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Cheese of the Month - April 2016

Gruyere brings rich flavor to Alpine cheese category

Editor’s Note: Welcome to “Cheese of the Month,” Cheese Market News’ exclusive profile series. 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 cheese: Gruyere.

By Chelsey Dequaine

MADISON, Wis. — Gruyere, an Alpine-style cheese, received its name from the town of Gruyeres in the Swiss canton of Fribourg. Cheesemakers in the Alpine area between Switzerland and France have produced Gruyere since the 11th century.

Gruyere is typically pale, ivory-yellow to natural brown with a washed rind and firm texture. It is available in 18-pound wheels, 18-pound blocks, 6-pound loaves, 5-pound shreds, 2-pound shreds and 8- to 10-ounce random-weight pieces.

U.S. cheesemakers produce Alpine-style cheeses such as Gruyere using classic Swiss production techniques and copper vats. Surface ripened with an inedible brown rind, the cheese is aged in specially-designed curing rooms to give it a nutty, rich, full-bodied flavor and firm texture.

According to Switzerland Cheese Marketing AG, Bern, Switzerland, this region in Switzerland produced 64.9 million pounds of Gruyere AOP — a protected designation of origin cheese — in 2014, 62.9 million pounds in 2015 and exported 6.9 million pounds to the United States in 2015.

Shawna Morris, senior director, Consortium for Common Food Names (CCFN), says while Gruyere is a protected term in Switzerland, the country also applied for a trademark in the United States for Le Gruyere Switzerland AOC.

“After the approval, there was a concerning pattern of the trademark holder conveying a stronger scope of protection than what we think was granted,” Morris says. “There was a substantial U.S. investment to help popularize Gruyere that was successful and imported products seem to be trying to capitalize on that investment.”

While some North American cheesemakers use the name Gruyere, others have chosen to use different names or have dropped the name following pressure from Switzerland. Debra Amrein-Boyes, owner and cheesemaker at The Farm House Natural Cheeses, Agassiz, British Columbia, says marketing challenges might arise for those cheesemakers when consumers are accustomed to the traditional Gruyere name.

“The challenge is to create awareness that a favorite and popular cheese type is available, but with a local name,” Amrein-Boyes says.

According to Technomic Inc., a research and consulting firm servicing the food and foodservice industry, menu mentions of Gruyere on U.S. restaurant menus are down by 4.1 percent over the past year (Q4 2014-Q4 2015). However, the decline may be due to restaurants using Alpine-style cheeses that are no longer menued as “Gruyere.”

“Gruyere is most commonly menued in an entrée/main dish item complementing a sandwich or a burger, but we also see restaurants using Gruyere in breakfast dishes, pastas, pizzas and salads,” the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board says.

According to Information Resources Inc. (IRI) data courtesy of Dairy Management Inc. (DMI), even though Gruyere has a 0.05 percent volume share of total cheese in the United States, it has posted annual growth nearly every year since 2010(up 7.2 percent in 2015), excluding flat sales in 2014.

From a shopper perspective, 2 percent of households purchase prepackaged Gruyere at retail, with upper income, white and boomer households the largest volume drivers. On the other end of the spectrum, middle-to-lower income households under-index on Gruyere purchases.

Amrein-Boyes says because of the varied ingredient inputs and aging environments that differ from the traditional aging caves or small creameries, Gruyeres made in North America will never be exactly the same as their European counterparts.

“They are still amazingly delicious cheeses,” Amrein-Boyes says. “Naturally, the conditions and raw ingredients are not exactly the same in North America as in Europe, but this is a traditional cheese with a basic recipe that adapts well, creating cheeses with similar attributes and flavor.”

She adds the best results in making Gruyere come from using traditional practices, such as milk from grazing cows and aging with a natural rind.

Farm House’s Heidi cheese is a seasonal (May through October) whole milk cheese with a deep gold paste. Amrein-Boyes says it is similar to a Gruyere and is rich with the flavor of summer grasses.

Lisa Hall, business manager, Saxon Creamery, Cleveland, Wisconsin, identifies a difference between U.S. and European Gruyeres in the treatment of the milk. In the Alps, she says, cheesemakers often don’t have pasteurizers.

“We heat treat our milk or pasteurize it,” Hall says. “American cheesemakers attempt to re-create European cheeses in the Alpine region that are in high mountains with lush grasses. We have 36 grasses and legumes in our pastures. We have adapted some of the same characteristics with legumes, we just don’t have those beautiful mountains.”

Uplands Cheese Co., Dodgeville, Wisconsin, makes 100,000 pounds of its Pleasant Ridge Reserve annually, which is made in the tradition of a Gruyere. Andy Hatch, owner and head cheesemaker, says there is a challenge when marketing a cheese that doesn’t have a recognizable descriptor on its label, especially in retail environments where there isn’t a cheesemonger to talk to customers.

“It’s hard to expect consumers to pay a high price for a cheese that they’ve never tasted and about which they know nothing,” he says. “When thinking about avoiding the use of Gruyere, it’s tempting to instead use Alpine-style, but that isn’t a common reference point for most American consumers.”

Hall finds it’s not a detriment not having Gruyere on the label of its Saxony, an Alpine-style cheese that contains similar flavors of a Gruyere.

“We have enough individual characteristics of the cheese that it doesn’t hinder sales,” she says. “It comes down to educating the public of what they are looking for in a cheese. The more people travel or are educated, they won’t mind the cheese doesn’t say Gruyere on it.”

Hatch says he uses Gruyere as a blanket term that encompasses more specific examples of Alpine-styles, such as Beaufort or Gruyere d’Alpage.

“Most of us making this style of cooked, pressed cheese simply use Gruyere as a descriptive reference point to help consumers understand how to categorize our cheeses,” he says. “It’s not important to me how closely my cheeses resemble an authentic Gruyere, but it seems important for most consumers to have a sense of what it is they’re eating, in relation to what they’ve eaten before.”

Some of the qualities Hall says consumers look for in a Gruyere include: smooth, creamy, meltable, nutty with toasted, caramelized, buttery, floral or grassy notes and a sticky rind.

“This cheese is gaining popularity with our restaurant customers because it has such unique flavors,” she says. “The fact that it can be incorporated into recipes drives interest.”

Hall says Saxon Creamery’s 12-pound wheel format is a common difference between U.S. and European Gruyeres.

“At the World Championship Cheese Contest, the Alpine-style cheeses that came in were commonly 20-30 pounds in a very large wheel,” she says. “It makes it cumbersome to handle or flip. In the United States, you see smaller wheels ranging from 8-12 pounds.”

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