As the processed cheese category continues to struggle and with natural cheese still winning with consumers, we ask: Are fancy cheeses the next big thing?

Sales of processed cheese were down 0.4% and unit sales were down 4.6%, in the 52 weeks ended July 13, 2014, according to Information Resources Inc. (IRI), Chicago. In the natural cheese category, dollar sales were up 4.2% and units up 2%.

Interest in gourmet or artisan cheeses has helped spark cheese sales growth, most notably among the natural cheese segment, according to a report from Chicago-based Mintel. The market research firm found that nearly two in five (37%) Americans agree artisan cheese brands are worth paying more for, indicating the level of value placed on premium cheese offerings.  Regional flavor preferences have also likely impacted sales in the category, as shoppers expect to find local cheeses. According to a January 2013 article in Supermarket News, smaller retailers are gaining a competitive advantage over big box stores, as they’re able to offer more locally made cheeses and artisan cheeses, which often come with a smaller supply.

According to Mintel, this interest in gourmet and artisan cheeses, as well as emerging local flavor preferences, will contribute to sustained future growth for the cheese category. Mintel predicts the cheese category will grow 25% from 2013 to 2018 to reach $27.1 billion, at current prices.

“Customers are expanding their demands for great quality, artisanal cheese and want to see these cheeses made domestically,” said Kent Underwood, president of Vermont Farmstead Cheese Co., South Woodstock, Vt. “There is a great opportunity for dairy producers, both big and small, to respond to these demands. It’s very similar to the wine industry 20 years ago and beer industry over the last 10 years.”

 In this feature we take a look at how four cheese companies (Vermont Farmstead Cheese Co.; Spring Brook Farm, Reading, Vt.; Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co., Point Reyes Station, Calif.; and Oakdale Cheese & Specialties, Oakdale, Calif.) are contributing to the popularity of farmstead and artisan cheeses with their award-winning products.