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Cheese of the Month - September 2017

Hispanic cheeses hold potential for further growth

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: Hispanic varieties.

By Stephanie Awe

MADISON, Wis. — Hispanic cheeses — ranging from spreadable Requeson, to semi-soft cheeses such as Queso Fresco and Oaxaca, to hard cheeses such as Cotija — have a multitude of applications with potential to gain further traction among consumers.

According to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service’s Dairy Products 2016 Summary, about 266 million pounds of Hispanic cheeses were produced in the United States in 2016.

Among the many Hispanic cheese varieties, Queso Fresco has the largest volume share in U.S. retail multi-outlet and convenience stores, with 62-percent share — up 10.8 percent volume from a year ago (fixed weight only, latest 52 weeks as of July 16, 2017), according to Information Resources Inc. (IRI) data courtesy of Dairy Management Inc. (DMI).

To make Queso Fresco, culture typically is added to pasteurized milk at about 90 degrees Fahrenheit to start cheesemaking, says David McCoy, managing director, Dairy Insights LLC, Muskego, Wisconsin.

Coagulant is added and the milk is allowed to set for 30 to 40 minutes or until a relatively firm curd has developed.

Next, the curd is cut into cubes and the whey is allowed to separate. The vat can now be gently stirred, and the temperature can be increased up to 95 degrees Fahrenheit if a drier cheese is desired. Typically, Queso Fresco has 50- to 60-percent moisture — although there are no U.S. federal standards for any Hispanic cheese, according to McCoy — and care should be taken during this step to limit whey removal, he says.

After about an hour, the whey is drained from the vat, and the curd is carefully salted, milled and transferred to molds for pressing. Pressing is done with light pressure and may last four to six hours depending on the desired moisture and firmness of the cheese, McCoy says. The final cheese is removed from the molds, wrapped and immediately refrigerated for storage and distribution.

“Typically, Queso Fresco is a high pH cheese (5.3 to 6.7) due to the low amount of acidification by the culture during manufacturing,” McCoy says. “This makes plant sanitation especially important, as there are fewer hurdles to growth by spoilage and pathogenic organisms.”

McCoy notes that many culture manufacturers sell bioprotective cultures — or cultures that produce a bateriocin or other inhibitors to Listeria growth ­— that should be considered to further improve safety for Queso Fresco due to its high pH and moisture.

The Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy offers three overarching areas to help cheese producers make safe cheeses, including — but not limited to — Queso Fresco. It offers workshops, guides and research to help manufacturers of all sizes gain access to this information.

The center does not offer training specific to Hispanic cheeses, but a majority of its research projects focus on Queso Fresco because it is the “hardest nut to crack,” says Tim Stubbs, vice president of product research and food safety for DMI, noting that if a food safety tactic works for Queso Fresco, it will likely work for other cheeses. Stubbs emphasizes that Queso Fresco is treated like all other products in the fact that prevention is addressed.

• Retail sales

In U.S. retail, Hispanic cheese sales reached 83.8 million pounds in the latest 52 weeks as of July 16, 2017, (fixed weight only, U.S. multi-outlet and convenience stores), according to IRI data.

U.S. retail sales for Hispanic cheeses are up 10.1 percent from a year ago. Volume sales have grown each year over the last five years, with double-digit gains during the last two years, according to IRI.

Hispanic cheese volume is growing in retail outlets throughout the United States, with the highest growth in the Plains region, up 20.3 percent, according to the data (multi-outlet and convenience stores, fixed weight only, latest 52 weeks as of July 16, 2017).

While Queso Fresco has the largest volume share, Queso Quesadilla holds 7-percent share and is up 30.1 percent in the latest 52 weeks as of July 16, 2017. Manchego and Enchilado cheeses also are gaining sales, according to IRI.

The majority of Hispanic cheese — 92 percent — is sold under a national brand, and about 8 percent volume share is sold under private label (latest 52 weeks ending July 9, 2017). However, private label volume sales were up 23.7 percent compared to a year ago, according to the data.

• Offerings and trends

Some companies have found a niche working with Hispanic dairy products, offering wide varieties of cheeses across different outlets.

Founders of Nuestro Queso, Rosemont, Illinois, started in 2009 with a passion to become a primary provider of Hispanic cheese. Translating to “Our Cheese,” Nuestro Queso began by conducting research on styles and types of Hispanic cheeses, holding focus groups in California, Texas, on the East Coast and in the Midwest, says Mark Braun, president and CEO, Nuestro Queso. From there, the company formulated the authentic recipes it now offers, including cheeses such as Queso Fresco, Cotija, Oaxaca, Manchego, Para Freir, Panela, Requeson, Queso Blanco and Duro Seco, among others. These cheeses are categorized across different lines that correlate to their area of origin, including Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America.

While the company started by offering only its Nuestro Queso line of products, it began to expand into private label and co-packing around 2012 because it saw the market moving in that direction.

At W&W Dairy Inc., Monroe, Wisconsin, a second-generation family-owned business that focuses on Hispanic cheese manufacture, most cheeses are sold under private label as well. However, a small portion is sold under the company’s own brand name, “Queso Del Ray,” says Ryan Webster, director of sales, W&W Dairy.

W&W Dairy’s largest regions of sale are in Chicago, Houston and the New York and New Jersey areas — mostly in retail, although the company also is working to expand into foodservice, Webster says.

W&W Dairy’s main offerings are Queso Fresco, Cotija and Quesadilla cheeses, with sizes varying from 7 ounces up to 60-pound wheels.

In addition, the company offers cheeses in kilo sizes, with 1-kilo (2.2 pounds), 1/2-kilo and 1/4-kilo sizes being the most popular, Webster says.

Webster says Cotija and Queso Fresco are the company’s highest selling cheeses, noting that Queso Fresco is gaining popularity. This, he says, could be partly due to the fact that Fresco typically is less expensive in a price-conscientious market.

Meanwhile, popularity of cheeses vary by region for Nuestro Queso, Braun says. For example, Queso Fresco is the company’s highest seller in some regions, but Queso Blanco is the highest seller in other areas. Braun notes he also has noticed a growth in Cotija across private label, foodservice and other channels.

At Cacique Inc., Monrovia, California, the most popular cheese variety is “by far” Queso Fresco, says Christopher Hannigan, vice president of marketing, Cacique.

Other fresh cheeses the company makes include Panela and Queso Blanco. Robust cheeses include Cotija and Enchilado, and melting cheeses include Manchego, Quesadilla and Asadero, he adds.

The company distributes nationally through retail, foodservice and industrial channels, with the greatest demand in independent grocery stores catering to the core Hispanic consumer, Hannigan says.

• Applications and innovations

Applications for Hispanic cheeses span wide, and the cheeses show potential for further growth and innovation.

The California Milk Advisory Board provides recipe ideas for Hispanic cheeses on its website, such as using Queso Fresco in a breakfast torta with a fried egg, trying Oaxaca as a pizza cheese, or sprinkling Cotija cheese atop of popcorn. Other ideas include utilizing Asadero in grilled cheese sandwiches, topping avocado toast with Panela or Queso Blanco and more.

Queso Fresco can be used as a topping, garnish or filling, Hannigan says, adding that typical applications for the cheese are topping it on enchiladas, tacos and tostadas, or using it as a filling in enchiladas and tortas.

Snacking is a prominent and growing use for some Hispanic cheeses — although Queso Fresco is not necessarily one of them, Braun notes. Instead, the company is working on creating Queso Fresco with flavoring such as jalapeno, in addition to a spreadable format.

“(We’re looking at) expanding use of the cheese, thereby expanding its appeal and crossover outside of the Hispanic market,” Braun says.

A Hispanic cheese that does lend itself to snacking is Oaxaca, says Arturo Nava, marketing director, Nuestro Queso, noting that the company offers the cheese in string and shredded form, demonstrating its convenience.

Cotija, a cheese that anecdotally is growing in popularity, is “very” popular when corn-on-the-cob season comes around, Webster notes.

As for Queso Fresco, he says it is seen on Mexican street corn and fajitas. It also is a good frying cheese because it does not melt, he adds.

In addition, W&W Dairy will have a new package style coming soon — a standup pouch with a zipper on it. Prior to this, the company stuck with traditional packaging, but Webster says he estimates the next generation of the company’s primarily Hispanic clientele is interested in less traditional packaging.

Furthermore, Braun notes that Hispanic cheeses are increasingly being adopted by Anglo buyers and consumers.

“We’re trying to be a part of that,” he says, adding that with more formats, convenience and uses, Hispanic cheese may become more “mainstream.”

“Hispanic cheeses are where Italian (cheeses) were 40 years ago,” Braun says.

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