MADISON, Wis. -- Cheese in all forms and flavors continues to attract the attention of consumers and, therefore, retailers. The Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board notes that per-capita consumption is up to 30 pounds, and all indications are that this number will continue to increase.
Part of the reason is the way cheese is being marketed to the consumer these days, with some of the credit going to more sophisticated supermarket presentations. Much like wine 15 years ago, cheese has a growing social reputation that goes beyond sharing a pizza. Dana Tanyeri, WMMB's director of national product communications, said that the organization developed a top 12 list of cheese-related trends for 2003, some of which could provide supermarket retailers with new ideas and fresh inspiration to boost their cheese sales.
"It's certainly not a scientific document, but we always keep our ear to the ground," she told SN. "Obviously, we're looking at what's coming out of Wisconsin, but also in the other cheese-making regions of the country. It's not a biased list."
In particular, there is noticeable growth in production of specialty and artisanal American cow's milk varieties; there is also an emerging preference for bold flavors, both alone and in combinations; and there is a growing interest in Hispanic cheeses:
Made in America. The U.S. cheese industry is enjoying strong growth, and increasingly it is bringing smaller producers into the game. "We're really in our infancy on this, compared to Europe, but it's gaining a lot of steam. There's finally consumer interest in American-made cheese," noted Tanyeri.
Flavored Cheeses. Bold flavors like cranberry, fresh horseradish and chipolte are joining smoked cheddar, havarti and dill and more established varieties on the cheese board. "There's a whole lot of product development going on. It's one theme that's percolating underneath many of this year's trends."
Washed Rinds. "It's a category that chefs are particularly interested in," said Tanyeri, though retailers are familiar with the power restaurants can exhibit in influencing what consumers look and ask for in their supermarkets. Washed rinds provide cheeses with distinct aromas and keener flavors, aid in ripening, and protect them from drying out. "This is something retailers could have fun with by introducing customers, via sampling, to some of these varieties that people may not be familiar with."
Boutique Cheeses. These are small-batch, one-of-a-kind cheeses not necessarily adaptable to retail's reliance on volume, but they can create buzz if prominently displayed and adequately publicized.
Farmstead Cheeses. Closely related to boutique varieties, farmstead cheeses are vertically produced by regional artisans who also own the cattle that provide the milk. "It's a challenge because there's never much of it produced, but retailers could feature these types of cheeses to showcase local and regional cheesemakers. These items also usually have a great story to go along with them."
Aged Cheeses. Another component under the umbrella of flavor, aging intensifies mild, relatively flavorless varieties into whole new items. Several West Coast retailers worked with the WMMB late last year to host a "Do the Vertical" retail promotion -- in which successive tastings of four-month-old, year-old, three-year-old and five-year-old cheddars demonstrated the difference in quality and texture. "It's real fun for customers to try, and it's the best way to show how aging makes a difference," Tanyeri told SN.
Cheese for Cheese's Sake. An increasing number of food-service operators are adding a European-style, dessert-course cheese tray to their menus, and that is where many consumers are getting their first taste of farmstead, washed rind and artisan cheeses. Retailers can tap this potential market -- and exercise their cross-merchandising acumen -- by featuring appropriate cheeses with nuts, fresh or dried fruit, or nut bread, just like they're doing in restaurants.
Cheese Caves. For the operation that already has a wine cellar, perhaps a cheese cave? Granted, WMMB's Tanyeri conceded it's a trend reserved for all but the highest-end retailers, restaurants and consumers. But there are more of these humidity-controlled, specially constructed rooms or cabinets in the United States than ever before.
Convenience. Here's a trend right up the retailer's alley: Regardless of sector, convenience remains a key cheese category driver. There's new emphasis on portability and kids, too, with the introduction of cheese snacks that have been cubed or made into whip-thick strips.
Cheese Blends. Catering to the American ideal that "more is better," manufacturers are moving beyond two-flavor combinations and going for three or four in the mix. "In the Italian category, you'll see today a four-cheese blend, all shredded and prepackaged," noted Tanyeri. "It'll have asiago and aged provolone in there as part of the mix. You're getting in a more unique flavor profile by blending in these other cheeses."
The Blues. In the cheese business, blue means green for whoever's selling it. From salad dressings to pizza, blue-veined cheese's robust flavor and multiple textures make it a perennial favorite. It's even grown beyond gorgonzola to infuse other varieties, cheddar in particular.
Hispanic Cheeses. It could only be assumed that Hispanic cheeses are growing in use as the Spanish-speaking population grows in the United States. Many retailers have expanded their selection of cheeses, based on the cultural heritage of their customer bases. As a result, there's more queso fresco, queso quesadilla and cojito in the dairy case than ever before. "It comes down to demographics. It's just smart marketing," said Tanyeri.