A tasting plate at the Philadelphia Cheese School, featuring cherries, cheese, crackers, and corn nuts Credit: Sanjana Friedman for Billy Penn

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Philadelphia is home to plenty of specialty cheese shops, from tricked out sections and high-end supermarkets to local gourmet grocers to mom-and-pop shops. But where can you learn what to do with all the fun, fancy fromage?

If you’re seeking a systematic but playful introduction, you can stop by the Philadelphia Cheese School on 9th and Bainbridge streets.

Run by cheesemonger Julia Birnbaum, who spent years working at Di Bruno Bros. in Philadelphia and New York City’s famed Murray Cheese, the school offers an array of classes for everyone from aspiring maîtres de fromage (French for cheese master) to people just trying to figure out what to include on a charcuterie board.

Offerings run the gamut from “Cheese Basics,” a 90-minute introductory tasting course taught by Birnbaum, to hour-long cocktail and beer pairing classes co-sponsored by mixer juggernaut Fever Tree and East Passyunk’s Cartesian Brewing. There are also less conventional classes, like “Cheese & Cereal” and “Cheese & Gummies.”

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Classes are offered via Zoom or in-person at the Instagram-friendly Italian Market classroom, and Birnbaum teaches every session herself, so expect a mix of jokes and plenty of snacking (for science, of course).

Why learn about cheese, and do it here? Read on for details.

What makes it special

Birnbaum believes that the magic of the Philly Cheese School, which she refers to as PCS, lies within its brand of teaching: an equal balance of know-how and whimsy. The latter is everywhere in the cheese school’s brick and mortar, but uncommon in an industry dominated by centuries-old shops with French and Italian roots. The shop has the vibe of a Nashville girl’s trip, complete with neon signage, cow print throw rugs, and lots and lots of pink.

“I wanted to give people a way to get into cheese — to enjoy cheese — that feels a little more feminine, a little more queer … a little more pink and sparkly,” Birnbaum said.

First time tasters are especially welcome in PCS classes. Birnbaum begins each one with a warm disclaimer: “I’m going to be asking what you taste and what you notice and there are no wrong answers.”

For her, teaching these classes is a form of “edutainment” that toes the line between providing high-quality education and eliciting belly laughs. Good cheese teachers do need “a little bit of quirky nerdiness,” she said, and “an interest in talking about milk and mold and weird stuff like that.” But they also need bubbliness, charisma, and an openness to unexpected pairings, like a French cheese with a bite of Fruit Loops.

Some of the cheese-adjacent goods you can snag at PCS Credit: Sanjana Friedman for Billy Penn

Each class at the PCS features a unique spread of 4 to 5 cheeses, most of which Birnbaum sources from small farms and local vendors, alongside jams, crackers, fruits, and the occasional unconventional accompaniments like cookies or gummies.

Billy Penn’s tutorial took place near a cow-printed vase with three staple cheeses:

  • A Manchego from Spain, best served at room temperature
  • A fresh goat-and-sheep milk blend marinated in olive oil and rosemary from Australia, best for spreading on the nearest available cracker
  • A Saint Agur blue cheese from France, which Birnbaum called a “gateway blue,” best served to people who still recoil at the thought of eating moldy cheese

How it came to be

Though PCS started as an online passion project during the COVID-19 pandemic, Birnbaum said the school has been a highlight of her almost decade-long career in the cheese industry.

“This business is my dream, I’ve dreamed of [it] ever since I got into the cheese business in 2014,” she told Billy Penn in between bites of Manchego.

Birnbaum was raised on the Main Line, and became enamored with cheese when she landed a job at Murray’s after college at Sarah Lawrence. There she learned it was possible to “build a life in cheese,” splitting her time between mongering and marketing at the NYC cheese giant known for its vast selection and grilled cheese sandwiches.

PCS’s mission of adding femininity and accessibility to cheese has become crucial as Birnbaum lists skepticism, sexism, and online criticism as part-and-parcel of her life in cheese: “People [are] mad that I’m a women, mad that I’m openly queer, just mad.”

Philadelphia Cheese School founder Julia Birnbaum Credit: Sanjana Friedman for Billy Penn

But women have always played a crucial role in the history of cheesemaking and mongering, having established some of the Midwest’s first cheese factories. PCS is part of a nationwide surge in LGBTQ-owned cheese businesses using the snack to build community.

For Birnbaum, community might just be the best part of a well-crafted cheese board.

“Cheese can heal the world in a lot of ways,” she said. “When people are like, ‘Woah, cheese is bigger than something we put on pizza’ … that realization is an incredible moment.”

What it means for the neighborhood

Birnenbaum likes that her storefront is different from the rest of the cheese shops that dot 9th Street. A trip to the Italian Market will take you to Di Bruno’s., with its rows of fancy imported foods, or Claudio’s, where cheeses crowd the counter and hang from the ceiling. All those options can feel overwhelming for a novice.

“I feel like you walk into these really, really old school cheese shops and that the energy is just really masculine — not that there’s anything wrong with that,” Birnbaum said. “You see the big cheeses hanging from the ceiling, you smell the salami, and there’s a big burly guy like ‘What do you want, hun?’.”

There’s lots more to explore in the area, too. Before your class at PCS, head to Taqueria La Prima for a take-out plate of birria tacos, and then cap off your night with craft beers on the patio of the 9th Street Bottle Shop.

PCS — and everything else we mentioned — is accessible via bus on the 47, the 40, or via the Broad Street Line (Lombard-South stop, then walk half a mile east from Broad).

What to expect when you go

Public classes at PCS cost $50 per person for an hour to 90 minutes of instruction and are BYOB, since cheese is enhanced by a fun libation to accompany it. Private sessions are also available, and groups can rent out the space for $90 per person (plus a serving charge).

A first-timer? Birnbaum suggests starting with the “Cheese Basics” course, though seasoned tasters are also welcome — the spread changes every time. Our recommendation: The “Cheese and Cookie” classes (sounds like the ultimate munchies cure).

The future holds an expanding list of out-of-the-box collaborations with other local small businesses — Birnbaum is in talks with Riverwards Produce to organize a “Cheese & Seasonal Produce” class.