Cheese wins big at 2009 UGA food products contest

By Stephanie Schupska
University of Georgia

Caroline Harless had planned to be in Swainsboro, Ga., on March 17 to prepare for hunters arriving at her Flat Creek Lodge. Instead, she stayed in Atlanta, where her Flat Creek Aztec Cheddar cheese won the third annual Flavor of Georgia food products contest.

“I’m just still amazed. Amazed,” she said after Gov. Sonny Perdue announced her cheese as the 2009 grand prize winner.

Flavor of Georgia 2009 was held in conjunction with Georgia Ag Day, which kicked off National Agricultural Awareness Week in Georgia. The events took place at the Georgia Freight Depot in downtown Atlanta.

“I was impressed by the range of products submitted by Georgia food entrepreneurs. Despite challenging economic times, we received 112 submissions from 81 businesses from all over Georgia,” said Sharon Kane, who directed the contest. She is also a food business development specialist for the University of Georgia Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development.

This was the first year that cheeses were entered in the contest, and judges took notice.

“It’s definitely a cheddar,” Harless said of the Aztec cheddar. “It’s not as sharp as English or Vermont cheddar. It’s a little softer. It also has a … hint of cocoa and chili. It’s very subtle.”

Flat Creek’s head cheese maker and culinary scientist Dane Huebner developed Aztec cheddar in the spring of 2008. He added cocoa and guajilla peppers to traditional, milled curd cheddar. The result is a cream-colored cheese marbled with brown and orange.

“Dane is a very talented scientist, very much a food person,” Harless said. “He’s got a lot of great ideas cooking.”

His next cheese project is of the sheep variety. Flat Creek Lodge currently has 40 ewes and 40 newly born lambs. Once the lambs are weaned, Huebner plans to develop different varieties of sheep’s milk cheese.

Flavor of Georgia 2009 had entries as varied as peanut butter and jelly cookies, shrimp salad, jalapeno raspberry jam and peach cobbler bread.

Flat Creek won the dairy category before being named overall winner. Christopher Myhre of Buzzy’s Fine Foods won the barbecue and hot sauces category with Buzzy’s Savannah Slather. Cathy Beecher of Cathy’s Sweets Inc. won the confections category with Lite Buddy candy. Janice Walters-Taylor of Appalachian Kitchens won the jams, jellies and sauces category with Miss Chatelaine’s Winter Apple Cider and Honey Spiced Red Wine Jam.

Andrew Thompson of Thompson Farms won the meat category with All Natural Pork Chops. Kathy Werner of Mitera Granola won the snack foods category with Georgia Peach Granola. Douglas Horn of Vidalia Valley won the other/miscellaneous category for Southern Peach Vinaigrette.

Flavor of Georgia is only a starting point for many of the category winners, Kane said. She followed up with the 2008 winners and found that nearly 90 percent increased their business contacts as a result of the contest. Also, 73 percent experienced increased interest in their products, and 70 percent saw an increase in the publicity for their products.

“More than one-half of last year’s contestants saw an increase in their sales and profits following the contest,” she said.

Flavor of Georgia 2009 was sponsored by the UGA Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development, Georgia Agribusiness Council, the Governor’s Agricultural Advisory Commission and the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Department of Food Science and Technology.

(Stephanie Schupska is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

Stephanie Schupska is a news editor with the University of Georgia Public Affairs Office.