Cheese Report: Gouda, better, best
In recent months, the cheese category has seen a cramp in its growth, but there’s a lot to be excited about going forward, especially as retailers continue to look to small-batch cheeses and better-for-you styles.
Gourmet Foods International’s Nathan Aldridge, a traveling retail and cheese expert for the importer, said the introduction of tariffs and the coronavirus have created some confusion in the marketplace and slowed business. But prior to those factors, the cheese category had been growing rapidly the last three years, especially in terms of American artisanal cheeses.
“As consumers have started to pay more attention to where their food is coming from and how farmers treat their animals, they are now noticing that many artisan and farmstead cheesemakers are making quality cheese with all natural and nutritional benefits, from humanely raised animals,” Aldridge said.
Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin represents dairy farmers and some cheesemakers that produce branded and private label cheeses. The state produces half of all of the country’s specialty cheese supply, and Chris Kuske Riese, the organization’s senior director of channel marketing, said specialty cheeses are driving cheese growth.
Echoing Aldridge, she said there’s a demand for transparency on where the cheese is coming from. “Today’s U.S. retail shoppers are looking for ways to connect with their food, the story behind it, who makes it and what drives their passion for the craft.”
Similarly, Bob DiNunzio, director of category strategy, Daymon, said consumers are requesting healthier cheese options, as part of the overall health and wellness trend. “Cleaner-ingredient labels that embrace cheese’s natural reputation with offerings such as whole milk, grass fed and milk from free range cows.” There’s also a nudge toward more non-dairy cheeses.
And while the artisanal trend has caused a decline in commodity cheeses over the past couple of years, it’s not all good news for retailers. “In this year alone, we have seen three grocery chains fold (Fairway Market, Lucky’s Market and Earthfare),” Aldridge said. “Is this due to the fact that most all-natural foods are more expensive while a majority of consumers are looking for value? Probably.”
With that said, Aldridge said retailers rely on staples for their store brand cheeses — feta, brie, fresh goat logs, hand-wrapped mozzarella, cheddars, goudas and parmesans — and want to save on labor costs in their stores. “Working with a distributor that can offer hand-wrapped cheeses from a certified cut room can offer the best solution for both retailer and customer — cheeses cut fresh, sent to the store with a longer shelf life.”
There are more than 600 different types of cheese out of Wisconsin, but Kuske Riese said retailers are getting into private label cheese to find premium versions of such staples as premium cheddars. Some standout flavors in Wisconsin though include hand-rubbed Fontina cheeses with globally inspired rubs like Harissa Fontina and Mayan Cocoa from cheesemaker Yellow Door Creamery.
DiNunzio of Daymon said bold flavors are growth drivers. “This is particularly prevalent in the string/stick and shredded formats which have begun to incorporate bolder flavors to appeal to mature palates, such as unique peppers, smoked spices, alcohol-infusions, barrel and cave-aged varieties.”
In Aldridge’s eyes, three retailers are doing it best with store brand cheeses: Kroger, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. “Kroger has seen great success with their three-tiered, ‘good, better, best’ store brand approach,” he said, and they’ve considerably grown the Simple Truth brand.