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  • Writer's pictureMichael Landis

Celebrating 15 years of teaching Cheese, Wine, Beer & Charcuterie

On Friday, February 14th 2020, I will Celebrate my 15th year of teaching Cheese, Wine, Beer & Charcuterie! I was hired on February 14th 2005 and flew up to Buffalo, New York for a cheese training seminar for the next day. Since then I have taught hundreds of seminars, flown almost 3 million miles and stayed at countless hotels. I have the best job in the world! I have met many amazing people that I now call my friends and have been blessed with some great opportunities as well.

In those 15 years I have had some observations and here are my top 15

# 15 – Not everyone likes cheese – Stinky & Blue

Just because you have a Job in a supermarket deli doesn’t mean that you love or even like cheese. I’ve taught classes where they will not try even the mildest cheese. In most cases it is about the more robust cheeses like the Washed Rind or Blues that stop them in their tracks. Believe it or not, there are people who don’t like or even eat any cheese.

# 14 – Pairing cheeses – What goes with what

Look at any of the social media and you can find hundreds of cheeseboard photos and comments. What works best with cheeses is always a question I get. I think it is very simple, put foods together that you like and most likely they will work. When asked what wine would you pair with this cheese, I will ask, what do you like. Start with something you like and at least half of the pairing will be wonderful.

# 13 – Don’t see a cheese you are looking for – ask

A deli manager or cheese monger only has so much space for cheeses and they want to bring in cheeses that they know will sell in their store. That’s why many stores of the same brand may have a different cheese selection. What might sell on one side of town, may not on another. If you they don’t carry a cheese you are looking for ask for them to bring it in. If it is authorized and in stock with their distributor, they are happy to bring it in. Just knowing they have a customer that will buy it gives them incentive to get it in the cheese case. Follow up with them about the cheese as they are busy and may need a little more motivation to bring it in.

# 12 – What to sample the cheese – before you buy it

Sampling cheese is a great way to decide if you like it before you buy it and many stores will have either a person sampling or a covered dome with cheeses in it. What happens if there’s no one sampling or any cheese out on a plate that you would like to try. Ask the cheese monger or deli manager to sample out that cheese for you. Most will be very happy to do this, they would cut a sample in the back and bring it out to you. However, if you are too shy to ask, most retailers offer up a refund if you don’t like a cheese. You can ask them about their policy if you don’t like the cheese will they give you a refund. They really want you to try and buy more cheeses, especially if it is new or a unique cheese.

# 11 – Storing cheese – best way to save cheese

One of the top questions at my cooking school classes is “what is the best way to store cheese”? Most important fact about cheese is that it is not going to get better in your refrigerator. So no mater what you do with it, it’s either going to lose its flavor or mold up. For small amounts of cheese left over I suggest using a Ziploc bag, keeps the air out and moisture in. It is a short time solution. Long term, buy only enough cheese for the meal or event, buy often when it is freshy cut at the store. Not only does this save you money with smaller pieces, you can get more variety for the same cost of buying larger pieces. If you are worried about expiration dates, then you bought too much cheese. Consume early and often.

# 10 – Most people do love cheese – their favorite cheese

The moment that I tell someone that I teach cheese, they immediately without hesitation tell me that they love cheese. When I ask which cheeses, they usually narrow it down to one or two. Many times when I ask about Blue or Washed Rind they wrinkle their nose and shake their head no. But, they love cheese! Today, more often than not I’m seeing more of a diverse love of different cheeses, more interest in cheeses other than cheddar. They are asking for come complex cheeses, more flavors and not as concerned about price. I remember my first seminar in February 2005 in Buffalo, NY where a deli manager told me, “My customers are not going to buy a $ 9.00 piece of cheese!” A few months ago I was at a store in Dallas, TX and a customer ask if there was any more of a Rogue River blue as she could only find one piece cut. The Cheesemonger found another wheel and ask her how much she would want and she said, “I have some friends coming over and they love this cheese, I should get about a pound.” While the Cheesemonger was cutting the cheese, I asked her why the Rogue River Blue, she said that the Cheesemonger had told her about it and after she tried it, it was now her favorite cheese and she was telling everyone about it. She even told me that it has won many awards over the years. After she left with that and a few others in her cart, I looked at the price and it was $ 32.99 a pound. Cheesemongers taking the time to sample out cheese and to tell the cheese’s story.

# 9 – Gateway cheeses - You never go back

The one thing that I am very happy to say that I have seen over the years is that once someone tries a cheese that they love and it’s better than the last one they tried, they do not go back to their old lesser quality cheeeses. I had a customer telling me about this amazing cheese that they had, I ask them if they would consider paying less for a lesser quality cheese. They looked at me and told me that they would not consider going back to their old cheese. Most people when they are introduced to a better cheese have no reason to go back to a cheese that doesn’t have the flavors that they like. They do not have to have extensive experience in cheese to know a better cheese. Think of ice cream, the difference between Haagen-Daz vanilla and a gallon of imitation vanilla, they get it. That’s thanks to Cheesemongers who take the time to tell the customers about the difference and why they should pay a little more for better quality and flavors. Cheesemongers taking them up to the next cheese, one cheese at a time.

# 8 - Your Palate - Cheese is different for everyone

No matter how much you love blue cheese or how wonderfully rich, buttery and slightly aromatic that cheese is, someone will not like it. Amazing as it seems, not all palates are equal. I have had students during a class that taste fresh goat cheese for the first time and look like they have been poisoned. They make a face; hold their hand in front of their mouth and look like someone just pinched them. I have met up with them again, and so many have told me that they didn’t like their first experience, but now love it or at least like it now. Perception of cheeses stop many of people from trying them, even if they are told that they are wonderful cheeses. One of my favorite parts of my class is when we get to Washed Rind cheese’s and they get to taste Limburger for the first time. I have them taste the paste only at first and then they all look surprised on how mild it is, and then I have them taste it with the rind. I ask them which they like better and the majority always say, with the rind. I was in St. Louis working with a Cheesemonger, a customer came up to them to ask them about a cheese, the Cheesemonger described it as a washed rind cheese. The customer said they didn’t think they liked washed rind stinky cheeses. The Cheesemonger pulled out the cheese, sliced off a sample piece and talked them though the flavors, along with describing some of the more interesting flavors of that cheese. The customer was surprised they liked it and went on to purchase it. Taking the time to help someone understand that it is more than just the style and name of a cheese, Cheesemongers working with one customer at a time and taking the time to help them understand cheeses.

# 7 - Beer & cheese pairing – Not as new as you thought

I have always had an interest in history and especially in art depicting life. In college I enjoyed my history class so much I was a History Teachers Assistant for two semesters, loved that. In history, there are many references of cheese, bread and beer being part of daily life, along with paintings of people sitting around a table with steins of beer, bread and cheese on the table, everyday life. In truth about beer in history, for a long-time beer was safer than water, as beer is brewed it cleans the water of any pathogens and adds in some nutrients along with way. That’s not what makes them pair up so well, it’s the flavors of the grains, essentially beer is liquid bread. In addition, the hops works very well with the acidity of the cheeses, the malts bring out buttery flavors and the cheese can make the beer taste better in many cases. I have been pairing up beer and cheese since the first time I had craft beer somewhere in the mid-nineties, Pete’s Wicked Ale with a simple cheddar brought out the buttery flavors of the cheese and the cheese brought out a richness of the malt. The British have a lot more time at it and cheese has been part of the pub scene for hundreds of years. Today we have Cheesemongers who love craft beer and many of the specialty grocery chains and cheese shops are now featuring little brew pubs in their stores. Local craft brews and artisan cheeses just ask a Cheesemonger and they will take you down that wonderful path.

# 6 - Cheese Certification – Verified Experts in Cheese

When I started my first prep class for my American Cheese Society Cheese Professional prep class, I ask why they wanted to get this certification. Why spend all this time, money and stress to be called an “American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional®? The most often answer, “I want people to know that this is my profession and I am qualified to be a Cheesemonger!” To qualify to take the exam you have to show proof that you have 4,000 hours of experience working with cheese and have taken professional cheese courses. That’s just the start, there’s so much more to the exam than just cheese, there are nine domains within the Body of Knowledge which cover all of the principal knowledge areas within the cheese profession. It can be a full time job just studying for the exam, flash cards, quiz reviews, webinars and professional cheese seminars. I have students from all over the US, from Hawaii to Florida traveling to attend the prep seminars. These Cheesemongers are full time cheese geeks and they love spreading the word about cheese. As one of my students said, “Cheese glorious Cheese” with this huge smile! Cheesemongers make my job fun!

# 5 – Cheesemonger Invitational – I know my cheeses

I have the privilege to know and work with the founder and true instigator of the Cheesemonger Invitational, Adam Moskowitz, the original Raw Milk Rock star! Last year, more than 700 people showed up to watch 40 Cheesemongers cut, weigh, taste, and serve cheese in a bizarrely riveting competition. I had the unique privilege to Judge one year and I have to say, these are cheese geeks and nerds to the X factor! It was mesmerizing to watch, the passion, desire and stamina to endure the extremely long day of testing of their skills. It was just the same watching Adam take the mic and run the crowd into a frenzy on cheese. He say’s “If you love cheese - say Moo!” and it brings the house down with a roar of “Moo!” Watching the crowd, I wondered who were the bigger cheese geeks, those attending or those competing? Oh, there’s also all you can eat cheese and everything with cheese. Each Cheesemonger serves a perfectly cut piece of cheese with something so simple or crazy or out of this world to impress the judges on their pairings skills. By 10:00 pm and after hours of competing against some of the best Cheesemongers in the world, Adam announced the winner to a roar of the crowd, photo’s, hugs, music, drinks and the excitement of being part of something really big! Blessed are those Cheesemongers!

# 4– Someone’s watching the store – Cheesemongers are now in the Deli

Fifteen years ago the cheese’s were set, displayed and sold by someone in the Deli or the Deli manager, there were few and far between actual Cheesemongers setting the cases and selling cheese. It seemed at the time that many of the people in the deli were assigned to take care of the cheese, were the “last man standing.” It seemed that they were put in that position without any regard to their skill or desire to work with cheese. I have had students that were sent to one of the cheese classes that did not like cheese, didn’t like handling cheese and didn’t understand why people would spend money that much money on cheese. They sat in the class with their arms crossed and not even trying a sample or taking any notes. I did a Entry Level Cheese Certification class on tasting and describing cheese with a small group of 40 in the Midwest. I started taking about descriptors for cheese and I showed them a “Comte Tasting Wheel” that reflects 83 typical flavors and aromas associated with Comte. I said with this class you will be comfortable with 5 to 10 descriptors for each of the cheeses, which is very typical of most people in the food industry. This class exceeded my expectations, they worked hard discovering the flavors and descriptors, they talked with each other about what they tasted and paid close attention to each of the cheeses unique flavors. When we talked about their cheese cases, they talked about ownership and bringing exceptional cheeses to their customers, helping them find the right cheeses and suggesting more for them to try. It’s not just the specialty cheese shops anymore, grocery chains see the growth and have hired passionate, food and cheese professionals. Cheesemongers are available for your questions on cheeses, Thank you Cheesemongers!

# 3 – American Artisan cheese – What will they think of next

When Europeans immigrated to American, they brought cheesemaking with them, along with some very famous recipes. For years American cheesemakers created cheeses that were similar in style and flavor that they missed from their homeland. Cheeses like Parmesan and Romano are huge favorites of anyone making Italian recipes and even Asiago is made in the United States. They are similar but not the same. It took a while, but we started to see American Artisan Cheesemakers creating something that reflected the “Sense of Place” from their lands, cattle and creative use of cheese cultures. Recently there was a new cheese introduced using the cultures of Swiss and Cheddar to create an offshoot of an Alpine and Cheddar, with a natural rind and cave aging, but without the cheddaring of the curd. Brian Fiscalli tells the story of their first entry into the American Cheese Society competition, they entered the San Joaquin Gold into the Cheddar category. They received a call from the Judging committee, they ask him if he wanted the good news or the bad news. He said, “bad news.” They told him, “The San Joaquin gold is not a cheddar and we had to move it to the American Original Category.” He asked, “what’s the good news?” They told him he won the best of the category! One of the many benefits of attending the American Cheese Society conference is the last day, the “Festival of Cheese” where they offer up all of the cheeses that were judged in competition for everyone to sample. Huge tables covered in cheese, listed out by name, milk and manufacturer. Cheeses that are made in America, unique to the land, cattle and those crazy, wonderful cheesemakers. Cheeses like Cowgirl Creamery, Cellars of Jasper Hill, Rogue Creamery, Caves of Faribault, Carr Valley, Uplands Cheese Company, Cypress Grove, Point Reyes, Fiscalini Cheese, Vermont Creamery, Spring Brook Farms, Holland Family Farms and I could go on and on, there are so many exceptional American Artisan Cheese makers today producing their own cheeses. On the downside is the availability of many of the jewels of cheese, on the upside many of the best Cheesemongers work in places that feature these jewels of cheese. Lucky are those Cheesemongers!

# 2 – Cheesemakers and Brewers – Same fabric, just a different material

Besides being able to teach almost every day and share a passion for cheese, I get to work with the most passionate and driven people, Cheesemakers and Brewers. When you put these two in the same room, it’s almost magical. I get to create events that feature Cheesemakers that make the cheese with the actual brewer that makes the beer. There’s nothing more fun than adding alcohol to a cheesemaker, just kidding, well not really. They are fun, passionate and love to explore different experiences with their cheeses. Sometimes revealing more information than you would expect. I brought John Maier the head Brewmaster from Rogue Ales to Atlanta for the Atlanta Cheese Festival; I had a panel of six Cheesemakers with their cheeses and paired up John’s beers, including a beer brewed from yeast derived from his beard. Another benefit in my job, I spent a considerable amount of time researching the pairings, trying different beers with each of the cheesemakers cheeses, I am a dedicated professional. With 100 people attending this VIP event, I did my best moderating this group, which once they get going, it’s hard to get them to stop. So, besides some amazing pairings, even with the Beard beer, we also were privy to some very interesting stories about the cheeses and beers. One story involves a Cheesemaker, Brewmaster and some unusual sleeping arrangements during the Oregon Cheese Festival. Listening to each of their cheese stories, how the beers paired and stories about the beer gave us some insight on how much passion and skill is in common with these two American Artisan producers. Today we see beer and wine bars sprouting up at many of the specialty grocery stores alongside of the Cheese Shop, why the Cheese Shop? Because they have a Cheesemonger that will guide them along for the best cheese, beer and yes, wine pairing! Glad to have the Cheesemonger working with brewers and winemakers!

# 1 - Passion sells Cheese – Is passion more important than the cheese

Cheese sitting in a cheese case without a Cheesemonger is bought by people who know what they are looking for. Cheese that is bought by a person who doesn’t know what they are looking for is treated to the passions of a Cheesemonger. I have worked with grocery chains from Alaska, Hawaii, Pacific Northwest, Southern and Northern California, InterMountain West, Southwest, Midwest, Northeast, Atlantic, Southeast and visited grocery stores in France, Italy, Holland, Spain, England, Ireland, Luxembourg, Nepal, Thailand and Hong Kong. There’s one common thread about a successful cheese department and that’s the Passion and love of Cheese from the Cheesemonger. I have seen stores go from a little cheese sales, to one of the top selling stores in a chain just with a passionate Cheesemonger. I have seen stores go from the top of sales to the bottom of sales when the passionate Cheesemonger leaves and their position is not filled with the same. I was in Fort Collins, CO teaching a class on handling bulk cheeses and the Cheesemonger for that store ran back to his cheese shop during one of the breaks and checked on how things were going while he was in class. While there, he engaged with a couple of customers and directed them to some very interesting cheeses. When he headed back to the classroom, I walked over to one of the customers and ask why they bought the cheese from him. They told me that since he started working there they have been introduced to so many amazing cheeses and that his knowledge and passion for cheese assured them that they were getting the cheeses that they liked. I ask if they always got the right cheese from him and they said he was right on the flavors and styles of each of the cheeses, but they have had some strong and unusual cheeses but never anything that they did not enjoy. They love talking with him about cheese and seeing how excited he is when a new cheese comes in. They said that it’s the best part of shopping there. One passionate person, one passionate Cheesemonger, so many happy customers!

I am looking forward to seeing how the next generation of cheese buyers take to these Cheesemongers and their wonderful cheeses, it is an exciting time to be in the cheese business and I hope that when you are looking for a cheese that you seek out an American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional and ask them “what does the Cheesemonger suggest?”

Michael book, “Beer & Cheese Pairing Stories” will be coming out in June 2020, look for it on his website and on Amazon books.

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