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Switzerland enjoys reputation for high-quality hard cheeses

Editor’s note: Passport to Cheese is Cheese Market News’ feature series exploring the dairy industries of nations around the world. Each month this series takes an in-depth look at various nations/regions’ dairy industries with coverage of their milk and cheese statistics and key issues affecting them. The nations’ interplay with the United States also is explored. We are pleased to introduce our latest country — Switzerland.

By Rena Archwamety

MADISON, Wis. — Switzerland, known for its grassy mountains and hard cheeses, has an extensive history of cheesemaking in its Alpine regions.

According to Switzerland Cheese Marketing AG (SCM), a nonprofit marketing organization serving Switzerland’s cheese industry, archeological findings show that cattle were bred on the land that would become Switzerland as long ago as the Neolithic period, and the ancient Romans brought the tradition of hard cheese as far as the Alps.

“Cheesemaking has a long history in Switzerland, and there are mentions of Gruyère (in the Pays d’Enhaut region in the former country of Gruyère) around 1115,” says Manuela Sonderegger, SCM spokesperson.

In the early days of the Swiss Confederation, cheese was not only a food staple but also became commonly used as a means of payment, SCM notes.

Craftsmen, day laborers and even priests were often paid “in cheese and money.” Later in the 15th and 16th centuries, Alpine herdsmen would take their surplus cheese supplies down to the valley to sell.

Consumer demand for hard Swiss cheeses significantly increased in the 18th century due to its long shelf life, and since the 1830s, more and more dairies sprang up in Switzerland’s valleys as well, SCM says.

Today, dairy producers are split almost evenly among Switzerland’s valley areas (11,561) and mountainous areas (10,555), according to 2015 data reported by Swissmilk, which represents Swiss dairy producers. Total 2015 milk production was 4.0 million metric tons, and the average herd size of dairy farms in Switzerland is about 25 head.

“Around 80 percent of the cultivated land is unsuitable for farming and is mainly used for livestock breeding ... this is why Switzerland is ideal for cheese production,” Sonderegger says of Switzerland’s landscape. “Farmers live at the max 20 kilometers away from the cheese dairy. And cheese production you can find all over the country.”

There are about 600 village cheese processors in Switzerland, and while the country has a worldwide reputation for its high-quality cheese, it produces only a tenth of the amount Germany does, Sonderegger notes.

“The dairies are mostly family-owned, and the production is similar to the one 100 years ago,” she says. “There are only some machines ... but otherwise it is still a lot of handcraft in every cheese.”

• Cheeses of Switzerland

There are more than 450 varieties of cheeses produced in Switzerland, from the famous hard cheeses Emmentaler AOP and Le Gruyère AOP, to semi-hard cheeses like Raclette Suisse and Appenzeller, to soft mold-ripened and smear-ripened cheeses, cream cheeses and goat’s and sheep’s milk cheeses. Just under half of the milk produced in the country is made into cheese, SCM says.

“Gruyère AOP is the most produced cheese (26,325 metric tons) followed by Emmentaler AOP (17,029 metric tons),” Sonderegger says. “What is sure a trend is that people are looking for natural products in high quality and these are our cheeses.”

Emmentaler AOP, considered the “king of the cheeses” from Switzerland, comes from the valley of the Emme in the canton of Berne. It has been produced there since the 13th century, and today it is made in about 200 different village cheese dairies from unpasteurized milk from cows fed grass and hay but not silage, SCM says. The most typical characteristic of Emmentaler AOP is its holes, which appear during the fermentation process and vary between cherry- and walnut-sized.

Le Gruyere AOP has been produced since at least the 12th century in the region surrounding the small town of Gruyère, and it still is made today in village cheese factories according to the traditional recipe. It owes its subtlety and characteristic taste to quality unpasteurized milk coming straight from cows fed grass during the summer and hay during the winter, SCM says. During the slow maturing stage, which lasts six months, the rounds of cheese are turned and brushed with salted water, and the humidity encourages the cheese rind’s “smear,” which gives Gruyère AOP its well-known distinctive flavor.

According to a September 2016 Euromonitor report on Cheese in Switzerland, cheese was among the most dynamic categories in Swiss dairy in 2016, with an increasing variety of cheese products available in Switzerland.

Although imported cheese accounts for more than a third of total cheese value sales in 2016, Swiss consumers remain loyal to their domestic products, the report says.

“Increasing interest in premium cheese and strong attachment to local products and authenticity will be among the positive influences affecting cheese,” Euromonitor reports, adding that the share of cheaper imported products also will continue to grow, limiting growth in value sales.

“Cheesemakers face as a challenge the cheap imports from Europe,” Sonderegger adds.

Switzerland is a major exporter of cheese, exporting 68,459 metric tons, more than a third of its total production, in 2015, according to SCM. Its largest cheese exports are Emmentaler AOP, Le Gruyère AOP and other semi-hard and hard cheeses. Eighty percent of its cheese exports in 2015 went to the European Union, and 13 percent went to the United States.

• Dairy processors

While small village factories are responsible for much of Switzerland’s cheese production, four large companies — Emmi, Cremo, Hochdorf and Elsa — are responsible for processing about 60 percent of Switzerland’s milk production into dairy products, according to Sibylle Umiker, head of media relations, Emmi Management AG. Some large companies like Emmi also help cure and market cheeses from smaller producers.

“Emmi is the largest processor of Swiss milk,” Umiker says. “In Switzerland, the focus in production is on dairy products (milk, butter, cream), fresh products (e.g. yogurt and drinks), fresh cheese (Mozzarella) and milk powder. We also produce cheese, but we are more of a cheese refiner and trader.”

Emmi in 2016 processed a total of 920,000 metric tons of milk at about 25 production sites of various sizes across Switzerland. A stock-listed company since 2004, the majority of Emmi’s shares (about 53 percent) are held by the Central Switzerland Milk Producers, a cooperative of small- and mid-size dairy farmers.

Overall, Emmi sources its milk from five producer organizations as well as about 2,500 direct suppliers.

A December 2016 Euromonitor report on Dairy in Switzerland says a large number of dairy farmers in Switzerland remained under economic pressure in 2016.

According to Swissmilk, dairy policy needs to be reviewed in order to save Swiss milk production, the report says. Fluid milk prices no longer cover dairy farmers’ expenses, threatening operations, and pressure from imports, cross-border shopping and a strong Swiss franc further contributed to overall negative performance last year. Swiss milk production likely will remain under pressure due to uncertainties about the price of milk, Euromonitor predicts.

• Product trends

While fluid milk consumption in Switzerland has been steadily declining, Euromonitor reports that manufacturers of yogurt and sour milk products have focused on attracting consumer attention by introducing more innovative products this past year. Indulgence also was a focus as manufacturers capitalized on the trend for Greek yogurt, combining health benefits and good taste. Euromonitor adds that dairy product consumers in Switzerland are increasingly aware of the importance of healthy nutrition. The trend toward products with lower fat content, healthier ingredients and other health benefits are expected to evolve in the future.

Among Emmi’s most well-known brands in Switzerland are yogurts like Jogurtpur, without any additives and flavors, and Yoqua, which is high in protein and low in fat. Another bestseller is Emmi Energy Milk, a brand that’s more than 20 years old and known because of some partnerships with Swiss celebrities like tennis player Roger Federer. Umiker notes that Emmi has seen the most growth and current trends in niches like organic or goat’s milk (roughly 10 percent of Emmi sales is organic dairy), high-protein, clean label and low-sugar.

While Emmi produces some of its own cheeses like Scharfer Maxx and Switzerland Swiss, which are available in the U.S. market, some of its most famous cheeses in Switzerland and abroad are its Kaltbach varieties, many of which are procured from smaller dairies and aged in Emmi’s Kaltbach sandstone cave. These include cheeses such as Gruyere AOP, Emmentaler AOP and others.

Emmi’s specialty cheeses, as well as Emmi Caffè Latte drinks, are its most popular exports, and its biggest export markets include the United States, Spain, Germany and Tunisia.

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