The Cheese Fest @ Atlanta brings “grate” joy

Photo courtesy of The Cheese Fest

On Sept. 30, Atlanta’s cheese connoisseurs descended on downtown’s Georgia Railroad Freight Depot for the fourth annual Cheese Fest @ Atlanta, a festival showcasing cheeses and artisanal foods from around the world.

The festival series, originally held in Atlanta and expanding this year to include events in Houston and Cincinnati, moved this year from its original location in the Atlanta Botanical Gardens to the freight depot, right in the heart of the downtown historic district. The move brings the festival closer to its patrons in hip, gentrifying neighborhoods like Old Fourth Ward and Grant Park, and ensures that the festival remains a distinctly Atlantan event as attendees now get to sample their favorite cheeses in the shadow of the Atlanta City Hall and explore drink pairings inside downtown’s oldest surviving building.

For $35, festival-goers could sample as many cheeses and artisanal foods as they wished, enjoy one beer, wine, or soft drink on-the-house, and sample grilled cheese sandwiches from a variety of restaurants that came to the festival to participate in the Meltdown, a competition based on votes cast by guests. With a $75 VIP ticket, attendees got everything a standard ticket included, plus an additional drink, entry to the festival an hour early, and access to wine, beer, and bourbon pairing experiences.

The festival featured more cheeses than any cheese-lover could ask for, including international icons like Swiss Gruyere, French Brie, Spanish Manchego, and English and Irish Cheddar, lesser known products from dozens of U.S. states, and several offerings from local Georgian fromagers. The festival was not exclusively dedicated to cheese as the additional vendor lineup included several charcuteries, olive peddlers, honey makers and even one blacksmith selling handmade knives.

Among the most eccentric offerings were pickles from Detroit, wafers and fruit paste from New Zealand, deliciously spicy honey from New York City and water buffalo cheese made in Columbia. There was even a barbecue master offering samples of a full suckling pig roasting over a wood-burning flame.

Some of the most interesting and popular vendors were those offering foods made in Georgia, including cheeses, jams, honeys and chutneys from all over metro Atlanta. Perhaps the best cheeses at the whole festival came not from Italy or France but from Many Fold Farm in Chattahoochee Hills, Georgia. The tiny creamery specializes in goat cheeses and offers a delightful mixed milk cheese, though it houses only four cows.

While the local offerings attracted surprisingly large throngs of attendees, the most popular table at the festival was the one run by the Parmigiano-Reggiano Consortium, a union of Italian cheesemakers who produce Parmigiano-Reggiano, sometimes called the “King of Cheeses.” At this table, festival-goers could eat as much of the delicious hard cheese as they wanted, and many took full advantage of the opportunity since, in addition to being one of the most widely acclaimed varieties in the world, the cheese is also one of the most expensive.

The festival-organizers maintained a laid-back but sophisticated atmosphere, at first entertaining attendees with unique pre-recorded acoustic covers of songs including “Hey Ya” by Atlanta’s own Outkast and “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor, and later providing live music by bluegrass group the Packway Handle Band. Still, the organizers had nothing to do with the highlight of the event: the weather. Temperatures during the festival remained comfortably in the sixties, while blue skies kept the festival atmosphere convivial and relaxed.

Perhaps the only stain on the unique and enriching experience was the price. While the offerings were delicious, an attendee would be hard-pressed to spend more than two hours at the festival, meaning that for $35 dollars, it is practically impossible for an attendee to get their money’s worth in cheese. Still, the cost of entry affords attendees not merely a night full of cheese samples, but a priceless opportunity to discover new and unique offerings from around the world.