Leelanau News and Events

Leelanau Cheese Aims For Education And Awareness With Second Annual Cheese Fest

By Craig Manning | May 31, 2023

Northern Michigan already has a massive cherry festival and a popular, beloved asparagus festival. So why not a festival for another beloved local food export?

That was the question Leelanau Cheese owners and cheesemakers Josh Hall and Gary Smith asked last year when seeking a way to commemorate their first year in charge of the iconic Leelanau County business. Hall and Smith, a pair of dairy experts who worked together at Michigan State University, had purchased Leelanau Cheese in June of 2021 from founders and longtime owners John and Anne Hoyt. When the time came to mark the anniversary of that acquisition, the two decided to celebrate not just their own business milestone, but all things cheese.

“We were looking for a celebratory thing to do, and we said, ‘Hey, we should have an open house or something,’” recalls Hall. “But then we realized that the day we were eyeing for the event – June 4, 2022 – was actually National Cheese Day. At that point, we said, ‘You know what? Let's just make this a whole big thing.’”

That birthed the inaugural Cheese Fest, a one-day extravaganza of tastings, tours, vendors, classes, family-friendly activities, and more. A positive reception inspired Hall and Smith to make the event a recurring thing: The second annual Cheese Fest is this Saturday, June 3. at Leelanau Cheese on S. West Bayshore in Suttons Bay.

Just as the National Cherry Festival was conceived first as a celebration of northern Michigan agriculture and of Traverse City’s status as the Cherry Capital of the World, Hall says the goal of Cheese Fest is to spotlight Michigan’s status as a cheese powerhouse. While you’d have to go across Lake Michigan to find the nation’s biggest cheese state – Wisconsin, for reference, produces more than 2 billion pounds of cheese every year, or about 26 percent of the cheese made in the United States – Michigan is building its reputation as one of the best cheese states. Northern Michigan – and specifically Leelanau County – is a big reason for that.

In 2022, Michigan cheesemakers brought home a dozen awards from the American Cheese Society Competition, more than half of which went to cheeses made in Leelanau County. That’s an impressive tally, especially given that there there are only two cheesemakers located within county lines: Leelanau Cheese and the Northport-based Idyll Farms.

What’s Leelanau’s secret to success? Hall chalks it up to milk quality – something Michigan is actually known for throughout the U.S. dairy industry. Each year, the National Mastitis Council – a nonprofit organization “dedicated to enhancing milk quality” – names a series of medal winners in its National Dairy Quality Awards. In February, when the organization shared its list of 2023 gold and silver honorees, 38 dairy farms received mentions; 17 of them were Michigan farms, compared to just six Wisconsin-based winners.

“We have some of the highest-producing animals here in the state of Michigan, and some best milk, based on objective quality standards,” Hall says. “And we benefit directly from that as cheesemakers.”

Cheese Fest, Smith adds, is meant to bring all of that prestige and dairy industry background into a single event, where local cheese aficionados can learn more about how cheese gets made and what makes good cheese...well, good.

“We’re trying to highlight Michigan dairy products and get the awareness out there that there are really, really great Michigan cheeses,” Smith tells the Leelanau Ticker. “So it’s not just about us. We’re going to have several Michigan cheesemakers and their cheeses represented at the festival this year, and we’re hoping that this year and in all future events, that we can have the cheesemakers themselves here to be able to talk about their cheeses with the general public.”

“We want to expose people to agriculture, and we want to expose people to this connection to food source,” Hall adds. “Part of the passion, for Gary and I, is identifiable food sources; it’s eating things where we know where it came from. Spotlighting how cheese gets made – and specifically that connection between milk quality and cheese quality – is just one way that we can do that.”

Cheese Fest will encompass actual cheesemaking events – including a mozzarella workshop scheduled for 10am and a “Kids Curd Making STEM Activity” at 3pm. Those types of activities, Smith says, are great learning experiences because they offer simple hands-on displays of chemistry and microbiology in action.

“It’s also a great way of understanding the connection to the milk source,” Hall says of the entry-level activities. “Kids see cheese all the time, but they don’t necessarily understand, ‘Oh, that’s milk, and milk is from a cow, and perhaps what the cow eats makes the milk.’ That connection, that really basic environmental science understanding, is presented really easily and naturally when we communicate these basic principles about dairy science and food science.”

Elsewhere, attendees will have opportunities to taste and judge cheeses, pair cheese with wine, hard cider, and chocolate, and meet the cheesemakers. “And then we also want to make the event a little more family-friendly, so we have some stuff for kids, like a petting zoo and facepainting,” Smith says.

There’s even a “Cheese Olympics” on the docket Saturday, including a cheese wheel toss, cheese wheel curling, and a competition where participants will be able to see if they can taste cheese like the pros.

To view a full list of Cheese Fest events, including times and details about which events are free and which require reservations and fees, visit the Leelanau Cheese website.


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