Editors Note: This year’s Cheese Trends Spotlight includes three elements. This introductory article looks at the broad trends and opportunities in all facets of the U.S. cheese market. A feature from the Wisconsin Milk Marketing board forecasts the hot trends of 2007 and looks at some innovations from Wisconsin. Finally, there is a preview of the 2007 Wisconsin Cheese Industry Conference.  

Editors Note: This year’s Cheese Trends Spotlight includes three elements. This introductory article looks at the broad trends and opportunities in all facets of the U.S. cheese market. A feature from the Wisconsin Milk Marketing board forecasts the hot trends of 2007 and looks at some innovations from Wisconsin. Finally, there is a preview of the 2007 Wisconsin Cheese Industry Conference.  

The French cheese industry has just hired a new marketing agency to help get a slice of the growing American appetite for specialty cheese. Large U.S. cheese marketers are selling more forms of natural cheese than ever, in more places in the grocery store, and cheese is a the key ingredient in more and more items on most restaurant menus.

Welcome to the world of cheese! It’s one of the richest segments in the dairy industry in more ways than one. And there’s no part of the cheese business that’s more exciting than specialty and artisan cheese.
“The sales volumes of many of these ‘specialty’ cheeses are dwarfed by mozzarella and American cheeses, but the margins per pound are another story,” wrote industry analyst Jerry Dryer in a recent column for Dairy Foods. “Yes, it costs more to make a specialty cheese, however…specialty cheese makers add value and extract a more attractive price from the marketplace. For some varieties, demand has clearly outstripped supply, which allows for additional premiums.”

Specialty and artisan cheesemaking has blossomed in the U.S. in the last 10 years, and the number and sophistication of the companies making these award winning cheeses continues to grow.

The market for their goods is growing too. So much so that a French food industry promotion agency recently hired an American marketing group to help sell cheese from France in the U.S.

It’s the first time the industry has chosen someone outside France to directly market their cheese. And this is its first organized foray into the United States, according to an article last month in the Portland Press Herald, Portland, Maine.

Why the special efforts? Well, as Americans have developed a greater interest in great traditional cheeses of Europe, they have found that there are cheesemakers right in their own backyard interpreting those traditions
as well as anyone.

The new marketing initiative will create an umbrella brand for cheeses using the term “Made in France” to connote the romance and tradition of imported French cheeses. 
Allison Hooper, president of the American Cheese Society told the newspaper that the French effort won’t hurt American cheesemakers, as there is enough growth in demand for everyone.
Hooper should know. Her Vermont Butter and Cheese Co., introduced three goat cheeses last year that reflect French traditions.

Meanwhile, a company from the opposite coast, Rogue Creamery, Central Point, Ore., took its renowned blue cheeses and Cheddars across the Atlantic last year and became the first American cheese company to be awarded an Innovation in Excellence award at the SIAL trade show in Paris.  The creamery is also the first American artisan cheese company to be certified by the European Union and the first Raw Milk Cheese to be imported into the EU.

“Our cheese was very well received because of its uniqueness and our innovative flavors,” says David Gremmels, co-owner of Rogue Creamery.  “We were hoping for a good reception but the overwhelmingly positive response was tremendously affirming.”

Oregon Blue, Smokey Blue, Oregonzola and Rogue River Blue were singled out in the blues category.  Several flavored cheddars were recognized, including Rosemary, Chipotle, Lavender, Cumin and Rogue Chocolate Stout.

Another American cheesemaker offering interpretations of old world cheeses is Fiscalini Cheese Co., Modesto, Calif. The company recently introduced an Alpine-style cheese named Lionza, inspired by the town in Switzerland’s Italian sector where owner John Fiscalini’s family has been dairying and making cheese for more than 300 years.

This semi-hard, fragrant cheese will be entered into a number of competitions in the U.S. and in Europe this year.

While its cheese traditions are not as storied as the French, Norway also imports a good amount of cheese to the U.S. In fact, the importers of the Jarlsberg brand claim it is the top-selling specialty cheese in America. Now, Norseland Inc. is introducing Norwegian Snofrisk, a unique spreadable cheese made of a blend of goats milk and cows cream.

The grocery aisle and the drive through

Specialty cheese makes up a small amount of the cheese produced and sold in the United States. Sandwich cheese, pizzas (both fresh and frozen) and cheeseburgers continue to make up a much bigger chunk and there is plenty of opportunity here, as well.

For many years cheese has represented one of the best growth areas for the dairy industry, says Tom Gallagher, CEO of Dairy Management Inc.

“Cheese is going to continue to be a very good growth opportunity for the industry,” Gallagher says. “We’ve started to see that where the growth comes from is going to be a little bit different from where it has come from in the past.”

While pizza and other food service vehicles will continue to sell cheese, new positions in the grocery store may be even more important. Gallagher cited a recent packaging and merchandising effort by a major cheese marketer that encouraged consumers to include cheese in salads.

“I think the next wave of innovations will include more things like what has been done with crumbled cheese in the produce department,” he says.

Strong sales of shredded cheese and natural slices continue to demonstrate that American consumers want high quality cheese that’s easy to use. And, while cheese has at times drawn fire from nutrition quadrants due to its high fat content, the industry, including Gallagher’s organization is actively defending cheese by calling attention to its nutrient density.

New frontiers include cheese with functional benefits and better low-fat products, Gallagher says.

Beyond terroir

When the French campaign speaks to specialty cheese consumers, it will most likely make reference to terroir, the idea that specific geography, soil and even climate leave a distinctive mark on traditional foods, making it impossible or at least difficult, to replicate those foods in other places.

Terroir itself will be part of a broader emerging discussion about the milk sources used to make cheeses in the United Sates.

The Wisconsin Marketing Board addresses this in its trends piece, and the topic will be part of the discussion at next month’s Wisconsin Cheese Industry Conference.

In fact, there are at least two cheesemakers in Wisconsin who have made milk source an integral part of their added value.

The Edelweiss Graziers Cooperative was formed last summer by a group of Wisconsin farmers who practice managed grazing in the New Glarus area, south of Madison. The cooperative later purchased a cheesemaking facility and it is working in partnership with master cheesemaker Bruce Workman. Edelweiss will market cheeses made in the Swiss tradition, made from the milk of grazing cows.

Meanwhile, a few hours north of Edelweiss, Grass Point Farms, Thorp, Wis., is marketing cheese and other dairy products made from grazing cows. Grass Point also invokes terroir and blends it with discussions about sustainability, sourcing food locally, and humane treatment of animals.

While the American Cheese Society is in part made up of  artisan and specialty cheesemakers from around North America, there are also a growing number of state guilds that promote cheese education, and communication and interaction between cheesemakers of all kinds.

The Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese at the University of Vermont offers a complete selection of courses for those making artisan cheese. Details are available atwww.uvm.edu/~viac/.

Whether it’s made locally or imported, served as a gourmet treat or used as an ingredient in comfort food, cheese continues to be a star of the dairy industry.