For the Love of Cheese
New professional exam from American Cheese Society is serious stuff
For most of us it’s hard to imagine any more “up side” for cheese. In countries like Italy and France it is revered. It’s a popular and common ingredient in places like Switzerland and Spain. At a recent Terra Madre conference there was a special tribute to Yak cheese from Nepal. And here in the U.S. the market for cheese has exploded with a proliferation of varieties and availability of high quality, artisan cheeses—resulting in cheese counters as large as the produce section in some grocery stores and restaurant cheese courses presented like pieces of art.
And yet, for all of that, the popularity of cheese just continues to grow. With that growth, as with many products in today’s culture, popularity can breed an environment where some folks look to take advantage of an opportunity and are too often careless, uninformed, misleading, greedy, and even unscrupulous.
But that is changing. This year, for the first time ever, the American Cheese Society is offering formal certification for people who pass the Certified Cheese Professional Exam. It’s a three-hour, 150-question test that 150 people took in August at the ACS conference in Raleigh, N.C. The reward is formal acknowledgement of proficiency, a recognition of professionalism that will hopefully build trust between cheese lovers and someone about to sell them a thirty-dollar or more—or much more—per-pound cheese.
And in order to be eligible for the test, ACS requires either 4,000 hours of work experience or 2,000 hours of work experience plus 2,000 hours of formal or continuing education or professional development. One option for that education is right here in Madison. Dean Sommer, a member of the Senior Management Team at the Center for Dairy Research, thinks many of those initally seeking the certification came to the center in Babcock Hall for a four-and-a-half day course. “It’s kind of a survey course covering the whole value chain from dairy farm to consumer with an emphasis on cheese manufacturing,” says Sommer. Students visited dairy farms, five different cheese plants, and made cheese themselves at the UW dairy plant. There was a cheese sensory section with cow’s milk, goat’s milk and sheep’s milk cheeses tasted side by side, a section on identifying defects in cheese, and practical information on things like shipping and receiving. In other words, a lot of the information the center has taught up-and-coming cheese makers for years is now being taught to those who handle, market, sell and serve it.
“It’s absolutely a step up,” says Sommer. “It’s not just a cheddar and mozzarella market anymore. Specialty cheese is growing.” Sommer says these folks are now handling expensive cheeses, so “you want them to handle it properly, and understand what goes into cheese.”
The industry is taking this seriously. A recent front-page story in the Wall Street Journal said Whole Foods Market paid test fees and travel costs for eighty-one employees. Whole Foods Chicago-based regional public relations manager Kate Klotz says the company is only releasing names and store locations of employees who passed the test, and the list won’t be released until after this magazine has gone to print. But she says eighteen have already signed up for next year’s test, which will be held when the ACS holds its annual convention right here in Madison.
Ken Monteleone, the owner of Fromagination, says every employee in his store will take the certification test at some point. Sommer says he’s already heard from companies who want to have employees certified, and he expects the Dairy Center’s course will be a standard for those taking the test. We here in Wisconsin may have taken this for granted, but the rest of the country is realizing cheese—like wine with its certified sommeliers—is serious stuff. One Massachusetts cheese shop owner told the Wall Street Journal, “(T)hirty years ago, selling cheese was a job. Now it can be a profession.”
Genuine articles: the product, the people who make it, and now, the people who sell it and serve it.
Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food.
Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband. Comments? Questions? Please write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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This article has been revised to reflect the following corrections:
Correction: September 26, 2012:
An earlier version of this article incorrectly implied that the Center for Dairy Research's four-and-a-half day course was mandatory for ACS's exam. It is not. ACS also informed Madison Magazine that it cannot verify Dean Sommer's previous statement that 150 of the exam-takers completed the Center's four-and-a-half day course.