Fresh, natural, locally grown and small batch are food terms that resonate with shoppers. But, when some consumers hear the word “raw” in association with dairy foods, they assume the worst — Salmonella or listeria. Even after periods of dairy recalls, who can blame them?

Today, the cheese industry has taken the term raw to a whole new level, one where shoppers can indulge on raw cheeses without experiencing any poisoning symptoms.

In fact, raw milk cheeses are becoming increasingly popular in the natural foods sector, says RachelOriana Schraeder, sales director for Sierra Nevada Cheese Co.

“Consumer awareness and demand for alternatives to cows’ milk is increasing,” she says. “Hot-button terms include ‘truly raw,’ ‘local’ and ‘putting a face on our farmers.’”

That’s why the Willows, Calif., company launched two lines of raw cheeses — Raw Organic Cows’ Milk (white cheddar, creamy Jack and jalapeño Jack) and Caprae Raw Goats’ Milk (aged goat cheddar and Monterrey Jacques).

Using fresh raw milk purchased from family run dairies in Northern California, the milk is heated to 104°F to preserve its full, original nutritional value and then aged for more than 60 days. Both lines are available in 8-ounce retail packages and 5-pound bulk loaves for foodservice or in-store cut-and-wrap uses.

For its part, Grafton Village Cheese, Grafton, Vt., introduced a new line of raw milk Vermont cheddars under its Grafton Tavern Select brand. Comprised of 2-, 3- and 4-year-old naturally aged cheddars and a Maple Smoked cheddar that is cold-smoked for up to four hours over maple wood chips, Tavern Select cheeses are handmade in small batches from local Jersey cow’s milk.

“As emerging trends in the natural cheese category, the high-end, specialty segment is experiencing strong, sustained growth in the quality and variety of products with many new brand entrants,” says David Rachlin, president and CEO.

Grafton Village Cheese also developed a Cave Aged brand, which consists of raw milk, artisan specialty cheeses, including sheep milk, cows’ milk and a sheep-and-cow milk combination. They are made by hand in small batches and aged in open air within the company’s new cave-aging facility in Grafton, Rachlin says.
While raw cheeses may not be in Vermont Farmstead Cheese Co.’s portfolio, the South Woodstock, Vt., processor is latching on to the locally grown trend, as more and more consumers want to know the origin of the foods they eat.

“We believe that consumers today like to know where their food comes from — that the food produced is derived from a natural, clean and healthy environment,” says Kent Underwood, chief operating officer. “In addition to wanting delicious cheese, consumers are growing more and more health-conscious, so hot-button words include ‘natural,’ ‘sustainable,’ [and] ‘healthy.’ We also believe that consumers are looking to find something new and enjoy something different.”

With that something new and different come a line of unusually flavored cheeses produced by the 11-month-old company. For example, BrickHaus Tilsit, AleHouse Cheddar and Lillé Coulommiers “incorporate local products in a whole new way, yet pay homage to some very old, traditional cheese recipes. We are making Old World cheese classics with Vermont flair,” Underwood says.

Also tapping into the locally grown trend is Rogue Creamery with its Flora Nelle blue cheese, named after the two owners’ grandmothers.

“This blue [cheese] is made in the traditional European style with animal rennet (calf), and it is our only blue cheese that is pasteurized,” says Francis Plowman, director of marketing and merchandising for the Central Point, Ore.-based processor. “It was developed to ship to the Australian market; our first shipment to Australia was received in December 2010.”

Rogue Creamery also created line extensions to its TouVelle cheese line, with new flavors such as lavender, rosemary and a smoky version.

In the goat cheese segment, new and innovative products continue to increase in popularity, according to Lindsay Gregory, marketing manager for Woolwich Dairy, Canada.

“The Crème Chèvre products are actually something that we made years ago and decided to bring back to our line once we saw an increased presence of fresh, new and funky spreadable cheeses,” she adds.

The higher moisture cheeses, Gregory says, are great alternatives to heavy cream cheeses, butters or dips, making them a good alternative to other cheese offerings. Available in Plain ‘N’ Simple, Inevitable Vegetable and Big Kick Herb & Garlic offerings, the Crème Chèvre line starts with a base of soft unripened goat cheese, is then blended using all-natural ingredients to a light, creamy consistency and packaged in 5.3-ounce recyclable tubs. They’re recommended as a component to pasta, omelettes, casseroles, quiches or toppings to pizza.

Revamping formulas for healthier cheeses

Unlike some cheese producers who strive to produce innovative cheese kinds, others focus on revamping formulas to provide better-for-you options for the everyday consumer.

“Cheese continues to be one of America’s favorite dairy forms,” says Barbara Gannon, vice president of corporate communications and government affairs for Sargento Foods Inc., Plymouth, Wis. “The natural cheese snacks category, in particular, has been growing. It provides the flavor variety and high protein consumers want with the calcium they need for a satisfying snack between meals.”

That’s why it created a reduced-sodium line of natural cheeses. Available in eight varieties — mild cheddar shredded, mozzarella shredded, Pepper Jack slices, Colby-Jack slices, provolone slices, mild cheddar snacks, Colby-Jack snacks and string cheese stick snacks — each offering contains 25% less sodium than its regular counterpart.

To better speak to those consumers in search of gourmet flavors and convenience, Tillamook County Creamery Association, Tillamook, Ore., introduced the Creamery Collection, a line of pre-sliced cheeses in Hot Habanero Jack, Garlic Chili Pepper Cheddar, Garlic White Cheddar, Smoked Black Pepper White Cheddar, Smoked Swiss and Medium Cheddar flavors. They’re sold in 2-inch squares wrapped in 7-ounce shingle packs.

Tillamook expanded its deli cheese selection to also include a 4-pound Baby Swiss loaf, designed for slicing for sandwiches, cubing for party trays and melting for fondue. This loaf is aged for 30 days for a slightly sweeter flavor with nut and butter overtones and a creamy texture.

Meanwhile, Tillamook reformulated its Monterey Jack recipe to achieve a creamier and milder cheese that works well in southwest and Hispanic recipes, says Mary Cecchini, brand communications manager.

“Consumer demand for quality foods that are simple, natural and healthy drive Tillamook’s effort to introduce new products,” she adds. “We’re meeting this trend head-on with a commitment across all our product categories to use the highest quality milk from cows not treated with artificial growth hormones and the use of natural ingredients whenever possible.”

The Laughing Cow brand, owned by Bel Brands USA Inc., an Elk Grove Village, Ill.-based subsidiary of Fromageries Bel in France, offers two new flavors to its Mini Babybel line — White Cheddar and Sharp Original. Both of these portion-controlled cheese snack options are said to be a good source of calcium and protein, offer 80 calories or less (35 calories per wedge) and are individually packaged in a wax wrapper.

Seymour Dairy, Seymour, Wis., debuted a new cheddar blue cheese that’s handcrafted in micro batches using rBGH-free milk supplied by Red Barn Family Farms, a group of small, sustainable Wisconsin dairy farms certified by the American Humane Association, Washington, D.C. This blue cheese features a sweet and nutty yet creamy and mellow flavor, boasts golden hue and green veins and is recommended to pair with a Pinot Noir or Stout, place as a table cheese or use for melting on steaks, burgers or veggies.

Despite these new flavors and portion sizes, the cheese industry is seeing less innovation, says Tom Gallagher, chief executive officer of Dairy Management Inc., Rosemont, Ill. That’s because with the rise of private-label cheeses, price has become a key factor in a consumer’s purchasing decision. “That’s a concern” for branded cheesemakers, he says.

Retail cheese sales will be slower, but cheesemakers are finding eager buyers among foodservice accounts, manufacturers of prepared foods and export clients.

Still, the U.S. consumer wants cheese, he adds, saying that cheesemakers need to position the food as a “nutrient-dense product” with high-protein content.
Shoppers no longer need to be concerned with what’s inside their cheese; they just need to prepare their meal or snack with it and enjoy. 

Cheesemakers Are Talking About:

• Sodium reduction
• Making artisan cheeses
• Adding flavor
• Portion control
• Locally grown
• Raw
• Portability and convenience

Cheese Processors Get all Wrapped Up
In the midst of creating new product offerings, cheese producers are also getting wrapped up with new packaging innovations. Here is a peek at some of the most recently introduced packaging options:

•Sierra Nevada Cheese Co., Willows, Calif., added stickers and sleeves to convey the artisan nature of its products.

•Crowley Cheese Inc., Mount Holly, Vt., downsized its 8-ounce waxed bars to 4-ounce options called Crowley Minis.

•Rogue Creamery, Central Point, Ore., introduced a 3.5-ounce blue cheese package that is wrapped in parchment, overwrapped with colorful graphics and offers a 5-month shelf life.

•Sargento Foods Inc., Plymouth, Wis., showcases flavors and textures through its large window on the front of the pack. Plus, all sub brands, such as the reduced-sodium line, feature the signature burgundy color to better aid consumers in their shopping decisions.

•Tillamook County Creamery Association, Tillamook, Ore., redesigned its product packaging to be more environment and consumer friendly by reducing the amount of packaging used for its single slices.