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Alison Leber, You Go, Girl!

Sunday, 10 March 2019 17:25
 A sample of cheeses on offer from Alison Leber's Roving Cheese Shop A sample of cheeses on offer from Alison Leber's Roving Cheese Shop Photo: Alison Leber

By Rachael Lucas

I look up to brave, independent, innovative women. 

As a female, there is something emboldening in the knowledge that there are women blazing trails, transcending long-established roles, and paving new paths.  As a cheese professional, one of my personal role models is Alison Leber.  This woman is a full-on go-getter.  She has been turning average cheese eaters into flaming turophiles in the Seattle area for more than three decades.  She does it on her terms, in her own way, and with finesse.

Alison Leber IMG 0556 PicmonkeyAlison Leber as captured in Audra Mulhern photo

Alison started her palatal journey at a young age, as she was born into a family with great appreciation for Washington wine.  Her uncles were founders of Columbia Winery, and by extension, it forged an avenue for her to utilize her knowledge and skills.  Alison began her profession in the food and wine industry as a wine steward for Larry’s Market in Seattle.  Here, she taught classes in the cooking school and educated folks about wine and some cheese.  This is where she got her first exposure to cheese.  Back then, Seattle had scant access to French fromage.   Little by little, Alison was introduced to it and in turn, subjected the masses to such comestible finery. 

She later acquired the title of Sommelier.  This was back in the late eighties when it was unheard of for a woman to be a sommelier.  In this male-dominated industry, she trudged her way and made herself known.  Her knowledge and insight commanded a respect in the field, and she, of course, excelled. It was around this time that Alison veered over into cheese, rather than working specifically with wine.  When I asked her why she redirected her interest, she noted that, “Sometimes I just don’t feel like drinking.  But I always want to eat some cheese.”  In fact, Alison consumes, on average, a quarter to a half pound of cheese each day!

In 1992, she bought Brie and Bordeaux.  This was a respected neighborhood shop that carried cheese and wine, their accoutrements, and included a popular bistro.  To this day, I don’t think that Seattle has seen a place quite like Brie and Bordeaux.  Alison’s was among the first two retail cheese facilities in the area to gain the acceptance/approval of England’s highly reputed cheese exporter and affineur Neal’s Yard.   Thus, she enjoys the distinction of being one of the first (arguably the first) retailers in Seattle to vend their quality cheese (such cheeses include Montgomery’s Cheddar, Gorwydd Caerphilly, and Ogleshield!).  What started as a 4 ft cheese case grew to a 12 ft case.  Her wine selection exceeded 500 labels. She created an affinage facility in her shop where she aged cheese for local restaurants.  She catered, taught classes, and turned Seattle on to a yet-to-be tapped into resource—artisan cheese.  To boot, her shop was a sanctuary for neighborhood kids to go after school to do homework and have a safe environment in which to spend time until their parents were finished with work.  Although the business was a tremendous success, we well know that all good things must come to an end.  So ended Brie and Bordeaux.  Motherhood called.

CSM pairings during RCS 2018 PicmonkeyCheese and wine pairings    Photo by Alison Leber

While we must admit that it is commendable, as well as fortunate, for a mother to raise her own children, idle time is not Alison’s play-thing.  She needed to work.  Her kids grew older, and she began doing (aside from consulting at the original Beecher’s cheese facility) mostly non-cheese-related consulting and immersing herself in the advocation of sustainable agriculture.  She built a solid nutritional education workshop program that veined through the northwest coast.  During this ten-year span, Alison did what she does best:  she triumphed.  As her success as a consultant grew, she noticed a looming magnetism that kept pulling her back to the necessity to work with cheese.  She longed for the retail aspect.  She claimed to have “missed having a person put that cheese in their mouth and say, ‘Oh my God, this is amazing!’”

Back in retail life, she became Recruiting Manager for all of Sugar Mountain, the parent company of Beecher's,  for five years.  This was when I met Alison.  She taught a class that I attended at a local culinary school, and it was then that I noticed that this woman has something special.  Her enthusiasm for cheese was infectious, and her level of knowledge was inspiring.  I wanted to be able to talk freely about the science (an aspect of fromage that Alison delights in), possess a palate like hers that can pin-point an array of flavors and aromas at any given moment, and have the confidence to accurately spread the good word of cheese.  She quickly became an exemplar to me.  This woman created a name and a place for herself in a niche where so few women had squeezed into up to this point. 

At the time we were merely acquaintances, so I was unaware of her goals as a cheese professional.  Besides, frankly, I was selfishly submerged in my own pool of cheese education to even come up for breath and a look around to see what others were doing.  As such, when I studied for the American Cheese Society’s Certified Cheese Professionals (CCP) exam, I had no idea who else in my area was planning on taking the exam.  During my course of study, I took an ACS teleconference class thru the amazing microbe champion, Bill Stephenson.  While I assumed my trepidatious student roll that I possessed in college (probably a self-esteem thing) and failed to attempt a response to any question or to volunteer any input, I noticed a familiar voice that had all the answers to every question.  Her input demonstrated a great deal of experience, and I could tell that this woman really knows her cheese.  I speculated how easy this exam was going to be for her.  When it was time for the actual test, I saw Alison sitting a few seats away from me.  I was in no way surprised to learn that she was the knowledge behind that pleasant voice in those teleconferences.   And while I was uncertain as to whether I passed or not, she seemed resolved that she did well.  This woman oozes confidence.

From that point, I began to follow her goings on.  Since the CCP exam, Alison has, true to form, been an innovative force in the profession.  Not only does she do private and public events, classes, and team-building workshops for businesses, she also created The Roving Cheese Shop, which is a mobile, pop-up shop that shows itself at local wineries and wine shops, breweries, and soon, distilleries.  She carries 18-25 cheeses at any given time, samples everything, vends the highest quality, a point fromage, and educates consumers.  This visionary woman has created a position for herself that allows her to work on her own time, on her terms, and sell only the cheese that she reveres.  Moreover, she’s the only person in the Seattle area doing it. 

CSM Session 2018 RCS PicmonkeyAn attentive audience for wine and cheese pairing at Chateau Ste  Michelle    Photo by Alison Leber

Most recently, Alison has been further accredited with the title of ACS CCSE (Certified Cheese Sensory Evaluator).  Now she is Alison Leber, CCP, CCSE.  She is one of twenty-nine people with the honor of having this collection of letters behind her name.  The sensory evaluation exam has benefited Alison by demonstrating her aptitude in identifying quality of cheese, exemplifies that she possesses a profound understanding of the subject, and has boosted her confidence (she said).  She also reported that, while studying for that exam, “geeking out on cheese was fun as hell!”

As I look up to her as a role model in this industry, Alison, too, has gleaned inspiration from people who have paved a path in our profession.  Most notably, she lists:  Lora Lea Misterly, of Quillisascut, Debra Dickerson then of Neal's Yard Dairy, Judith Schad, of Capriole Creamery in Indiana, Mary Keene, of Cypress Grove, Allison Hooper, of Vermont Butter & Cheese, and Mary Quicke, of Quicke's Cheddar, “…though,” said Alison, “she came much later for me.”

Any of us with the drive to become the best that we can be in our field are undoubtedly influenced by others who have also been in the thick of it.  As I could not help but observe that Alison’s mentioned role models are females, I, too, acknowledge that the people whom I look up to the most in cheese are almost specifically women.  Historically (or in our case, herstorically), we have had a disadvantage in the professional realm, and I believe that we are smart to stick together.  Strength in numbers does not only apply to microbes!  As women, we are taught at a young age that other females pose as competition.  Once we dismiss this notion, we can help each other in realizing our goals in the field.  There is enough room in the cheese profession that we need to lift each other and our respective accomplishments up, rather than feeling threatened by someone else’s success.  I have a handful of female colleagues, especially in the Seattle area, who are making tremendous leaps in our industry.  I feel personally empowered by these ladies and their efforts, and I, for one, cannot wait to see what transpires as they develop professionally.  Alison Leber has been an inspiration to me in such a way.  She encourages and challenges me. When I mentioned that, for a late bloomer like myself who got into cheese in my mid-thirties, I am in absolute awe of someone like her who has been learning about it and working with it for so long.  She responded, “We gotta have people like you in the industry to keep those of us from resting on our laurels.”  Damn right.   If we as women can collectively establish this attitude about one another, then there will be no limit to what can be done in the cheese industry.

If you feel intrigued by Alison’s curd glory, I recommend paying her a visit at one of her Roving Shops.  She will make you feel at ease, regardless of your level of cheese knowledge.  She will feed you the highest quality, artisan fromage around, and she will light an enthusiastic fire under you to dig deeper into what cheese has to offer.  She is among the best in our field.  You can find her upcoming Roving Cheese Shop events or contact her at http://www.alisonleber.com/.  You can also find her on Instagram and Facebook as The Roving Cheesemonger.

Rachael Lucas with cheese wheels MUG 


Editor’s note:   Rachael Lucas is an American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional (CCP).  You can most often find her cheesemongering in the Seattle area.  When she's not working with cheese, she's eating it, talking about it, reading about it, writing about it, and dreaming about it.  She can be reached with inquiries about fromage and food excitement in the Seattle area at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Last modified on Thursday, 14 March 2019 13:35


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