meal is a great way to meet people. But, more than once, I have ended up going out with folks and spent way too much money. My co-op does not pay for my meals on these kinds of trips and when you find yourself picking a restaurant with folks who are on expense accounts, things can be awkward. Especially when people want to drink a lot of booze and then split the check evenly. When feeling particularly broke, I have definitely ordered an appetizer and then stopped by a liquor store later for a potato chip and Lil Debbie’s dinner. If you are at ACS on your own dime, just be aware than not everyone else is.
This is the most fun part of the conference. Taste everything offered to you. Taste it alone. Taste with pairings. Taste at official events. Taste at the bar. Taste warm cheese out of dirty backpacks. It’s all good. Take notes on this too, because there is no way you’ll remember the nuance of 200 different cheeses when you get home. BTW, one of my proudest professional moments is that I’m in the Cheese Nun documentary for about 5 seconds and I am taking notes at the Festival of Cheese, not mugging for the camera.
My Best Advice for the Conference
1. My best advice is really pretty simple. Enjoy being part of the cheese community. There are not a lot of us around so enjoying being around the thousand or so who are obsessed enough to travel around the country to seek it out. Sure, there is business being done and shady stuff in the corners, but soak in the pure beauty of cheese. It will keep you going throughout the year.
*The poignant lyrics of Dead Kennedys come to mind here. From “Well Paid Scientist”: Company cocktails-gotta go
Say the right thing
Don’t fidget, jockey for position
In the pyramid you hate
Sip that scotch
Get that raise
This ain’t no party at all
** Recently a NY-based distributor complimented me on being the only person not in NY who he could talk full speed to. Heh.
***That shows how much more understanding about cheese the public is, btw. A decade ago I would have said a day of training would give a new cheese worker more info that most of our customers.
****Plus, I didn’t think any of the pairings actually worked.
*****Nearly two decades of cheese work means that my repetitive stress injuries prevent me from doing this anymore, but I would if I could.