When it comes to innovation, nothing beats microbes. Naturally agile, they iterate early and often and can pivot in a flash. And when you put them in milk, they can make cheese. Can any of the fancy apps being swooned over at this week at the SxSW conference do anything nearly as useful? Or tasty? Not even close…
By contrast, even the last place finisher at the recent biennial World Championship Cheese Contest in Madison, Wisconsin, was a winner. All told, there were more than 2,500 entrants (including dozens of butters) from two dozen countries, split among 82 categories (who knew?), weighing in at a collective 50,000 pounds.
Equally as stunning: a small industry competition that began 55 years ago in a butter cooler up in Green Bay has morphed into live-streamed, twittery sensation and the hottest ticket in town. Four hundred spectators at $25 each, packed a conference center ballroom to witness of the crowning of a grand champion (the upset victor, a low-fat gouda from the Netherlands). Toothpicks and crackers in hand, we grazed tables laden with dozens upon dozens of samples, neatly arranged by country. It was a United Nations of cheese, endless variations on a common theme.
Organizers say they see no reason the event can’t be even bigger in 2014 and hit 3,000 entries by 2016.
"I’m really flabbergasted. Cheese didn’t use to bring crowds like this," said John Umhoefer, executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, which organizes the event. “I’m speechless. I think we could have sold 200 more tickets.”
The staging has all the requisite dramatic flourishes: the ritual formality of Westminster and the hushed play by play commentary of a high-brow sports event. The judges, outfitted in white lab coats and baseball caps, gather around as a core is expertly extracted from a wheel of cheese. It is passed around, sniffed, then sliced for tasting. Notes are jotted. Suspense builds. And in the background, a tiara’ed "Alice in Dairyland" fields media interviews.
The real stars of the show, of course, are too small to be seen: the clever microbial cultures that have trained countless cheesemakers over millennia to do whatever necessary to turn milk into their versions of paradise. It takes a remarkable combination of artisanship, can-do ingenuity, luck and patience to get it just right.
Cheesemaking, it turns out, starts long before the cow, goat, sheep or horse is milked. Everything from the amount of rain to the variety of forage affects the taste of milk and thus cheese. No one knows how this year of no winter will affect things—good or bad—but it is bound to have some sort of impact. Cheese is the original “slow food,” sometimes taking years to reach perfection.
Traditionally, cheese innovation focused on developing better cultures, creating more stable aging environments (e.g., temperature and humidity controlled man-made caves) and improving shelf-life. In the last ten years, the internet has had the biggest impact, exploding distribution. Small specialty shops have set up digital storefronts (be still my heart Fromagination…), while artisanal manufacturers, perhaps too small to interest big food distributors, can now reach chefs directly, picking up sales that otherwise would have been missed.
Back at SxSW, a slew of what’s been dubbed "stalker apps" have taken the spotlight this year, vying for Twitterish faery dust to catapult their developers to fame and cyber-fortune.
The hook: personal situational awareness, a social network-driven way to figure out who’s in the room and whether there is anyone worth meeting. Leading the pack, an app from San Francisco-based start up, Math Camp, Inc:
Highlight is a fun, simple way to learn more about the people around you.
If someone standing near you also has Highlight, their profile will show up on your phone. You can see their name, photos of them, mutual friends, and anything else they have chosen to share. When you meet someone, Highlight helps you see what you have in common with them. And when you forget their name at a party a week later, Highlight can help you remember it.
As you go about your day, Highlight runs quietly in the background, surfacing information about the people around you. If your friends are nearby, it will notify you. If someone interesting crosses your path, it will tell you more about them.
Highlight gives you a sixth sense about the world around you, showing you hidden connections and making your day more fun.
Highlight is available for free in the iPhone App Store.
* emphasis added
An alternative? Put the phone down. Bring out the good cheese. Be bold and strike up a conversation with strangers, bonding over artisanal bounty.
Now, isn’t that really much more fun?
— J. A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews
- American Cheese Society Competition/Festival, July 31 - August 4, 2012, Raleigh, North Carolina