Certified Cheese Professionals: Could You Pass the Test?

Like a sommelier, but for cheese!

Welcome to the world of cheese aficionados, where the American Cheese Society (ACS) reigns supreme. The ACS is exactly what it sounds like, a society dedicated to celebrating the melt-in-your-mouth magic of cheeses crafted across the Americas from hosting cheese-tastic competitions to doling out prestigious certifications like for ACS Certified Cheese Professional® (ACS CCP®). And while you might already know that the Deli is filled with a number of serious cheese enthusiasts, you might not be aware that we have our own CCPs amidst our ranks or why that makes a difference when shopping for cheese. So, without further ado, let’s cut to the cheese (society, that is!).

About the American Cheese Society

Founded in 1983, the American Cheese Society (ACS) is the ultimate hype squad for American cheeses. Or, more officially, and in their own words, the ACS is “the leading organization supporting the understanding, appreciation, and promotion of artisan, farmstead, and specialty cheeses produced in the Americas.” Founder Dr. Frank Kosikowski of Cornell University envisioned ACS as a “national grassroots organization for cheese appreciation and for home and farm cheesemaking.”


ACS encourages the highest standards of cheesemaking with a focus on safety and sustainability, provides educational resources and networking opportunities, offers industry certifications (more on that in a minute), and hosts an annual evaluation of American-made cheeses, the Judging & Competition (ACS J&C). As the ACS explains, the J&C “shines the spotlight on American cheesemakers by showcasing their talents and work as leaders within the industry, both for their excellent cheesemaking and commitment to food safety.” (Guess who has won numerous J&C awards? If you said our fellow Zingerman’s business, Zingerman’s Creamery, you’d be right!)

About ACS CCP certification

As we mentioned, the ACS Certified Cheese Professional (ACS CCP) is one of the industry certifications that the ACP offers. The ACS CCP program began in 2012, and as ACS explains,

  • The letters ACS CCP® designate that an individual has demonstrated the knowledge and competencies necessary to work effectively within all domains of the cheese industry, and is dedicated to continuing their professional development.


As of early 2024, there were just under 1,100 ACS Certified cheese Professionals in the entire world. That’s a pretty exclusive club, and we have not one, but two Certified Cheese Professionals here at the Deli—Zach Sievers and Tessie Ives-Wilson.


To earn that certification, Tessie and Zach each needed to meet eligibility criteria and pass a 150-question exam. That might not sound that intense, until you learn that participants need to prepare for about 10 times that many questions. Clearly, the exam covers a lot of content. According to the ACS,


The exam measures candidates’ mastery of cheese knowledge and best practices, and evaluates candidates’ understanding of core competencies common to the majority of cheese industry jobs: retailers, cheesemongers, cheesemakers, distributors, importers/exporters, restaurateurs, educators, and food writers.


No surprise that Tessie spent seven months studying for the exam. At the time she was taking the exam, she had been a cheesemonger for almost seven years, so was very familiar with the selling and business sides of the business, but hadn’t really made cheese before (she’s now well-versed in that too!). So Tessie needed to learn a lot about the technical aspects of cheesemaking and the chemistry that goes into it. For Zach, one of the biggest challenges was following in Tessie’s very-experienced footsteps and believing that he could do what Tessie did.


Though becoming ACS Certified Cheese Professionals was challenging for them both, that doesn’t mean they didn’t have fun doing it. Zach, having been more experienced with domestically made cheese at the time, enjoyed learning the stories behind European name-protected cheeses. And Tessie enjoyed tasting cheeses that she hadn’t encountered before, in some cases, having them shipped when she couldn’t find them locally. (She does add though, that “it is totally possible to pass this exam without eating any cheese!” Who would opt to do that though?!)


And while you might think that having such an impressive understanding of cheeses would make it impossible to pick favorites, that’s not the case! Both Tessie and Zach were able to quickly identify what one cheese (or type of cheese at least) they’d take to a desert island with them. Zach would opt for “any alpine cheese, just after it’s opened.” Which perhaps isn’t too surprising, once you hear that his love of cheese was sparked after tasting a freshly cut wheel of Gruyère, explaining, “the flavor was just way out of this world in comparison to my previous experience.”


Tessie would opt for Anabasque by Landmark Creamery, a sheep’s milk cheese made in southwestern Wisconsin in the style of Basque classics—its flavor changes throughout the year as the milk and pasture change. As for what sparked her love of cheese, well, we’ll let her explain in her own words:


I have categorically always loved cheese. It’s my love language, I just didn’t know it until almost 19 years into my life. I was the kid who always wanted mozzarella sticks at a restaurant, cheese curds on Wisconsin road trips, and never said “when” to the cheese grater at Olive Garden. But the first time I fell for a cheese—like, madly in love with a single cheese—was in 2006 when I had Montgomery’s Cheddar during my first holiday season working at Zingerman’s Mail Order. All the things that I’d never felt for another person happened with this cheese; my world tilted on its axis and would leave me chasing that experience for almost two decades of working in cheese. I thought I knew what love was before that bite, but hoo-boy was I wrong! The grassy, herbal start with butter notes that softly faded into the bite of horseradish and mushroom finish and lingered on my palate like a good book sticks to your thoughts for days. 

How this relates to the Deli

The Deli has been bringing specialty foods to our community and captivating cheese lovers since the day we opened in 1982. It was unusual then, but not as uncommon now. As Tessie notes, 


The cool thing about the changing face of great food over the last 15 years that I’ve worked at the Deli is that the experience is being offered by more specialty food shops around the country. Things like offering tastes of cheeses before you buy and creating personalized relationships with cheesemakers and distributors around the world to bring unique traditional cheeses to their counters used to be things that were only available at the Deli and a small handful of shops like us around the world. Now there are passionate purveyors of cheese in just about every corner of the world.


What does make the Deli different from other specialty foods shops comes down to our combination of attention and variety. As Zach explains,  


Very few places across the country have our variety of cheeses with a cheesemonger that will work with you to find what you love, tasting along the way. Because we are a cut to order shop, you know you are getting a piece of cheese that is in much better condition than you would get at a more grocery style environment.


The Deli has long been recognized as a world-class cheese counter and the knowledge and skill of our cheesemongers is known to many, so where does having ACS Certified Cheese Professionals come into play? As Tessie says, “having folks who have gone through the certification process is a measure of that skill.” And in Zach’s view, “Having Certified Cheese Professionals at the Deli creates a clear point person for newer cheesemongers to learn about cheese and cheese care from, as well providing that knowledge to guests.” Additionally, Tessie says, “it is a tangible demonstration of the commitment of the business to invest in and support its staff. Like many other skills-based industries, certifications offer the opportunity for professional development and to stay current with best practices within the industry.”

Teaching others

There are a number of ways that Zach and Tessie share their extensive knowledge. Tessie regularly teaches classes for guests like Cheese 101 and Mozzarella Making, along with pairing-focused classes like Wine & Cheese and Cheese & Honey. (Check out our Calendar of Events to see what’s ahead!) Tessie is also on our Specialty Foods Events team, so she’s always finding ways to include cheese in our events. Zach teaches an internal Cheese 101 class for Deli staffers, is the lead on selecting and buying imported cheese for our counter and works on creating systems for caring for cheese. They also both provide plenty of on-shift training for their colleagues, as everyone tastes and evaluates the various offerings of the cheese counter.   


And, of course, guests shopping at the Deli benefit from their knowledge, too, whether it’s directly from them, or from one of our other cheesemongers who have learned from Tessie and Zach! As Zach explains, the certification forces them to take a broad view of artisan and traditional cheese, which in turn allows them to help guests find a cheese that will work for most recipes and pairings. Tessie adds that going through the preparation process and the exam itself helped her to organize that breadth of knowledge and make it relevant to guests.


In fact, that’s their goal! Both Tessie and Zach want to make cheese accessible and approachable for others. As Tessie says, “The trick is to forget all the fancy language and most of the details and focus on what makes this cheese stand out and what the guest might do with it!” Zach agrees, adding, “It’s just all about listening to the guest and not overwhelming them with more information than they want.”


So the next time a cheese craving strikes and you head to our cheese counter, rest assured that that Zach, Tessie, and the rest of our Deli Detail are here to help and ready to meet you where you’re at—whether you have no idea what you’re looking for, would like help putting together options that pair well together for a cheese board, or want in-depth information about an aging process. We’ll offer options based on your goal, and ask questions to help figure out what cheeses might be the best fit. For Tessie, the magic number of choices she offers is three:


One cheese that I think is right on point of what they are looking for, one cheese that is a little milder or more approachable, and one that pushes the boundaries a little bit in intensity. This gives the guest a range of intensities to work from and we can either narrow down from those three or talk about what they liked/didn’t like so that we can go in a different direction! 


And the best part is, unlike taking the ACS CCP exam, the cheese selection process at the Deli definitely includes lots of tasting! As Zach says, “we keep sampling until they find something

they can’t live without.”


> Can’t wait to choose your cheese? Shop online now!

P.S. Our ACS Certified Cheese Professionals aren’t our only cheesy certifications of note! Zingerman’s Co-Founder Ari Weinzweig was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the American Cheese Society in 2014. And, multiple former Deli and Creamery employees have participated in the Cheesemonger Invitational (no, it isn’t connected with the American Cheese Society, but yes, it’s very much a real thing), including Zach Sievers, along with Mike White, Zach Berg, Steve Hall, and Bella Breazeale. And, two former employees made it to the final round. Cheesemonger finalists include Carlos Souffront in 2010 and Sean Hartwig in 2012.