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Cheese of the Month - July 2017

Colby, Monterey Jack have wide appeal, range of uses

Editor’s Note: “Cheese of the Month” is Cheese Market News’ exclusive profile series exploring various cheese types. Each month, CMN highlights a different cheese in this feature, giving our readers a comprehensive look at production, marketing, sales and in-depth aspects of each profiled cheese type. Please read on to learn about this month’s featured cheeses: Colby and Monterey Jack.

By Stephanie Awe

MADISON, Wis. — Both American originals, Colby and Monterey Jack have histories stemming from different states.

Colby was developed in 1885 by Joseph F. Steinwand at his father’s cheese factory near Colby, Wisconsin. The cheese was named after the village, which had been founded about three years earlier, according to Suzanne Fanning, vice president, national product communications, Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.

Although Colby cheese no longer is made in the town of Colby, it is consumed across the nation, both as a stand-alone cheese and blended with Monterey Jack to create Colby Jack, Fanning says.

Meanwhile, there are various explanations for the origins of Monterey Jack, and David Jacks of Monterey, California, oftentimes is credited for its name.

Jacks, a Scotsman who arrived in California during the gold rush, became a merchant in Monterey, says David Viviani, former owner of Sonoma Cheese Co., Sonoma, California.

Some believe Jacks learned how to make the cheese from Spanish Franciscan fathers who came to California from Mexico during their missions. The cheese — known then as “queso blanco” and “queso del pais,” meaning “the white cheese” and “the country peasant cheese,” respectively — was made as a way to preserve milk, according to history compiled by the California Milk Advisory Board (CMAB).

Around 1882, Jacks marketed the cheese on the West Coast. It grew in popularity, becoming known as “Monterey” for the county and “Jacks” for the family that shipped it, with the “s” eventually dropping, CMAB says.

“What made (Jacks) unique is he gave it a name and marketed it,” Viviani says, adding that Jacks, taking the milk surplus and converting much of the milk to cheese, created a viable market and, as a result, his business flourished.

“He was a marketer, and he made it and sold it and transported it to various markets,” such as San Francisco and Sacramento, Viviani says.

In addition, Dry Monterey Jack was created around World War I, when trade between the United States and Italy ceased and imports of Romano and Parmesan stopped. A San Francisco cheese wholesaler, D.F. DeBernardi, coincidentally developed a Monterey Jack suitable for grating during this time.

Today, Wisconsin and California largely contribute to the production of Colby and Monterey Jack in the United States. According to data from the Dairy Products 2016 Summary released by USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service in April, California produced about 306 million pounds of “Other American Varieties” — including Colby, Monterey and Jack — in 2016, while Wisconsin produced about 302 million pounds. The United States, in total, produced about 1.3 billion pounds of these cheeses last year.

• Make procedure

When it comes to their make processes, stirred-curd Cheddar, Colby and Monterey Jack are similar, according to David McCoy, managing director, Dairy Insights LLC, Muskego, Wisconsin.
The make procedure for all three cheeses typically starts the same, McCoy says, noting that, in each case, the vat usually is set at 88 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit with a mesophilic culture, and then allowed to ripen before coagulant is added. After being coagulated and cut, the curds are gently stirred while the temperature is raised, he says.

At this stage, Cheddar typically stays in the whey until it is fully drained, then it is stirred until its target pH is achieved, then salted. Colby and Monterey Jack, on the other hand, have part of the whey removed about 10 to 15 minutes after reaching their cook temperature, McCoy says. Cold water is then added, cooling the curd and reducing the rate of whey expulsion from the curd, which results in a higher-moisture cheese. Monterey Jack typically has either more or colder water added than Colby, McCoy adds.

The added water also helps remove some of the lactose and acid from the curd, resulting in a less acidic cheese. Therefore, the flavors of Colby and Monterey Jack typically are milder and sweeter than a mild Cheddar. Colby typically is colored a medium-yellow using annatto, while Monterey Jack is not colored.

Colby Jack, a blend of Colby and Monterey Jack cheeses, can be made in various ways, McCoy notes.

Both Colby and Monterey Jack can be aged, although these cheeses typically are distributed with minimal aging and made with pasteurized milk, McCoy says.

According to FDA’s Code of Federal Regulations, Colby can be made with raw milk, but it is then required to be cured at a temperature not less than 35 degrees Fahrenheit for not less than 60 days. In addition, Colby must contain not more than 40 percent of moisture, and its solids must contain not less than 50 percent of milkfat.

Meanwhile, Monterey Jack has a minimum milkfat content of 50 percent by weight of the solids, and the maximum moisture content is 44 percent by weight, the regulations say, also noting that the dairy ingredients used are pasteurized. If making high-moisture Monterey Jack, the moisture content must be more than 44 percent but less than 50 percent.

• Retail sales

According to data from Information Resources Inc. (IRI) courtesy of Dairy Management Inc., Colby Jack in U.S. retail continues on a 5-year positive trend, and Monterey Jack gained 1.3 percent volume sales in the latest 52 weeks as of May 14, 2017 (fixed weight only, U.S. multi-outlet and convenience stores).

Meanwhile, Colby volume sales have trended down each of the last 5 years.

Colby and Monterey Jack sales spikes occur during winter holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas and Super Bowl Sunday. While Colby sales are down from a year ago, the cheese’s Christmas week sales spike was slightly higher than the previous year, according to the IRI data.

Unflavored Monterey Jack has the highest volume sales among Monterey Jack varieties, with top flavors being Pepper and Jalapeno Pepper. Other flavors added include Tomato Basil and Garlic Herb, among others.

• Trends and applications

Colby and Monterey Jack are used in a multitude of applications and come in a variety of flavors.

Sonoma Creamery, based in Sonoma, California, offers several varieties of Sonoma Jack — the company’s branded Monterey Jack — in flavors such as traditional, hot pepper, garlic, habanero and pesto, and it also is available in four organic varieties, says John Crean, president and CEO, Sonoma Creamery. The company offers Sonoma Dry Jack as well, which is aged 9 to 12 months and is a hard-grating cheese that is milder than Parmesan and has a slightly nutty flavor, Crean adds.

In addition to 5.3-ounce wedges and random weight, organic chunks, Sonoma Jack comes in sliced party trays and 150 calorie, 1.5-ounce snack packs of nuggets, all of which are rbST-free.

Crean says the company created the nuggets, launched in 2013, to address three important areas of the snack cheese market: convenience, portability and portion control. The party trays play to convenience and portability as well, he notes.

While its nuggets and party trays facilitate snacking, Sonoma Creamery’s Sonoma Jack — with flavors available regionally in foodservice and nationally in retail — also does well eaten on its own or with crackers, Crean says.

“As far as cheese goes, Jack cheese has the widest applications of any cheese you can find,” he says, noting that Jack, along with Cheddar, are favored for blending flavors into the cheese.

In addition to bold flavors, consumers are increasingly moving toward natural-type cheeses over processed-type cheeses, says Ryan LaGrander, president and Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker, LaGrander’s Hillside Dairy, Stanley, Wisconsin. In response to this rising trend, the company — which currently makes some of its cheeses with rbST-free milk — plans to receive all rbST-free milk by Nov. 1 for use in its products, including its Colby and Monterey Jack varieties.

LaGrander’s, a family-owned and operated, third-generation cheese manufacturing facility, offers its Colby and Monterey Jack through retail outlets in the Midwest and in foodservice outlets throughout the nation, with a majority of it sold under private label. The company produces about 30,000 to 40,000 pounds of Colby, Monterey Jack and Colby Jack each day, LaGrander says. While each of the three cheese types sell well, LaGrander says Colby tends to be the most popular seller, followed by Colby Jack and Pepper Jack. He notes that both Colby and Monterey Jack cheeses are mild and versatile, making them suitable for various applications, such as use in salads, soups, sauces and cheese trays.

At Henning’s Cheese, Kiel, Wisconsin, its Colby and Monterey Jack varieties are used as table cheeses, says Kerry Henning, president and Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker, Henning’s Cheese. The company, which has been making cheese since 1914, offers Colby in plain and with caraway seed; Monterey Jack in plain, jalapeno or habanero; and Colby Jack. The majority of the company’s Colby is sold in Michigan, and all varieties are available at many stores in Eastern Wisconsin and at Henning’s company store.
Of the three varieties, Colby is the most popular based on sales at the company.

“I believe it is more popular because it is a Wisconsin original and that Colby is well known in the Midwest, where the majority of our sales are for these types of cheeses,” Henning says. “Colby Jack is also a big seller, and I believe it is because of the two colors that make it an attractive looking cheese on a cheese platter.”

• Marketing

Companies utilize a variety of methods to showcase and promote their Colby and Monterey Jack products.

Henning’s Cheese produces its Colby, Monterey Jack and Colby Jack varieties using traditional methods, offering them to customers in wheel formats in addition to 40-pound blocks. At the store level, the wheels are cut and wrapped onsite, Henning says.

“I believe that making these cheeses in the traditional wheels and then waxed are the best way to enjoy them. By making them in wheels, the Colby retains its openness and your mouth can experience the curdy texture, which, when chewed, releases its delicious flavors,” Henning says. “By making these cheeses in wheels, Henning’s Colby and Jack cheese easily stand out in the marketplace.”

Henning also notes that, while the company does not see a large growing demand for its Colby and Monterey Jack varieties, he has noticed more opportunities for sales in the south as more Midwesterners head there.

Meanwhile, Sonoma Creamery works at the retail level to promote its products, conducting periodic seasonal price promotions and in-store demonstrations. Social media and word of mouth also play important roles, Crean says.

“We continue to innovate and find new applications for Sonoma Jack using our heritage, experience and know-how in cheese,” Crean says.

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