We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Staring intently at a 20-something-year-old customer at Cowgirl Creamery in Penn Quarter, head cheesemonger Adam Smith winds up for a dance he’s done many times before. “Ma’am, what can I do for you today?” The woman says she’s planning a picnic. “Great. What kind of cheeses do you usually like?” As she offers a few details about her taste, the gears in Smith’s mind grind.

He grabs a wedge of Cowgirl’s Wagon Wheel and shows it to her. (The cheesemonger code says to always push the company product first.) “It’s a great everyday cheese,” he says. Her eyes start to wander a bit, so he quickly changes direction, unwrapping a hunk of Abbaye de Belloc and slicing off a sample. Smith gingerly hands it over to the woman on a piece of wax paper. “It’s a semisoft sheep’s milk cheese that was first made by monks in France 700 years ago.” She arches her eyebrows in approval. He smiles. “After all this time, they seem to know what they’re doing,” he says.

Soon, the woman has her hands full of cheese, salami, and cornichons. As she turns toward the baguettes, the wedge teeters precariously atop her haul. Smith nearly vaults over the counter to intervene, never tipping his hand about whether it’s the cheese or the woman’s honor he’s trying to save.

Don’t be fooled. Smith isn’t your everyday cheese pusher. He could plausibly be called America’s best cheesemonger, because he recently outlasted 44 of the most distinguished professionals in America to win the 2012 Cheesemonger Invitational, a grueling competition within the burgeoning artisan cheese industry. Though little-known, the competition is the equivalent of an Iron Man Triathlon for the nose, mouth, and mind. This bearded, burly man, who could have easily been a longshoreman or lumberjack in another life, owns one of the most delicate palates in all of cheesedom.

The mere existence of the Cheesemonger Invitational, now moving into its fourth year, is a testament to the growth of the industry. It’s no small thing that Smith, the current titleholder, is a Cowgirl Creamery monger, because the company has been a champion of fine cheeses, particularly American-made products, since it was founded by D.C.-area natives Sue Conley and Peggy Smith in 1997. What began as a small operation in a warehouse in Point Reyes Station, Calif., has grown steadily into a major wholesaler serving customers like Whole Foods. The company now makes 10 of its own cheeses, many of them award-winners, and operates busy storefronts in Point Reyes, San Francisco, and D.C. The National Association for the Specialty Food Trade now ranks cheese as the largest specialty food category, valued at $3.44 billion annually. It’s one of the few industries that has continued to grow though the economic downturn.

Smith is part of a new generation of cheesemongers, much like the rock-star butchers of a decade ago, who are trying to make sure small shops remain relevant even as major corporate entities are starting to move into artisan cheese. Smith seems to believe that singular focus and sheer hours worked can help hold the line. It’s an ethic he picked up early in St. Louis, where he was born and raised.

“We didn’t have much money, so most of my food memories involved tuna noodle casserole, corn dogs, and fish sticks,” he says. “But I always loved to work. My first job was at a local supermarket, and the manager said I was the best stock boy he’d ever seen.”

Smith wove his way through restaurant jobs in high school and college (he finished his degree at the University of Missouri), becoming enamored with the fast pace and culture of kitchens. One day in 2007, he answered a Craigslist ad from a store called The Wine Merchant in a relatively affluent St. Louis neighborhood. There was a Wild West quality to the place, says Smith, who remembers the owner keeping his collection of Bordeaux next to shotgun shells and copies of Guns & Ammo. He spent the next year and a half learning about good wine and gourmet food, and helping expand the shop’s cheese program. He also started to feel he’d found a profession. “Cheese shops are engaging with all the different shapes and smells, and you get to connect with customers directly, unlike when you’re working a line in a kitchen,” says Smith, 29. “Small retail establishments like cheese shops are also a real way to preserve culinary culture, and I get excited about that.”

Eventually, Smith began flooding the best cheese shops in the country with his résumé. After ignoring his cold calls and emails for three months, Cowgirl Creamery invited him to San Francisco for interviews. He was offered a job soon after and relocated soon after. His time there was relatively short, because Cowgirl founders Conley and Smith asked him to take over the D.C. shop in late 2011. “Adam is one of the most passionate cheesemongers I’ve ever worked with, and he really stays focused on moving the industry forward and his mission of selling cheese,” says Debra Dickerson, Cowgirl’s head of sales and a mentor to Smith.

Focus is essential for the lucky few who are accepted into the Cheesemonger Invitational, which is held over 24 hours each June in a warehouse in Long Island City, Queens. For this year’s contest, Smith’s first, he squared off against mongers, makers, and affineurs (agers) from well-known shops like Murray’s Cheese and Saxelby Cheesemongers in New York and Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, Mich.

With its DJs and free-flowing refreshments, the event is equal parts rave and culinary competition. “What we’re doing is a bit underground, a bit crazy and a bit unrestrained,” says founder Adam Moskowitz, general manager of Larkin, a family cheese-importing business in New York that goes back three generations. “This is about testing the guys and gals who work long days behind the counter for $10 an hour, and giving them a place to build community and celebrate their craft.”

The different events are rapid-fire and grueling. For the “Taste Test,” participants are asked to name milk type, category (e.g. bloomy rind vs. washed rind), age, and country of origin based on a nibble of cheese. In the “Cheese of the Day” portion, challengers must complete a sales simulation by presenting a hand-written sign, explaining the cheese in front of them, portioning it, and re-wrapping it for a judge acting as customer. Twelve contestants made it to the final round for tests in cutting, weighing, storing, and plating. Smith scored an overall 183, beating his nearest competitor by seven points.

“He was confident during the customer engagement segment, which really separates the weak from the strong, because everything comes together in that moment,” says Elaine Khosrova, editor at Culture magazine and a judge at this year’s event.

Moskowitz, the event’s founder, was also impressed by Smith’s dedication. “There was a moment in the final round when I asked every monger why they chose cheese as a profession,” he says. “Everyone tried to get really poetic, but Adam said ‘This is my job, this is what I do, and I love it.’ When he won, he said something like ‘Thank you, this is great, but I need to get back behind my counter.’”

Smith’s return to D.C. with the crown was equally low-key, although his employees made him a congratulatory banner that hangs in the shop’s window. He seems more interested in keeping his nose to the grindstone, which may be a smart strategy, given the growing competition for cheese share in D.C. Mainstays like Cork Wine Bar and Cork Market are chugging along, and upstarts like Carolyn Stromberg’s Righteous Cheese are grabbing new space at Union Market and other upscale developments. Food Network’s deal site, CityEats, recently published a “10 Best Fromageries” list for D.C. which included Cowgirl Creamery. Even Whole Foods is trying to up its game by sending its cheese counter specialists to the American Cheese Society’s monger certification school, the first program of its kind in the world.

Smith is unfazed. On the night he sends the customer off to her picnic, he dons a blindfold to try a Cheesemonger Invitational-esque taste test that his employees set up for him. He sniffs and nibbles his way through six cheeses, but correctly categorizes only two. Instead of huffing and puffing about the shortfall, he just smiles from behind the counter. Win, lose, or draw, there’s no place he’d rather be.

Photos by Darrow Montgomery