SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH – Steve Jerman likes the idea that “There’s enough to go around.” It’s a phrase he’d heard many times both working as an advertising designer and then in the world of apparel when he was creating and distributing a line of streetwear. Now he can apply that to the world of cheese after completing the third year of his Utah Cheese Awards contest.
Mr. Jerman started the contest after experiencing the frustration of the commercial art world which he claims “hasn’t been the same since 9/11”, and after getting introduced to the world of artisan cheese after spending nearly three years in Cache Valley, Utah as a part of a ‘life sabbatical’.
However, solidifying the annual competition and celebration was not easy. Several people, perceived as high up in the local food community did not embrace it. It was quite the opposite it seemed. At three years it’s almost hard to remember all that happened, but he tries to recount.
One person who was considered a local leading authority lost her job at a large charcuterie company after she failed to enter the contest on time. Jerman later received an apology from the owner.
A small east Salt Lake gourmet store owner made several attempts (overt and covert) to discredit the contest including one last-ditch effort to shut it down, despite being the first business Jerman approached with the idea.
A food writer who was referred as a judge withdrew citing a lack of ‘legal protections’. Though the publisher of a leading Salt Lake weekly agreed that was ridiculous saying . ‘I mean, the (Utah) State Fair has all kinds of judges who are probably never concerned a bit about a lawsuit for not liking someone’s peach cobbler.’
Jerman continued “I was amazed at some of the responses considering that everyone eats, and has their personal tastes and preferences. Plus support of eating locally made food seams prevalent. And this is just rotting milk – who cares?” He muses that his graphic design skills and ability to make a professional presentation have both helped the contest, but the appearance of professionalism created some of the concerns.
But after completing the contest’s the third year he thinks most of that is behind him. “We’ve got a solid base. The vast majority of the artisan cheesemakers in the state” which he estimates account for over 90% of sales. “It’s a tool – an extremely cost-effective marketing opportunity for these companies, some of which are promoting daily via social media.”
It’s also publicity you can’t buy at any price, you have to earn it, he explains. And after adding up all the medals given since 2017 he says “There is enough to go around.” While he says there are yearly surprises to keep it exciting, each company has excelled in their perspective niches.
In the hard cheese category, Utah State University’s Aggie Creamery has packed up the most hardware, led by 3-time gold medal winner “Aggiano” (their take on an Italian hard cheese) which has become the single most awarded cheese in the history of the contest.
Beehive Cheese of south Ogden, an internationally distributed, 15-year old company has ranked high with their cheddars. Including some aged by Caputo’s Market to create the store’s “House Cheddar.”
The majority of the cheese submitted in the past three years has been cheese flavored with produce, herbs or spices – either inside (called the paste) or on the outside (the rind). Heber Valley Artisan Cheese has racked up the most medals in the adjuncts categories (both interior and exterior.) The Midway Utah farmstead has also amassed the greatest number of total awards, submitting dozens of flavors each year.
In the (fresh) curd division, Hollow Farms, a brand of Hunsaker Foods of Tooele County has earned the most awards with its multiple flavors of curds. Curd in this instance is milk-solids that have gone through the “cheddaring process” to slowly dry the mass which is then shredded and salted. It’s at that point that it can be pressed into traditional cheddar or immediately eaten, known widely as “squeaky cheese”.
The non-cow milk category belongs to Caputo’s Market of Salt Lake City who with its Wayne County-based partner, Mesa Farm sells several varieties of goat cheese. Most are aged at Caputo’s. These include “Barely Legal’ which won best of show in 2018.
In a category not previously entered – soft cheese – Park City Creamery won gold, silver, and bronze, as well as Best of Show for it’s “Silver Queen Aged Goat with Ash”. Belgian-trained cheesemaker, Corinne Zinn, previously produced cheese for Deer Valley Resort before venturing out on her own in 2019.
The southern-most maker, Finney Farm has collected the most gold medals. Largely because of the great variety of categories they make. These range from mozzarella to colby jack to alpine styles. Most are made with raw milk.
Besides the contest which judged 59 cheese entries, the pubic event at which they are unveiled has seen sharp growth. The gala which supports the cost of judging and promoting the show sold out for the second year in a row and served three times as many guests as the previous year.
Hopkins Brewing Company in Sugar House was packed to capacity October 19 with cheese lovers. A large group vacationing from Kansas had picked the event as something to do while in town, and a gentleman traveling from New Orleans enthusiastically called it the highlight of his trip to Salt Lake City.
Higher-end producers Caputo’s and Park City Creamery exhibited, sampled and sold cheese. Besides announcing the medals and best of shows in the cheese and non-cheese categories.
Organizer Jerman gave out a first “Special Recognition Award” aimed at a person or company instrumental in the ongoing success of the Utah Cheese Awards. Baker and cafe manager, Tosha Rustad of Caffe Ibis’s Red Chair Cafe was recognized for her third year of judging the awards in an unmatched way.
Finney Farm owner Winford Barlow, who for the second year traveled up with his family, posted on Facebook about the event “You know that Utah is not really noted for their fine artisan cheeses but we’re hoping to help change that! There were amazing cheeses, wonderful people and a real genuine passion for the art of making good food. ”
For 2020 Jerman would like to triple the number of judges so that each does not have to make it through about 90 products (when the division two, “rest of the plate” non-cheese fine foods are counted) “After the second year I decided that it’s quite a feat just to assemble the judges and do the tasting” he said. Echoing that sentiment, 2019 celebrity judge Bill Allred, a long-time Salt Lake Radio Personality called the task “a beating” and “one of the hardest things I have ever done.”
Those interested in volunteering to judge can contact the awards at firstname.lastname@example.org. “We’d like some food knowledge but being a cool person is more important than a lot of writing credits. Who wouldn’t want to spend a couple of hours eating the best cheese made in the state for free, while supporting Utah, local and small business?” he smiled. More information can be found on the show’s website utacheeese.info .
Guests enjoy a buffet of the best cheese in Utah as judged by the Utah Cheese Awards, October 19, 2019 at Hopkins Brewing.
A full house at reception sponsor Hopkins Brewing.
Photos by Jason Ross, Tooele, Utah