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.
US 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.