Cheese of the Month - November 2017

Clean labels, traditional, bold flavors popular in cold pack

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 variety: cold pack cheese.

By Rena Archwamety

MADISON, Wis. — Cold pack cheese, a traditional supper club staple, continues to grow and evolve as consumers look for flavorful, healthy snacks and manufacturers innovate with bold tastes and clean labels.

Cold pack cheese first was introduced by a Wisconsin tavern owner who blended natural cheeses without the aid of heat, providing his customers with a spreadable snacking cheese, according to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. Tavern or club owners often would pack this cheese in crocks, so it also became known as “club cheese” or “crock cheese.” Compared to other kinds of cheese spread, the majority of cold pack is natural, with less than 1 percent processed.

“If you want the quality of a really good piece of cheese that you can spread on a cracker or bread, you want cold pack cheese food,” says Mary Lindemann, secretary and director of marketing at Pine River Pre-Pack, Newton, Wisconsin.

However, Lindemann notes cold pack isn’t just for crackers. Pine River has a long list of suggestions to “Break Beyond the Cracker,” including using its cold pack varieties as a chili topping, in meatball and meatloaf recipes or on hamburgers. The company currently is working on a new recipe section for its website.

“It’s a good source of protein that can be enjoyed for breakfast, lunch or dinner — on a bagel, in scrambled eggs or on a baked potato,” Lindemann says. “Put it in mac and cheese, or it can be added to any recipe where you would use natural cuts of cheese and just decrease the liquid a bit.”

In the past year (52 weeks ending Sept. 10), the total volume of cold pack cheese sold in multi-outlet plus convenience channels (MULO+C) was 6.5 million pounds, up 9 percent from the same period a year earlier, according to data from Information Resources Inc. (IRI), courtesy of Dairy Management Inc. (DMI).

Cold pack volume has gained and accelerated over the last two consecutive years, though it still accounts for less than 1 percent volume share of fixed weight cheese in the United States.

IRI notes that Wisconsin and other Midwestern customers buy more than their fair share of cold pack.

Cold pack also is popular in New England metropolitan areas. Green Bay and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, are the top two indexing markets, followed by Buffalo/Rochester, New York. Consumers buy far less in California and Southern geographic regions, where this cheese form barely registers on IRI’s volume purchase index. Higher income households and seniors and retirees over index for cold pack cheese, while millennials under index for the product. Christmas/New Years provides the largest sales lift during the year for cold pack cheese, while Thanksgiving and Super Bowl Sunday, when cold pack my be used as dips, also raise sales volumes.

“You can never go wrong with giving cheese of any kind during the holidays, and it’s always a hit at a party,” says Steve Knaus, owner of cold pack manufacturer Scott’s of Wisconsin. “We do also manufacture cheese balls and logs, which are essentially cold pack cheese rolled in almond and pecan nuts. Although available all year round, we see a definite increase in sales during the holidays.”

Cold pack often is made from Cheddar, Swiss or Colby with added flavors such as herbs, spices, almonds, port wine or horseradish. IRI reports that the top flavored variety is Port Wine, which holds 38 percent volume share, second only to “regular” or unflavored, which has a 48 percent share. Sriracha has the highest recent growth, though from just 1 percent volume.

“Across the board we find that the traditional cold packs are always the most popular: Sharp Cheddar, Port Wine, Cheddar Bacon,” Knaus says. “People remember the Port Wine from their childhood, from a supper club or from grandma’s table, and we see them still going back to it. Sharp Cheddar is tried and true — you can never go wrong with it.”

Scott’s of Wisconsin also has noticed consumers also enjoying cheese spreads that include cream cheese, which offers a softer flavor and texture, in addition to traditional Cheddar cold pack varieties.

“Our Cranberry Cinnamon Cheese Spread and Herb and Garlic Ala Crème Cheese Spread are instant favorites,” Knaus says. “They are great with crackers, pretzels, bagels or even used in a recipe.”

The cheese Pine River uses in its cold pack is aged nine months or longer to maximize the flavor profile.

In addition to its Cheddar base, the company also uses Swiss, Asiago, Pepper Jack and Widmer’s Brick cheeses in its various cold pack varieties.

“We thank the Wisconsin cheesemakers for making great cheese, which in turn makes great cheese spread,” says Phil Lindemann, president, Pine River Pre-Pack. “Without their high standards, we could not make our award-winning spreads.”

In addition to retail, Pine River sells its cold pack for private label as well as in bulk sizes for foodservice.

“Restaurants use it sometimes for toppings for hot dogs, with french fries or in macaroni and cheese or other recipes — it’s not just on salad bars,” Lindemann says. “It’s also served on cheese boards. Lots of restaurants use it as an appetizer, especially if it’s won an award.”

“Hot” is one trend in cold pack Pine River has seen over recent years, as well as single serving “grab-and-go” for people on the move or who don’t want to buy too much. Private label also has been a major trend, especially in the past five years, Lindemann adds. Another big trend is “clean label,” and Pine River in recent years introduced a line of cold pack cheese food varieties made without preservatives, artificial flavors or artificial colors. Additionally, by the fourth quarter of next year, all its products will be made from rbST-free sources.

Cedar Grove Cheese, Plain, Wisconsin, in December is introducing a new line of cold pack spreads that are all-natural, made only with cheese, butter and whey with a Quark and Cheddar base. They come in Habanero Mango and Olive with Pimento varieties and will be sold in glass jars.

“It’s definitely an artisanal product,” says Bob Wills, president, Cedar Grove Cheese, of the new spread. “You can just sit down and eat it with a nice cracker or in a sandwich, but it’s also great for entertaining.

It’s a product that people will, I think, enjoy sharing with people.”

Wills says he had been debating with his friends during football season what cheese spreads they like the best, and he concluded he could do better. He also had some nice aged Cheddar around, and thought this was a good opportunity to showcase the cheese. The Olive and Pimento spread will use a Sharp Cheddar base, while the Habanero Mango variety will use a Mild Cheddar.

In addition to giving them a more artisanal look, the glass jars also offer the ability to easily reclose and hold up under freezing and thawing with no leaching of plastics or concerns with flavor or stability of the product, Wills says.

The cold-pack spread — made only with dairy products and natural flavor add-ins — follows the “clean label” trend that has been seen in “pretty much everything,” Wills adds.

“I think people are looking for products that don’t have things in them where they don’t know what they are,” he says.

He also says the flavors offer classic yet on-trend options.

“With the Habanero Mango, we really liked the balance between the pepper spice and the sweetness of the mangoes,” he says. “We’ve been working with some other people doing traditional pimento spreads, but they’re all mayonnaise-based, so we were really looking for more. It seems to me when I was a kid there were olive cheese spreads around, but you just don’t see them anymore. Both of them are quite modern but also traditional.”


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