Cheese as a product is experiencing an American Renaissance of sorts, and consumers are seeking out new varieties and exploring different flavor profiles at an incredibly accelerated rate.
“With Americans, connoisseurship is increasing dramatically — the appetite has grown,” says internationally renowned cheese expert Max McCalman. “As we know more about cheese, people are demanding a higher quality of it, and it’s helped to shape the importation of it and cheese production in the United States. People are not willing to take the same old kinds of processed cheeses that are thrown at us anymore ... And it’s not just higher quality — we also want diversity.”
For a lot of people, that diversity translates to spicy. "The heat level Americans want has gone up and up," says celebrated Chef Anthony Bourdain. "Sriracha was just the beginning … The level of heat, the level of spice. The amount of just pure pain we are willing — and in fact anxious — to experience. And of course, the ‘funk.’ Stinky cheeses, fermented stuff, fish sauces, kimchi — these are all products that are going to be essential flavor components, that will soon be far more American than apple pie. I mean, who eats apple pie? I like it fine, but I can’t even remember the last time I ate it. Whereas kimchi —two days ago.”
And McCalman’s and Bourdain’s declarations are backed up by numbers, too. According to research firm Nielsen, “spicy,” as a cheese flavoring, has increased by over 100 percent in dollar sales in the 52 weeks ending April 30. To be more specific, “smoked” was the biggest seller of that year, with jalapeño and pimento following, though smoked and jalapeño actually garnered a negative percentage in dollar sales when compared to the year before. Pimento and taco, however, increased the most by comparison — the latter by a surprising 90 percent.
Taco cheese? Don’t be too quick to dismiss it — this snowball has just begun to roll down its hill, McCalman says, and if the bottom is connoisseurship, then the top has to start somewhere.
“It’s important not to be too snobbish about cheese,” McCalman says, “because for some people, that processed or flavored cheese is something that will be a gateway into the whole world of cheese for them. Sometimes putting a little flavor on a cheese is just what it takes.”
But it’s not spicy alone that’s stirring up such newfound interest in cheese exploration; the same data from Nielsen says that the fastest growing cheese flavors are garlic and fine herbs, which have seen a 24 percent increase in dollar sales, pulling in $18.4 million during the period analyzed. Just behind that is “nutty,” and then we see “spicy.” Overall, varieties of spicy and smoky flavors made up almost half of the top 10 fastest-growing flavors.
If you’re looking to diversify the flavor profiles of your cheese though, hopping on the spicy bandwagon can present its own problems — mainly, how do you stand out from the crowd? Taco flavoring is ubiquitous in the cheese aisle, and chipotle and sriracha appeared on almost every other cheese booth there was at this year’s International Dairy Deli Bake Association conference. That primarily leaves your best bet on herbs and spices, whose combinations are almost infinite. And if you really want to grab the bull by the horns, you could do what Burnett Dairy Cooperative has: make a complete line consisting of combinations of spicy, smoky, and just about everything else. It’s a gutsy move that likely required a lot of investment, but the cooperative’s new line is practically McCalman’s and Bourdain’s words manifest.
“(We’ve found that) consumers have been drawn to our products that contain more than one ingredient, making the cheese more layered with flavors,” says Nicki Peterson, marketing manager for Burnett. “The (biggest) flavor categories that we’ve seen trending are sweet heat, smoky, and ‘better for you.’”
The cooperative went all-out with the idea, debuting the six new flavors at the IDDBA conference in June: black truffle, espresso brava, chipotle garlic, mango habañero, applewood smoked sea salt, and garden veggie. All of these flavors were added to the cooperative’s “Alpha Morning Sun” cheese, which is a blend of cheddar and gruyere.
“Our top selling flavors of Alpha’s Morning Sun are roasted red pepper with cracked black peppercorn, pesto, and herbes de Provence,” Peterson says. And it all lines up with the numbers uncovered by Nielsen, right down to the cheddar-gruyere base.
“Our Alpha’s Morning Sun cheese is a proprietary recipe developed by our Wisconsin master cheesemaker, which offers the nuttiness and aging characteristics of a cheddar with the creaminess and meltability of a gruyere,” Peterson says. “Starting with a base like this, we’re able to experiment with small batches of unique flavors to create one of-a-kind recipes.”
Doing so enabled them to play with spicy, nutty and smoky — again, the three fastest growing flavor profiles — until they hit the mark with their recipes. It will be a while before we can look back and say how successful Burnett’s new flavors were in the marketplace, but according to the experts, the cooperative’s got little to fear. Unless they decide to try apple pie, that is.