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Artisans Grab Bigger Chunk
May 26, 2015

Wisconsin-made aged cheddar is still king for consumers hunting for the perfect snack or party food. But an array of more distinctive and unique state-made specialty cheeses are so popular they have become much more than a wedge in the state cheese industry’s wheel of success.

“People like their aged cheddar,” said Jeanne Carpenter, specialty-cheese manager at Metcalfe’s Market Hilldale store in Madison, Wisconsin. “We’re selling as much of it as ever. But we’re selling more of just about everything else. I think it’s cool that our taste buds are expanding.”

The higher-quality and more-expensive specialty, or artisan, cheeses are also expanding their influence across Wisconsin and nation. Specialty cheeses accounted for 23 percent of overall Wisconsin cheese production in 2014. That was a 9-percent jump since 2004, according to the latest data from the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Since 2004, production of Wisconsin-made specialty cheeses has grown 98.7 percent and accounted for 59.2 percent of the state’s overall cheese-production growth, data shows. The state makes nearly half of all specialty cheeses made in the United States, according to the Wisconsin Specialty Cheese Institute.

“The other side (of Wisconsin cheese production) is growing, too, so it’s outpacing the growth of commodity cheeses,” said John Umhoefer, Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association executive director. “That means specialty cheeses are no longer a fad. These small- and mid-sized companies have grown steadily for 20 years. The trend has solidified.”

Feta, asiago and Hispanic cheeses have always been kingpins in the Wisconsin specialty cheese market, which took off in the mid-1990s. Many producers changed gears after losing money while making commodity cheeses.

But varieties of Gouda, Italian fontina, Romano and Parmesan wedges, and small-volume cheeses played big roles in specialty-cheese production, showing a one-year increase of 3 percent to 660 million pounds in Wisconsin in 2014, the service’s data shows.

“Americans are finally adapting to the European mentality toward cheese,” Carpenter said. “It’s quality over quantity.”

Edelweiss Creamery’s master cheesemaker, Bruce Workman, will attest to that. He said Edelweiss has maxed out production at its historic plant near Monticello, Wisconsin, the past couple of years because of the high demand for its award-winning Emmentaler Swiss, dill havarti and Gouda cheeses as well as its butterkase and muenster.

“We’re at that point where our (profits) are based on quality instead of quantity. We’re very proud of that,” said Workman, 61, who retooled the 1873 Edelweiss plant with state-of-the-art equipment.

The specialty-cheese market is so solid that Carpenter said nobody complained when many producers charged more for their products in 2014 because of record milk prices that were gashing their profit margins.

“To be honest, I don’t think the consumers even noticed,” she added.

Italian fontina cheese production made the biggest jump in the state in 2014, with a 27 percent increase to 11.4 million pounds. Romano that is sold as wedges in grocery stores jumped 20 percent, to 10.6 million pounds, while Gouda jumped 9 percent to 11.4 million pounds. The category that covers production of smaller-volume artisan cheeses like blue, Brie, Edam and Butterkase, as well as sheep- and goat-milk cheeses, jumped 4 percent to 329 million pounds.

Meantime, specialty-cheddar production dropped 9.4 percent to 28.9 million pounds in 2014 following two years of increased production. The only other specialty cheese that had a bigger drop was farmer cheese (14 percent), which has been on a steady decline for the past four years.

“Cheddar and farmer’s are the cheese of yesterday because American consumers are demanding more complex cheeses,” Carpenter said. “Blue, fontina, Romano and goat- and sheep-milk cheeses are the cheeses of tomorrow because they are more complex-tasting than cheddar. Americans are figuring out if they spend more on complex cheese, they can eat less of it and be more satisfied.”

But the many varieties of aged cheddar still remain in demand, along with unique cheddars like the award-winning Dunbarton Blue made by Roelli Cheese Haus just outside Shullsburg.

“I made more cheese last year than I ever had because my business demanded it,” said Roelli’s master cheesemaker, Chris Roelli.

“And it was because of new customers, not more orders from existing customers. I’ve been making artisan small-scale cheeses for eight years and have had tremendous growth in five of them. We’re continuing to grow, thus the increased production last year.”

Roelli theorized that specialty-cheddar production is down in the state because it’s among the most labor-intensive cheeses to make. There were 32 state producers making specialty cheddar in 2014, which was a drop of four producers from 2013, National Agricultural Statistics Service data showed.

“There’s still a lot of cheddar made out there so there might be such a thing as market saturation overall,” Roelli said. “It’s not just around the U.S., but worldwide. That’s probably what it is more than anything.”

Cheddar’s loss is Gouda’s gain because the same machinery is used to make both cheeses, Umhoefer said. He added some cheddar producers may have switched to making Gouda because it’s a favorite in Mexico, which is the No. 1 importer of Wisconsin cheese.

Gouda’s popularity also is growing faster than any other cheese at Metcalfe’s, Carpenter said.

“More people are making Gouda so they have more choices,” she added.

The increased production of Italian fontina doesn’t surprise Carpenter.

“It amazes me the number of people still discovering it,” she said. “It has been made in Italy for hundreds and hundreds of years.”

Several of Metcalfe’s customers told Carpenter to buy Plymouth-based Sartori Cheese’s Italian fontina.

“People asking for a specific company’s cheese doesn’t happen very often, but I’m glad they did because we sell about 22 pounds of Sartori’s Italian fontina a week,” Carpenter said. “And that’s a cheese people didn’t know existed a year ago.”

Hispanic cheese has a huge upside potential because more people are using it when they make Mexican-style food, Umhoefer said. Other cheeses growing in popularity include cheeses made with goat or sheep milk.

“More and more consumers are starting to figure out that goat- and sheep-milk cheeses taste really good,” Carpenter said. “They want to buy local so they combine the two. We sell 12 to 15 goat’s- or sheep’s-milk cheeses made in Wisconsin yet people still say we need more.”

Although sales were up for many specialty-cheese producers, the record-high milk prices were tough on them in 2014, Roelli said.

“It cuts a little a deeper when you have X amount of product to sell to make your profit,” he said. “A big company can spread that cost out over multiple brands and different types of cheeses. It has a bigger chunk of the marketplace to do that with. The others make one or two specialty cheeses. That’s how they make their living.”

Overall Wisconsin cheese production increased 1.9 percent, to 2.9 billion pounds in 2014, according to National Agricultural Statistics Service data. Umhoefer said milk prices were to blame for the lowest production increase in three years.

“Despite the higher prices, there wasn’t a slowdown of sales until late last year. And it’s back at a good pace now,” he said.

Mozzarella production led the way at 987 million pounds, which was a 2.7-percent increase from 2013, data showed. Mozzarella makes up 33.9 percent of Wisconsin cheese production.

“Everybody is contributing to the success of the state cheese industry,” Workman said. “The big producers like Sartori and Sargento and the others do an awesome job and make award-winning cheeses as well. It’s not just the specialty guys who deserve the credit. It’s everybody.”

By: Rob Schultz
Source: Agri-View


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