MADISON, Wis. (Jan. 9, 2014) — The numbers keep rolling in, and they all substantiate that in an economy that's inching its way upwards, these are very good times indeed for American-made cheese.
U.S. cheese production is at an all-time high, more than doubling over the last 25 years for a total 10.89 billion pounds in 2012, according to USDA figures. Wisconsin set the pace, producing 2.79 billion pounds for 25.6 percent of the country's total production.
A trend that's energizing the success story is the popularity of specialty cheese, an observation that is supported by market research firms IRI and FreshLook Marketing Group. Reported growth rates in traditional grocery stores put Gouda volume sales at an 11.2 percent increase, for example, while Fresh Mozzarella is up 9.3 percent, according to the latest figures comparing them to 2011-12. Wisconsin was in the leadership position here, too, at a record high 2012 production of 611.2 million pounds of specialty cheese, a product defined as value-added, high in quality and priced at a premium. Feta and Hispanic-style cheeses are among the most popular, and Gouda, specialty Cheddar, Hispanic-style cheeses, specialty Colby and Asiago are fast growing segments of Wisconsin's production as well.
The specialty cheese story is part of a long-term trend—the growth of natural cheeses, which now command a 74 percent volume share at retail compared to processed cheese's 26 percent share, IRI reports.
Not surprisingly, cheese consumption is also at an all-time high. Over the last 25 years, American cheese consumption has increased 39 percent—from 24.1 pounds to 33.5 pounds per capita, according to USDA figures.
These mega trends are firmly in place and likely to continue, fostered by a number of more segmented cheese-focused trends and influences. Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (WMMB), a nonprofit promotion organization funded by the dairy farm families of Wisconsin, takes an analytical look at many market and societal factors at year's end, and has identified a number of positive effects—both big and small—for the future of cheese.
The art of artisan cheeses flourishes. The last decade witnessed an abundance of new American artisan cheeses, some of them with original names and formulations and some, variations of traditional types. New artisan cheeses continue to be introduced, and there is an emphasis on perfecting technique and production excellence. Refining affinage practices, maintaining and upgrading optimal plant conditions/equipment and advancing the quality of ingredients in rubs and flavorings are getting prime attention from artisan and specialty cheesemakers.
Cheesemaker collaboration. The growth in mixed milk cheeses brings cheesemakers from different companies together in creative, innovative ways. Cow, goat and sheep milk cheesemakers are collaborating to craft products. Examples of these are Wisconsin Ziege Zacke Blue, a goat-cow milk blend from LaClare Farms and Roelli Cheese, and The Fawn, an award-winning Cheddar made by Henning's Cheese and aged under the supervision of Deer Creek/Artisan Cheese Exchange. In some cases, cheesemakers are sharing caves for affinage, resulting in sophisticated, authentic rinds, molds and flavors.
The professionalization of U.S. cheesemongers. The desire to know more about the origins and handling of foods has created a necessity for knowledgeable cheese retailers and sales people. WMMB has long offered an interactive and convenient online cheese training course that's suitable for any retail operation, including supermarkets and delis. Other food professionals and committed consumers can also benefit from the course.
Additionally, educational certification programs, such as the very rigorous one from the American Cheese Society, have been created to meet this need and raise respect for the profession.
Bold, spicy and adventurous. Cheeses with big flavor are experiencing rapid growth, attributable to a number of factors such as burgeoning Hispanic influence in the U.S., more sophisticated and global life experiences and aging taste buds. Cheese with habanero, the legendary Yucatecan hotter-than-hot chile, enjoyed a 73 percent jump in sales in 2012 while smoky chipotle chile cheese sales are growing at a pace of 189 percent in 2013, according to IRI. But bold needn't mean chile-driven. Herbs and spices such as cumin and fenugreek enliven the profiles of award-winning Wisconsin Gouda cheeses.
The positives of protein; the goodness of gluten-free. Cheese has a number of current health benefits on its side. It is a source of "healthy protein," something that restaurant menu consultant Nancy Kruse says, "We can't get enough of." Twenty percent of retail food product introductions in 2012 involved protein, as reported by Wall St. Cheat Sheet. Grocery aisles are bursting with gluten-free offerings, and brands are rushing to increase their product lines. It's been reported General Mills now has more than 400 gluten-free products.
Opportunistic eaters, a growing force. Call them snackers, call them grazers, call them hungry. They are nibbling throughout the day, and one in five Americans has ditched regular meals in favor of what some are calling "serial snacking," according to IRI. Cheese can benefit from this constant-in-motion group because it makes a great finger food, it tastes so good with so many things—fruits, vegetables, deli meats, crackers—and it comes in a fantastic variety of styles, from mild to assertive, creamy to crumbly.
Food blogger strides. Respect for food bloggers and their influence is growing, resulting in recognition of a segment of these food writers and recipe developers as important members of food media. They are winning awards in respected culinary organizations, including the James Beard Foundation and the International Association of Food Professionals, both of which have established an annual award category for best food blog. Two hardcover cookbooks are current best-sellers—The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Oct. 2012) and The Pioneer Woman Cooks: A Year of Holidays: 140 Step-by-step Recipes for Simple, Scrumptious Celebrations (HarperCollins Publishers, Oct., 2013). A number of food blogs are dedicated to cheese, expanding media and publicity opportunities at a fast pace.
Wisconsin love affair. It's cool to be a Wisconsin Cheese booster these days, especially in New York. Two uniquely Wisconsin-centric shops have opened in the Big Apple, adding to America's Dairyland's presence already established by Little Wisco, a company that operates an enclave of restaurants headed by Madison native Gabriel Stulman and staffed by a number of Stulman's University of Wisconsin classmates. 5oz. Factory, founded by Milwaukee native Dan Schuman, recently opened in Manhattan's West Village serving up 100 percent Wisconsin dairy frozen custard in addition to Wisconsin Cheese melts. Milk and cream are shipped from Wisconsin each day. Another enterprise, the Melt Shop, with its two New York City locations, dedicates its menu to Wisconsin grilled cheese, the "most delicious grilled cheese, the "most delicious grilled cheese on the planet,” the shop’s website reports.