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Originally published August 25, 2010 at 7:50 PM | Page modified August 25, 2010 at 8:57 PM

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American Cheese Society nibbling through 1,462 entries in tasting competition

Wisconsin and California remain the big cheeses at an annual competition, but Washington raised its profile with 72 entries this year — after just 21 last year — from 15 companies, including Beecher's Handmade Cheese of Pike Place Market.

Seattle Times business reporter

The Oscars of the Cheese World

The culmination of the American Cheese Society's annual conference and competition is a Festival of Cheese and Awards Ceremony that's open to the public:

When Saturday. Doors open at 5 p.m. Ceremony begins at 5:30 p.m.

Where: Benaroya Hall, Seattle

Cost: $85

Entertainment: A speech by Michael Pollan and what Beecher's Handmade Cheese owner and event co-chair Kurt Beecher Dammeier promises will be a lively awards ceremony. If it's not, step out of the auditorium for:

Refreshment: Bites and sips from The Corson Building, Woodhouse Family Cellars and Elysian Brewing, among many others.

Want more cheese? Cheese that's not scarfed down Saturday will be sold at the Palace Ballroom, 2100 5th Avenue, at 11 a.m. on Sunday.

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Intensity and the smell of cheese hung in the air of a Sheraton Seattle ballroom Wednesday as people in lab coats sniffed and tasted plate after plate of cheese.

Dozens of food-science professors, cheese mongers and others who know a basket-drained ricotta from a clothbound cheddar sampled 1,462 entries over two days, taking occasional breaks to sip water and cleanse their palates with melon slices and bread.

Spitting is important, too.

"You can't eat the cheese," explained David Grotenstein, judging chair of the American Cheese Society's annual conference and competition. "If you ate it, you'd be all bound up, just like if you drank the wine at a wine tasting, you'd be drunk."

The volunteer judges' decisions have the power to elevate new and unknown cheeses to celebrity status in the blossoming artisanal cheese world, which appears to be going where wine, olive oil and cacao content ventured before.

Winners will be announced at an awards ceremony and "Festival of Cheese" at Benaroya Hall on Saturday night. It is open to the public, unlike the rest of the American Cheese Society's annual event, which includes the judging plus cheese-making demonstrations and tasting events for about 700 industry insiders.

"American cheese is probably the hottest category in all of specialty food," Grotenstein said.

At his paying job as merchandising director of a small chain called Union Market in Brooklyn, Grotenstein is bombarded with requests for cheese. "It's almost like a revelation to the consumer, like a new food."

Demand for natural cheeses has increased, according to the research firm Mintel, at a time when the popularity of processed cheeses has waned.

And supply appears to be keeping up.

This year, the cheese society's competition received 1,000 more entries than a decade ago.

Wisconsin and California remain the big cheeses, but Washington raised its profile with 72 entries this year — after just 21 last year — from 15 companies, including Beecher's Handmade Cheese of Pike Place Market.

Owner Kurt Beecher Dammeier is the Seattle event's co-chair and cheerleader.

He also loves Washington cheese.

"It has very much the same reputation Washington wine did 10 years ago," he said. "Which is, wow! Up and coming! Lots of new entrants and surprisingly high quality."

With the same three elements going for Washington cheese as Washington wine — "great climate, entrepreneurial spirit and an appreciative and purchasing public" — the state will be recognized as its own cheese region in a decade, Dammeier predicts.

Why did wine come first?

"Cheese isn't as glamorous or as profitable," he said. "Wine makers stomp for one day and sit down the rest. Cheesemakers have to do it every day, twice a day."

Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or mallison@seattletimes.com

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