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Cheese of the Month - February 2017

Flavors, applications expand for Brick, Muenster varieties

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: Brick and Muenster.

By Stephanie Awe

MADISON, Wis. — Both originating from surface-ripened cheeses, Brick and Muenster offer a slightly salty, milky flavor.

According to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (WMMB), some historians believe Muenster originated in Alsace, France, while others say it originated in Germany.

John Jaeggi, coordinator — cheese industry and applications group, Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research (CDR), says it has been stated that German immigrants brought Muenster to the United States. Brick cheese, on the other hand, is original to Wisconsin, he says.

The vast majority of traditional Brick is made in Wisconsin today, adds Dean Sommer, cheese and food technologist, CDR. Non-traditional Bricks meet the general compositional requirements in the U.S. standards of identity set by FDA, but their flavors and textures are not quite the same as traditional Brick, he says.

Brick first was made in Wisconsin by John Jossi around 1877 and was named for its shape and because cheesemakers originally used bricks to press the moisture from the cheese, WMMB adds.

Brick typically is available in sweet curd or surface-ripened varieties, Jaeggi says. Sweet curd Brick should be “sweet, clean, milky/buttery” ­— although not as buttery as Muenster ­— and slightly salty, he says. Surface-ripened Brick will be slightly salty and have notes of sulfur and acid with a slight to definite smeared — or pungent — flavor. How pungent the cheese is depends on the length of time in the smearing room, Jaeggi says.

Sommer adds that the smeared flavor is the taste often associated with surface-ripened, smeared cheeses such as Limburger and Brick. This flavor is the result of “distinctive smear” organisms that are wiped onto the surface of the cheese during the aging process, he says.

An old saying is that smeared Brick cheese is “Married Man’s Limburger,” Sommer says. While there is only one Limburger factory in the United States today, there used to be many such factories in Wisconsin, he says. Because smeared Brick had a similar, but not quite as strong, flavor and aroma as Limburger, it is said that married men switched from the strongly aromatic Limburger to a less strong Brick for their wives.

Today, Brick typically is made using the mesophilic lactococcus lactis or cremoris starter cultures, while Muenster typically is made using a streptococcus thermophilus starter culture. Both cheeses are made to control the end pH, giving them their typical sweet curd, milky flavor profile. Traditionally, the pH of Brick is controlled by a curd-washing step that removes lactose, whereas the pH of Muenster is controlled by brining and cooling the cheese, according to Jaeggi.

Annatto sometimes is added to Brick to give it a slight golden color, although sweet curd Brick typically is white. Muenster for deli or slicing often is dipped into a solution of annatto mixed with water, giving it the familiar red rind, Jaeggi says.

Gossner Foods Inc., Logan, Utah, offers Muenster cheeses with a traditional textured red rind as well as in the Asadero (without color) form. The company also carries a natural hickory-chipped smoked Muenster, says Tyler Udy, cheese sales, Gossner.

Foremost Farms USA, Baraboo, Wisconsin, produces all-natural Muenster that is fully brined and colored. While the company has produced Brick in the past, it no longer does due to lack of demand, says Jeff Kent, vice president — cheese, Foremost Farms.

On the other hand, Widmer’s Cheese Cellars, Theresa, Wisconsin, specializes in and is known for its Brick cheese, says Joe Widmer, Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker and owner. The business is located about 15 to 20 miles from where the cheese was invented, Widmer says, and he utilizes the same bricks that his grandfather — a Swiss immigrant who started the business in 1922 — used when making Brick cheese. The company offers milder sweet curd, vacuum-packed Brick varieties as well as original shelf-cured aged Brick that is washed and turned daily for about 10 days — producing a more earthy and pungent Brick — and is packed in foil.

• Applications

Brick and Muenster have a variety of applications, with applications continuing to expand.

“Both cheeses make excellent melting cheeses for everything from casseroles and quesadillas to grilled cheese,” Jaeggi says.

“Mild Brick is probably the best of grilled sandwiches you’ve ever had,” Widmer adds. When growing up, he says his mother also used aged Brick when making pizza.

Muenster also does well melting on sandwiches, pizza and paninis, acting as a replacement for Mozzarella, Cheddar or processed cheese, Udy says. Because of its stretch, he adds that it is a cheese children oftentimes enjoy, making for kid-friendly meals.

Kent adds that Muenster can be used for cheeseburgers, and it is increasingly incorporated into salads as well.

“We’re excited about the future of Muenster,” Kent says, noting that he sees potential for Muenster to grow in popularity in a variety of applications.

Udy adds that he has noticed Muenster becoming a more popular choice to pair with fruit, in part due to its milder flavor. It also pairs well with red wines, he says.

Similarly, Brick pairs well with Cabernet, bock beers and IPAs, Widmer says. Traditionally, aged Brick was served on either pumpernickel or rye bread with a slice of raw onion and a choice of mustard.

• Retail sales

Muenster volume sales in the United States were up 3.3 percent in the latest 52 weeks as of Dec. 25, 2016, continuing on a 5-year positive trend (fixed weight only, total U.S. multi-outlet and convenience stores), according to Information Resources Inc. (IRI) data courtesy of Dairy Management Inc.
Annual volume of natural Brick cheese is 57,100 pounds, down 14.4 percent in 2016 compared to the prior year in the United States, according to the IRI data. Brick cheese volume sales have declined over the last five years and are now less than half of the volume in 2012 (fixed weight only), the data adds.

Muenster prices have trended down over the last year, with an average of $5.79 per pound in January 2016 and moving to $5.35 per pound in December 2016. Private label share of Muenster cheese is 48 percent, down slightly over the last five years from 50 percent.

Brick cheese private label remains consistent at 31-percent share. Brick cheese has an inverse price gap, with private label prices about 25 percent higher than national brands. However, private label Brick in 2016 was down 17.4 percent volume, whereas national brands were down just 6.9 percent — possibly due in part to higher pricing, according to the data.

• Trends and marketing tactics

Gossner Foods, which sells its cheeses through foodservice and retail, had a significantly higher rate of growth in Muenster retail sales until recently. Previously, foodservice sales were slower because less people were eating out, Udy says, but now foodservice and retail sales at the company are evening out. Udy says he expects both Muenster retail and foodservice sales to continue growing as consumers seek new cheeses and the foodservice industry continues to set trends.

“I don’t think Muenster has had its chance to shine yet, but I think it’s coming up,” Udy says.

At Foremost Farms, Muenster cheese is produced at one of the company’s largest facilities, which allows the company to meet volume expectations, Kent says.

Demand for naturally brined, red-rind Muenster fluctuates seasonally, making it challenging for suppliers to fill orders, Kent says, so Foremost Farms looked at the fluctuating demand and figured out how to expand production of the product at its larger Appleton, Wisconsin, plant.

The company produces ready-to-use, long-style Muenster, which Kent says is best for industrial customers that slice it for retail and foodservice. The cheese, first assigned to the product development team in 2015, reached full-scale production in September 2016. Previously offering a different Muenster variety before ceasing its production and selling the plant in which it was produced, Foremost Farms reestablished Muenster production due to customer requests and a desire to meet the growing demand for sliced cheese, Kent says.

The long-style Muenster is 34 inches long and available in either a 4-inch or 3.5-inch square. This format is ready to slice, so that customers receiving it can take it straight from the box to the slicing line, Kent says. With no other packaging to remove, this format helps create efficiency for customers, he adds.

“We pride ourselves in providing innovative solutions to our customers,” Kent says, adding that the company is excited about the product and plans to work with WMMB on marketing once distribution gaps have been filled.

Gossner Foods sells most of its Muenster under private label, with some sold under its name at local stores. Because of this, the company generally does not handle marketing of the cheeses but is entertaining some new packaging ideas. Its newest packaging is its Shingle Slices, which displays Muenster slices like a deck of cards. Slices are “by far” the most popular format based on sales, Udy says.

Gossner Foods also offers a unique hickory-chip smoked Muenster, Udy adds. Many Muensters are made using a smoked dip, but a natural smoke is less common because it is more expensive, he says. Gossner has a smokehouse attached to the packaging plant, where a 4- to 8-hour smoking process takes place based on the size of the cheese.

At Widmer’s Cheese Cellars, its mild Brick for slicing is most popular. In addition, demand for flavored Bricks has increased, leading the company to offer flavors such as Jalapeno Pepper Brick as well as Caraway Aged Brick.

Widmer also has created an aged Brick spread, which uses Brick that is aged to its peak and mixed with white Cheddar. The cheese is made for the company by Pine River Pre-Pack Inc. in Newton, Wisconsin.

Overall, both Widmer’s Cheese Cellars’ sweet curd and aged Brick varieties have had sales increases over the last 15 years, with aged having a slightly higher increase, Widmer says.

Typically, he says he has seen the company’s milder Brick sold in more grocery stores, whereas its aged Brick is sold more in specialty stores and high-end restaurants. Widmer attributes this to some consumers becoming more well-traveled and, as a result, trying new cheeses. Bland cheeses, he adds, are falling by the wayside.

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