Cheers for Cheese
Cheese consumption is on the rise in America, with specialty cheese driving category growth. Further propelling purchases are the host of hot food trends with cheese in the starring role. From convenient and nutritious snacking to global flavors to artisanal and authenticity, specialty cheese delivers what today’s consumers crave.
According to the Specialty Food Association (SFA) in New York, cheese was the top category of specialty food sales in 2016, at $4.4 billion—up 12.4% from 2014. The Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (WMMB), citing IRI data, reports that volume sales of specialty cheese have grown five times as fast as the cheese category overall in the past year.
“Cheese sales are up more than ever,” says Josiah Baird, cheese specialist for O’Brien’s Market in Modesto, Calif., and culinary consultant for the California Milk Advisory Board. “Having an ever-changing inventory of cheese has always kept our customers coming back to see what’s new.”
Driving sales at O’Brien’s Market is the wildly popular cheese board trend. “Food is the best form of entertainment, and more consumers are surprising their guests with lavish yet rustic cheeseboards, which have become the most popular platform for highlighting gourmet cheese,” says Baird.
Proud of their creations, consumers are perpetuating the cheese board phenomenon by posting photos online. “Social media is one of the most effective factors in how consumers identify and purchase cheese, because they can visually see how a DIY board can be assembled and presented,” he says.
Authenticity and Transparency
Across the board, consumers are seeking authenticity and greater transparency from their food supply. As a category rich with fresh-from-the-farm appeal, cheese is a story waiting to be told. “Shoppers want authenticity—telling the story of a cheese variety, a cheese company, a Master Cheesemaker, or even a local farmer goes a long way toward engaging shoppers with your products and your store,” says Alan Hiebert, senior education coordinator for the Madison, Wis.-based International Dairy Deli Bakery Association (IDDBA).
“Each cheese has a story, and customers love to hear about where it was made, who made it, even the diet of the animal from which the milk was sourced,” says Baird, whose most successful cheese promotion gave new meaning to the term “local.” “Shoppers love learning about where their cheese comes from,” he says. “I brought in a local farmer and cheese maker with a couple of their cows, so the customers could see the exact cows that produced the cheese they were purchasing.” Cheese retailing doesn’t get more authentic than that.
“When consumers truly understand the stories behind the foods they are purchasing, they are often compelled to try new products or are willing to spend slightly more on products at retail,” says Nora Weiser, executive director of the American Cheese Society (ACS) in Denver. “American artisan and specialty cheese makers have a unique story to tell. They are preserving traditional foodways, strengthening their local communities and economies, and protecting American farmland,” says Weiser. She encourages retailers to share these compelling stories with consumers via signage and POS, as well as inviting producers to lead in-store demos, tastings and classes.
Authenticity goes hand in hand with transparency for most consumers who want to know where their food comes from and how it was made. Food transparency is a trend that that is here to stay, says Krystle Turnbull, brand manager for Litehouse Inc. in Sandpoint, Idaho. “We are continuing to see a shift in U.S. cheese sales with cheese consumers migrating from the processed cheese to the natural cheese category. Not only do consumers want to feel good about the ingredients in their cheese, [but] they also desire information on the production and heritage stories that come with a brand.”
Litehouse’s Simply Artisan Reserve Blue & Gorgonzola is handcrafted in Idaho, where it is hand-turned, hand-salted and aged 100 days to develop its creamy and robust flavor. “As a 100% employee-owned company, we all take pride in knowing our cheese does not contain any artificial ingredients, and is rBST-free and gluten-free,” says Turnbull.
Weiser also sees a rise among ACS industry members seeking to demonstrate a commitment to fair and sustainable business practices through certifications, such as B Corp Certification, which certifies for-profit businesses based on their social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency. According to the Berwyn, Pa.-headquartered B Corp, its certification speaks to “a growing global movement of people using business as a force for good.” ACS members such as Rogue Creamery, Vermont Creamery, Cabot and KeHE are B Corp certified, and the ACS anticipates that more of its members will continue to seek similar certifications.
Fresh Ideas in Serving and Pairing
A specialty cheese and food buyer with O’Brien’s Market for more than two decades, Baird has expertly fielded thousands of questions from customers over the years. What’s the most frequent shopper inquiry? “Serving and pairing suggestions are the No. 1 question asked to help guide [shoppers] in the best way for the cheese to be highlighted,” says Baird. This is where cheese professionals can share useful, actionable advice. “You can’t open a food magazine without finding cheese as an ingredient in a recipe or how to pair cheese with this beverage or that snack—this is great news,” says Baird. “We are always researching the best way to meet consumer demand and also help educate them through cooking applications and serving suggestions.”
Today’s consumers are increasingly experimental, so retailers would be wise to consider nontraditional pairings as well. For example, the ACS has identified “dry” or nonalcoholic beverage pairings with cheese as a growing trend. “We all know that cheese is a natural partner with wine, beer and cider, but now we’re also seeing great cheese pairings with nonalcoholic beverages including tea, coffee and even natural sodas,” says Weiser. “These pairings help to expand the audience for artisan cheese to include individuals who don’t drink alcohol, as well as those who are not yet old enough to do so.”
What’s more, cheese and soft drink pairings offer unique opportunities for new educational classes, tastings and specials at retail, particularly at those stores that don’t sell alcoholic beverages, she says.
Bold and Global Flavors
Driven by the consumer’s desire for new flavor experiences—often in combination with familiar foods—bold, exotic and global flavors are another hot cheese trend for 2018. “Consumers are experimental when it comes to flavor, and they’re open to trying new spice blends,” says Kareen Stephens, brand manager for Schuman Cheese in Fairfield, N.J. “Having bold flavors on a base of familiar cheese types like cheddar or Parmesan makes it approachable, yet exciting.” Aligned with the bold flavor trend, Schuman is expanding its Yellow Door Creamery Hand-Rubbed Fontina line with new flavors, including Cowboy Chipotle and Dijon Herb. Schuman is also launching two new flavors of its Whisps Cheese Crisps: Bacon BBQ Cheddar and Tomato Basil Parmesan.
The WMMB, which reports that retail volume sales of flavored cheese are outpacing growth in the total cheese category, has identified “bold flavor” as a top cheese trend this year. It sees spicy cheeses (such as Nasonville Dairy’s Carolina Reaper Cheddar), smoked cheeses (such as Red Apple Cheese’s Smoked Swiss), and herb-flavored cheese (such as Henning’s Wisconsin Cheese’s Onion and Chive Cheddar) as a fast-growing segment of the cheese category. “The U.S. has an increasingly diverse population, which means that taste preferences are being driven by diverse cuisines,” says Hiebert of the IDDBA. “Added herbs like dill, sage and rosemary have been popular in cheeses for some time in the U.S., and now we’re seeing more European-influenced flavors in cheese like black pepper, balsamic vinegar and red wine.”
“Flavored cheeses are a growing category,” agrees Flynne Wiley, CEO of Champignon North America, Inc., the Englewood Cliffs, N.J.-based import, sales and marketing arm of Kaserei Champignon in the U.S. “These kinds of cheeses add variety when putting together a cheese plate.” Champignon also sees growth in bolder cheeses, such as washed rind and farmhouse cheeses that have stronger scent and flavor profiles. “Many consumers are becoming more open to trying stronger so-called ‘stinky’ cheeses,” says Wiley. “These cheeses have rather pungent aromas but yield very creamy interiors, and when you taste these cheeses, the scent and the cheese together yields very interesting flavor profiles. There is a growing curiosity to try these more exotic cheeses.”
Champignon recently introduced St. Mang Bavarian Made Soft Ripened Cheeses, bloomy rind cheeses made from milk sourced from only Bavarian farms, where cows graze on fresh alpine grasses. The cheese is available in two varieties: Garlic & Chive and Mild Green Peppercorns. “These cheeses are unique not only in their savory flavor profiles, but also in the fact that the herbs and spices are evenly incorporated throughout the cheese, which is a technique our cheese makers have mastered,” says Wiley. Also spot on the flavor-forward cheese trend, the Lactalis Group in Laval, France, has announced it will launch a President Brie with Truffles, which features specks of shaved black truffles throughout the creamy round. This new wheel will be available in fall 2018.
The Perfect Pairing: Convenience and Snacking
Nutritious, rich in protein and satisfyingly flavorful, cheese is the fastest-growing savory snack between meals, according to the Port Washington, N.Y.-based NPD Group. Meanwhile, IRI data shows that deli snack cheese is leading overall category growth for cheese snacks. “Premium branded deli snacks have been stealing share from traditional dairy snacks for the past few years, and the trend is continuing as consumers seek specialty items,” says Heather Engwall, director of marketing for Emmi Roth in Fitchburg, Wis., which is poised to begin shipping its new Roth Snack Cheese at the end of April. And as cheese producers continue to marry snacking with convenience, sales are sure to continue an upward trajectory.
“Consumers are looking for ways to streamline their lives, and having snacks in convenient, on-the-go packaging helps them achieve this,” says Stephens of Schuman Cheese. “Cheese plays a big role in convenience and snacking as it’s high in protein and calcium, and typically has simple, recognizable ingredients.”
“We are certainly seeing more cheese makers roll out new product lines at retail in snack-sized portions, which presumably reflects growing consumer interest in both the nutritional benefits and the convenience of cheese as a healthy snack option,” says Weiser. He points to BelGioioso’s Snacking Cheeses and Cabot’s Seriously Sharp Cheddar Cheese Snack Pack as recent product introductions from ACS members. Of course, the trend in convenient snacking is not exclusively for on-the-go consumption. Consumers also crave convenience in snacking when entertaining and preparing their own snacks or small meals at home.
“Convenient snacking is on the rise. Whether it’s picking up individual snack packs for your lunch or popping a center cut onto your next appetizer cheese plate to entertain guests, consumers are always on the hunt for innovative and convenient snacking and entertaining options,” says Turnbull of Litehouse. The company reports continued year-over-year increased sales with its Simply Artisan Reserve Blue and Gorgonzola center cuts, which delivers on the bold flavor trend and convenience. “We core the most premium cut from the heart of the wheel, where the flavor is most developed and robust,” says Turnbull. “Our consumers love the convenient serving center-cut tray ready for immediate entertaining—just pop the top and serve with sliced pears and walnuts.”
Packaging certainly plays a crucial role in the convenience trend. Klondike Cheese Co. in Monroe, Wis., recently expanded its Odyssey crumbled feta line to include a 4-ounce package “to meet the demands of the consumer who shops for a few meals at a time,” says Marketing Director Teena Buholzer. “With so many options available to try different recipes and more consumers being adventurous with the food they make, it made sense that we provided a serving size that would allow shoppers to avoid having a lot of leftovers.” The new 4-ounce package is available in the same varieties as the 6-ounce: Odyssey Crumbled Feta Cheese, Traditional, Mediterranean Herb, Tomato and Basil, Peppercorn, Sweet Heat, Reduced Fat and Fat Free.