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August 7, 2012 at 7:30 PM

‘Big Cheese’ Beecher’s named best in nation

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Kurt Dammeier has done plenty personally to promote Washington-made cheeses. Now his own Beecher’s Handmade Cheese is going to draw some serious eyes and mouths to the state’s burgeoning artisan cheese industry. Beecher’s “Flagsheep” cheese won Best In Show in a field of 1,711 entries at the American Cheese Society meeting, the national championships of cheese.

Hurry, and you might be able to find a nibble of Flagsheep at the company’s Pike Place Market factory and store (or their new New York counterpart, if you’re on that coast). Retailers looking to stock it are probably out of luck, as this industry mag noted.

“We only have 25 wheels already made and ready for sale, 25 sixteen-pound wheels,” Dammeier told me after flying back from the Raleigh, N.C. show. “We could probably sell 25,000 of them right now.”

The “Flagsheep” (not the “Flagship” that’s the best known of the company’s 15 cheeses) is a mix of cow’s milk and sheep’s milk, winning first place in the ACS category for “Original Recipe (sheep’s milk or mixed milk) and going on to capture best in show. The sheep’s milk came from Wisconsin when Beecher’s started making the cheese three years ago, now it’s from the herds of Willapa Hills near Centralia — “we’ve really been fans of theirs.”

What distinguishes Flagsheep? ACS judges don’t typically share their comments, a contest spokesperson told me (this seems odd), but to Dammeier “it’s got a really distinct caramel flavor and an incredibly long and complex finish.”

He knew the Flagsheep’s odds were good because it scored 97 out of 100 possible points in a previous year’s competition. But “winning an award like this is equal parts skill and luck,” he said. Some of the luck involved picking the perfect wheel to enter, as cheesemakers must send whole uncut cheeses for judging.

Beecher’s made waves (or, you might say, whey-ves) when it won runner-up as Best in Show at the national conference in 2007 as a relative newcomer to the cheese business.

“I can remember distinctly going through the whole year saying “Yes! We’re second best!” Dammeier said.

That was great. “This is better.”

It’s particularly gratifying following the Big Cheese’s expansion to the Big Apple.

“We were getting to where we were pretty full in Seattle. We needed to create more capacity…” Dammeier said.

“I think people would have said, ‘You should put something in Ellensburg and make it cheaper.’ (But) our mission is to change the way America eats. We want to do it in front of people and educate them about the cheese business and cheesemaking and, by inference, get them to focus on where all their food is being made.”

For that, “you have to go where the people are.”

Plans now are “to make a whole bunch more of that (Flagsheep) cheese next year,” said Dammeier, who also expects a “halo effect” in sales for other Beecher’s cheeses. The only problem?

“Our sheep’s milk supplier also won a blue award! Their demand is going to go up, too.”

Here’s a complete list of ACS winners. Tami Parr of the Pacific Northwest Cheese Project pulled out the Northwest honorees here, including the Willapa Hills win in “blue veined cheese with external rind” for its “Big Boy Blue”. Other notables include a first-place award in the Monterey Jack cow’s milk category to Mount Townsend Creamery for its “New Moon,” a first-place to Black Sheep Creamery in the “open category aged over 60 days” for its St. Helens cheese, another win to Beecher’s in the “cheddar flavored with peppers” category for its Marco Polo Reserve, and a second-place win in “fresh goat cheese” for the Mystery Bay Farm chevre.

As Edible Seattle put it, “What a great cheese plate.”

Beecher’s file photo: Greg Gilbert/The Seattle Times

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