CMN

Cheese of the Month - August 2016

Flavor, versatility of Cheddar boost demand, innovation

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 cheese: Cheddar.

By Stephanie Awe

Photo courtesy of Cabot Creamery Cooperative
SERIOUSLY SHARP — Cabot Creamery Cooperative’s most popular Cheddar flavor, Seriously Sharp, is naturally aged in 40-pound blocks for 18 to 36 months.

MADISON, Wis. — Cheddar — a rich, natural cheese — originates from Somerset in England around the late 12th century, and it has since been embraced by the United States. From sandwiches to snacking to inclusion in recipes, Cheddar is a multifaceted, flavorful cheese that is a prominent part of America’s palate.

Natural Cheddar (fixed weight only) is the top-selling variety of natural cheese at multi-outlet and convenience stores in the United States, with a 27-percent volume share among all cheese types (52 weeks ending July 10, 2016), according to Information Resources Inc. (IRI) data courtesy of Dairy Management Inc. Second to Cheddar in the lineup is cream cheese, with 13-percent volume share. On average, U.S. consumers purchase about 8.6 pounds of Cheddar each year from these outlets and stores, the data says.

Prior to 1850, Cheddar made up almost all of the cheese produced in the nation, according to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (WMMB). Cheddar production in Wisconsin started in the mid-1800s and by 1880, more Cheddar was produced in the state than any other cheese variety, WMMB says.

As of 2015, Wisconsin’s Cheddar production was the highest of any state at 613.5 million pounds, according to USDA’s Dairy Products 2015 Annual Summary released in April 2016.

Cheddar production in the nation is second to Mozzarella, with production totaling 3.39 billion pounds in 2015, up 2.3 percent from 2014, according to USDA’s annual summary.

“Cheddar is a very versatile cheese and can be eaten alone, or with fruits and nuts, on burgers, in pastas or hot dishes, on pizzas or in any number of ways,” says Tony Hook, co-owner of Hook’s Cheese Co., Mineral Point, Wisconsin.

In addition to its various applications, Cheddar is traded at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME). In its 2005 white paper, “A New Cheese Pricing Model,” Blimling and Associates Inc., a dairy consulting and research firm based in Madison, Wisconsin, notes that the National Cheese Exchange (NCE) — which had operated in Green Bay, Wisconsin, before closing — focused on exchanging Cheddar starting in the late 1960s. (Prior to that, NCE had used American, brick and Swiss cheeses.) Upon NCE’s closing in 1997, cash trading shifted to the CME, the white paper says.

Phil Plourd, president, Blimling and Associates, says he believes Cheddar was first incorporated into the exchange because it was the cheese of highest commodity. Along the way, Cheddar was included in milk product price formulas, emphasizing Cheddar’s importance in the market superstructure that is seen today, he adds.

• Aging and other characteristics

Typically, Cheddar is made using whole milk with a mesophillic starter culture, according to Dean Sommer, cheese and food technologist, Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research.

The milk is first coagulated and, once reaching the proper firmness, cut into small cubes with wire curd harps. Then, the curd is “cooked” — using either steam or hot water in the jacket surrounding the vat — to expel whey from the curd and firm the curd. As a result, the curd shrinks and is stirred in the liquid whey to develop acid in the curd, Sommer says.

Next, the curds and whey are pumped onto a curd table, where the whey is drained so the curds can “fuse” together — a key step in the Cheddar-making process, Sommer says. The matted curd is cut into slabs, which are flipped every 15-20 minutes, also referred to as the “cheddaring” process. The slabs are then run through rotating knife blades in a curd mill before being salted and either bagged as cheese curds or pressed into a solid block, often for aging.

“This natural aging process is where the real magic happens,” says Nate Formalarie, brand communications manager, Cabot Creamery Cooperative. Cabot, based in Cabot, Vermont, ages its Cheddars from five months to five years, developing more bite and a crumbly texture as they age, he says.

At Hook’s, Cheddar is typically aged up to 15 years, although the company also has produced 20-year Cheddar. The company’s most popular Cheddar is its five-year, a time frame in which 70 percent of its Cheddar is sold, Hook adds.

Once reaching the five-year mark when aging Cheddar, Hook says the cheese starts smoothing out, the acidity dropping and returning to a “milky” flavor. Around five years, the cheese also typically develops calcium lactate crystals that create a crunch, he adds.

Hook’s uses the same recipe for all of its Cheddars, which are built for aging, Hook says. Throughout the aging process, Hook’s holds two quality tests of each vat per year to ensure the cheese is still developing well. The cheese is ready to sell before it develops any “off” flavors, he says.

At Fiscalini Cheese, Modesto, California, its Bandage Wrapped Cheddar is turned daily for the first two months and then quarterly until reaching 14 months of age, when it is sold, says Mariano Gonzalez, head cheesemaker.

Also characteristic to Cheddar are its colors, including ranges of oranges and whites. Cheddar is naturally a creamy off-white cheese due to natural colors present in the milk from grasses cows eat, according to Sommer.

Cheddar produced from milk in the summer usually has a more creamy white hue than in winter, when the resultant cheese appears more white, Sommer says. This is due to cows’ ability to eat fresh grass containing carotenoids in summer months, while in winter months cows may need to eat dried hay if in an area with harsh winters. Carotenoids, present in grasses and usually providing natural colors, are destroyed in dried hay.

The orange coloring in Cheddar is an additive, annatto, which is derived from the seed of a South American plant. Historically, the annatto was added to Cheddar in the winter months, since consumers viewed cheese with a creamier hue to be richer, Sommer says. Today, however, coloring — sometimes adding larger amounts of annatto to achieve a deeper orange — is used more as a visual consumer marketing tool, a tactic developed in England.

• A versatile cheese

Cheddar, with its various forms and flavors, has a multitude of applications. Chunk and shredded are the most common forms of Cheddar sold at multi-outlet and convenience stores, according to IRI data, suggesting consumers use it most often for snacking and in recipes.

Formalarie says Cheddar works well for almost any use, from building cheese platters to using it as an ingredient in a larger dish, adding that the company’s 8-ounce bars are of highest demand year-round.
Hook, whose company sells about 10 percent of its Cheddar directly to customers, agrees.

“A lot of customers are pairing (Cheddar) with wines or beers, and having it with fruit or nuts,” Hook says.

The remainder of Hook’s Cheddar sales — about 90 percent — are sold through specialty stores, wholesale distributors and restaurants, Hook says. Chefs often include the cheese in their signature dishes, such as grilled cheese or macaroni and cheese, he says.

• Demand for flavor at retail level

Cheddar flavors, such as smoked and pepper, have gained in volume sales from 2014 to 2016, according to IRI data (U.S. multi-outlet and convenience stores). Similarly, Black Pepper and Buffalo Wing flavors gained traction from 2015 to 2016, along with cranberry-flavored Cheddar, which has especially spiked during the holidays. In addition, Sharp and Extra Sharp Cheddars grew in sales more than Medium and Mild, the data says.

“More and more people are looking for cheeses that have more flavor,” Hook says, noting that it appears health-conscious Baby Boomers look to eat less but consume more flavor.

At Hook’s, flavors including Smoked Cheddar, Tomato Basil Cheddar and Truffled Cheddar are among varieties produced, along with its Mild, Medium and Sharp Cheddar varieties.

Cabot also offers cheese with a bite — Seriously Sharp Cheddar — which is the cooperative’s most popular Cheddar variety, according to Formalarie.

“As people find Cheddar and are introduced to it, over time their appetite for a more complex Cheddar grows,” he says.

Fiscalini Cheese will be introducing a seasonal flavored Cheddar — Pumpkin Spice — for the first time this year in an effort to stay atop of trends and provide consumers with more varieties.

“(Consumers are) always asking for something new,” says Laura Genasci, marketing and sales representative for Fiscalini, who co-manages the company with her brother and CEO, Brian Fiscalini.

The growing popularity of flavor-packed Cheddar demonstrates what is unique to the cheese: While its legacy in the United States only grows older, it is still full of surprises that keep consumers and producers coming back for more.

“Cheddar is versatile and approachable,” Formalarie says. “That draws a lot of people to it, especially if they aren’t big time cheese connoisseurs. It’s an approachable cheese with a lot of variety.”

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