Among all the growing interest in unique cheese flavors and with buzzwords like grass-fed and high-protein being tossed around, one theme remains constant: natural still wins. Consumers want to know where their cheese is coming from, their interest in the local farmstead story remains hot, and they still want clean labels.

In the 52 weeks ended Aug. 11, 2013 the natural cheese category showed dollar sales up 2.4% to $11.7 billion and units rising 2.8%, according to Information Resources Inc. (IRI), Chicago. Compared to last year, about 52% of respondents from Dairy Foods2013 Ingredients Study expect their spending on natural/organic ingredients to increase.

Compare this to the continuing decline in processed cheese sales. In the same time period, IRI’s data show the processed cheese category’s sales down 3.1% to $3.1 billion and units down 3%. Looking at innovation and new products this year, the emphasis has been on organic, raw, grass-fed milk cheeses, interesting flavor combinations and convenient packaging portions, not new processed cheese products.

Read the entire Industry Outlook

Bold flavors and artisan cheeses

Look around the specialty cheese sections at the store or even the deli counter and interesting flavor combinations can be found. Bold flavors and exciting varieties are spicing up the market, according to “What’s in Store,” the annual trends publication of the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association (IDDBA), Madison, Wis.

According to Euromonitor’s Cheese in the U.S. report, “U.S. cheese consumers are becoming increasingly adventurous, and interested in trying new cheeses with more distinctive flavor profiles.”  According to IDDBA, bold, robust and spicy flavors continue to drive business. They include spicy cheeses with wasabi and cumin, as well as fruity cheeses including pear and lime. Coffee, lavender and honey are other trendy cheese flavors.

“We see strong flavor as driving consumer choice. They want bold, inspiring flavors and are looking for something new and exciting,” said Director of Marketing/Sales Services Amy Levine at Cabotcheese, Montpelier, Vt., a brand of AgriMark.

Cabot is adding some unique flavors with a new line, Farmers’ Legacy Collection. Examples are White Oak Cheddar, Farmhouse Reserve Cheddar and Alpine blend (an Italian-style hard cheese with hints of Swiss and Parmesan flavors).  The company also added a new hand-rubbed Everything Bagel flavor to its Cheddar line. The new cheese is encrusted with onion, garlic and poppy seeds.

“In the entertaining category, consumers continue to be interested in gourmet and globally inspired flavors and experiences,” said Kimberly Mulcahy, senior communications manager at Bel Brands, Chicago. In answer to that, the company launched a new Boursin Red Chili Pepper flavor in a 5.2-ounce package. Also new from Bel in The Laughing Cow line are Light White Cheddar, and Smooth Sensations Cream Cheese: Chive & Onion 1/3 Less Fat.

Heluva Good!, a brand of HP Hood LLC, Lynnfield, Mass., focused entirely on the bold concept with its new line Heluva Good! BOLD, featuring three flavors — Chipotle Cheddar, Habanero Jack and Special Reserve Extra Sharp Cheddar.

Many of these unique flavors and combinations are sparked by the continued artisan cheese movement. Thanks to this trend, flavors like fruit, spices and chocolate are showing up in cheese. According to the Dairy Foods 2013 Ingredients Study, cheese processors noted these top five fruit flavors they plan on using: strawberry, blueberry, mango, cherry and raspberry. About 51% of respondents from the same ingredients study expect their spending on other ingredients (e.g. chocolate & cocoa, fruits, nuts and juices) to increase. Cheesemakers said they expect to introduce an average of 14 new products in the next 12 months, about the same as ice cream processors, but less than yogurt and butter processors.

“The biggest opportunity is to educate retailers and consumers in order to continue to grow the artisan cheese category. Right now, there is an American artisan cheese movement,” said Chad Vincent, chief marketing officer at Sartori Cheese, Plymouth, Wis. “Consumers are starting to look at the United States for artisan cheese and there is becoming a ‘want.’ Consumers are looking for something new to try — something that they can show off to their friends — the specialty cheese category has some excitement behind it.”

Sartori added a new cheese to its Reserve Family line earlier this year, Chai BellaVitano. The cheese  pairs the sweet, creamy and fruity pineapple flavors of BellaVitano with a blend of black tea, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom and cloves (traditional chai flavors).  The rind is also meant to be eaten.

Best Cheese, Purchase, N.Y., an importer of specialty Dutch cheeses, added a similar flavor to its farmstead Melkbus collection this fall — MelkbusWinter 125. The four-month aged, raw Gouda cheese is spiced with cardamom, nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon.

Vermont Farmstead Cheese Co., Woodstock, Vt., introduced two additions to its line of artisanal cheese — savory Sage WindsorDale and tangy Windsor Blue. The Sage WindsorDale is created with savory sage leaves and oil of the herb added to the cheese. The Windsor Blue is made with gorgonzola from the Midwest. WindsorDale is a raw, British-style hard cheese.

Along with unique flavors in artisan lines, aged cheeses (especially longer-aged cheeses) are popular. 

“People are appreciating the longer-aged Cheddars in the cheese category. We age our Cheddars from one to four years, sometimes longer,” said Meri Spicer, director of sales and marketing at Grafton Village Cheese, Brattleboro Vt.  She also said customers are especially interested in sheep and mixed-milk specialty cheeses from Grafton’s Cave Aged line. Its greatest opportunities are with small batch specialty cheeses.

“We are seeing an increased interest in smaller batch cheeses that we’re making and other smaller artisanal cheese makers are coming out with,” said Spicer.

“Small batch, handmade cheeses are now popping up everywhere and made with a variety of milks (cow, sheep and goat),” said Melissa Gullotti, director of communications Windham Foundation and Grafton Village Cheese.

Health messages dominate

Though natural cheese and unique flavors are still big for cheese processors this year, new trends are popping up, like grass-fed, non-GMO and high-protein. Plus raw cheese continues to be hot.

“We see processors recognizing the power of protein to include dairy as a key method of delivery.  The protein content has made its way to the front of many packages so the consumer can quickly identify a protein source they may not be familiar with,” Jim Dimataris, director of processor relations, California Milk Advisory Board.

Barbara Gannon, vice president of corporate communications and government relations at Sargento Cheese, Plymouth, Wis., said “Natural cheese is a good source of protein and calcium, is gluten-free and has no HFCS [high-fructose corn syrup]. Protein and calcium are called out on the front of our natural cheese snack packages.”

This year Sargento added Sharp Cheddar and Pepper Jack to its line of Ultra Thin Sliced Natural cheeses (which was introduced last year). The company also added two new flavors to its Natural Blends line, Sliced Sharp Cheddar-Jack and Sharp Cheddar-Jack Snack, part of the on-the-go cheese stick line.

Organic Valley, La Farge, Wis., put the emphasis on grass-fed and raw with its new Grassmilk Raw Cheddar,  an artisanal raw milk cheese made from organic milk produced from cows that are 100% grass-fed. According to Tripp Hughes, director of category development at Organic Valley, the company has helped lead the non-GMO movement as well.

“Organic Valley has been a pioneer in the non-GMO and organic movement (organics prohibits GMO production) and we are glad to see it gaining momentum,” he said.

At this year’s International Dairy-Deli-Bake Association expo in Orlando, Fla., raw and specialty cheeses were on display in abundance. Swiss Valley Farms, the Iowa-based cooperative, was selling 5-pound wheels of its grass-fed baby Swiss. The Wisconsin dairy co-op Ellsworth Cooperative Creameryshowed a new line of rBST/rBGH-free domestic cheeses.

Another company getting into the raw cheese department is Coach Farms, Pine Plains, N.Y. The company created Rawstruck, a soft ripened 100% raw goat’s milk that’s aged for 60 days. After 28 years of pasteurized cheese making, this was the company’s first raw milk goat cheese. According to Tara Kirch, director of marketing, the Rawstruck packaging was a new concept for the company with its big, bold, black label and chalk-like writing on it. (See photo on page 42.) It’s still wrapped in the company’s traditional white paper, but the label stands out from the rest of its product line, which was the goal.

Packaging and portions

Packaging is a critical element to marketing a brand, according to Dimataris of the California Milk Advisory Board. 

“The consumer has about three seconds to make a decision in a busy aisle of a grocery store. The more you can do to catch her attention the better,” he said. “As sustainability becomes more mainstream, consumers like to know their packages are recyclable. They also like attractive professional-looking designs and relevant information on the front of the packages that helps them make their decision.  There is a need for more unique packaging in the dairy industry as the European, Asian and Oceana marketers are far ahead of us in this important area.”

Tillamook Ore.-based Tillamook County Creamery Associationbegan a packaging design overhaul for its entire dairy products line this fall. The redesign streamlines the brand’s messaging with more product information, company insight and a distinguished color scheme. Additional features include detailed flavor descriptions, more farmer-owned identification, recipe suggestions, call-outs to visit Tillamook online and a larger eye-catching company logo. The first products to roll out in the new look were the 12-ounce stacked sliced cheeses, 8-ounce shingle sliced cheeses and a variety of sizes of stand-up shreds. The remaining products will launch early next year.

Bel Brands’ Mulcahy said the company recently changed the packaging on its Mini Babybel Light to a light blue and white wrapper for “better visibility on-shelf and to help consumers distinguish it from other Mini Babybel varieties.”

According to Mulcahy, responsible packaging is important to Bel. “As we make changes to packaging, we look to reduce the amount of packaging materials used for our products if feasible and favor the use of environmentally friendly materials.” 

Sartori Cheese altered its MontAmoré cheese packaging, moving to a parchment-style look. “We believe the parchment look provides an enhanced look to the product and stronger artisan and hand-crafted cues,” said Sartori’s Vincent.

Processors are making smaller size options for portability, snacking or better value as well.

“We have processors adding small sizes of cheese – 6-ounce chunks – in order to achieve the $0.99 or $1.00 retails needed for the dollar stores. This is huge business and has caught on in a big way,” said Dimataris. 

Kraft Foods, Northfield, Ill., added new flavors, portion sizes and combo packs to its line this year. Its Natural Cheese Big Slices are now available in Chipotle White Cheddar. Kraft’s Slim Cut cheese slices is a new reduced-fat, natural cheese slice option that contain 35 calories per slice (105 calories in a 3 slice serving). For multipacks, Kraft added a Natural Cheese Slices Combo Pack that consists of two flavor varieties of cheese slices in one pack, stacked side by side. The cheese is available in two varieties:  Pepper Jack and sharp Cheddar, and mild Cheddar and Colby Jack. 

Chicago-based Dutch Farmsintroduced a new Deli Reserve cheese brand which features rigid packs that are re-closable and durable. The new line extension features aged, premium, all-natural cheese that’s available in the deli grab-and-go case, as well as behind the deli counter (sliced to order). The cheese is available in Gouda, New York extra-sharp, baby Swiss, provolone, Muenster and American.

Snack attack

Convenience and a desire for more snacking opportunities have some cheese processors answering the call, and many more should get on board with this trend.

Minnetonka, Minn.-based Crystal Farms, a subsidiary of Michael Foods Inc., introduced Nibblers, a new line of 100% real cheese snacks. The grab-and-go bite-sized cheese products are available in four flavors — including Smoky BBQ seasoned Cheddar cheese and Habanero seasoned Pepper Jack cheese. The cheese snacks come in 1.5-ounce stand-up, single-serve bags.

Cabot answered the snacking trend by adding two of its most popular flavors to its Cracker cut cheese slices — Seriously Sharp and Pepperjack flavors. The cheeses are pre-sliced making it easy to serve as snacks or at parties.

Tillamook County Creamery cites snacks and novelties as its biggest growth area.

“Snacking meal occasions are on the rise, and they require convenience as one of the primary attributes,” said Jay Allison, Tillamook vice president of sales and marketing. “As the cheese snack category matures, we believe consumers are increasingly looking for healthy snack options and higher-quality cheese as part of the snack experience. The challenge right now in the snacking category is to meet the consumer’s and retail customer’s expectations for value. The snack category is commodity-driven with multiple brands delivering cookie-cutter products, so we are trying to shake things up with aged Cheddars, bolder-flavored cheeses and fresh packaging.”

Snack-size portions of cheese were showing up at the IDDBA expo this year as well, further indicating the growing trend. BelGioioso Cheese, Green Bay, Wis., introduced fresh mozzarella cheese in 1-ounce snack-size packaging. Old Fashioned Cheese, Mayville, Wis., launched snack packs of Cheddar cheese paired with raisins, cranberries or almonds. President, a cheese brand of France’s Lactailis, revived its Wee Brie line of 40-calorie wedges.

As the emphasis on adding more protein to our diets increases, cheese processors have a great opportunity to innovate with snacking options that make getting protein easier.  Yogurt companies have figured it out. Now it’s time for cheese to get on board.

Cheesemakers Are Talking About:

  • Raw
  • Grass-Fed
  • Non-GMO
  • Natural
  • Artisan cheese
  • Unique/Bold flavors
  • Snacking occasions
  • High-Protein
  • No hormones