Artisan cheese is one of those products that’s riding the foodie wave of today’s more curious and adventuresome grocery shoppers, and expanding your cheese offerings to include it can not only bring more people through your doors, but draw the kind of consumer who tends to spend more money for the quality foods they enjoy.

“Supermarkets should carry artisan cheese to attract the ever-evolving shopper,” agrees Nicki Peterson, marketing manager of Burnett Dairy Cooperative, whose line of artisan cheese goes by the name of Wood River Creamery. “Cheese isn’t just an added ingredient anymore; it’s the hero of the recipe. There is an increasing demand as consumers palates become more sophisticated, and consumers also have an increasing interest in knowing where their food comes from.”

Of course, deciding to create a specialty cheese section for your supermarket is a big decision, but it’s one that can really pay off.

“According to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board’s Specialty Cheese Path to Purchase report, shoppers purchasing specialty cheese are likely to spend more than $30 per month, whereas consumers spend $18 per month on non-specialty cheese,” Peterson says. “Therefore, while these consumers purchase less often, they are spending more money in the specialty cheese case, which is full of flavorful artisan cheeses.”

But what exactly does “artisan” even mean? Definitions vary from cheesemaker to cheesemaker, but most agree that it includes hand-making their cheeses with milk from their own (or local) cows or goats, and then not standardizing the milk before it’s crafted into their cheese.

Janet Smith, the third-generation owner of Borgman’s Dairy and goat farm, says there’s a further distinction between artisanal and farmstead cheeses, too. “We’re a sustainable farmstead dairy,” she says of the 200-goat operation she runs with her husband Randy outside of Kansas City. “None of us cheesemakers can really define the word artisanal yet, but we’re definitely working on it.

“I’ll tell you the difference between that and farmstead though — farmstead means that we make all of our own products with our own milk; we do not use the milk of other farmers. Artisanal will often mean that they do use the milk of other farmers.”

And those distinctions aren’t just for cheeses in the US either, but for many imported ones as well. John Hempenstall is the owner of Wicklow Farmhouse Cheese in Ireland, which is imported by Abbey Specialty Foods, and he shares more than just those product qualities with Smith. Both inherited their dairies from their family, and both were given a dairy farm that produced only fluid cow’s milk and turned it into one that makes cheese as well, all through their own entrepreneurship.

“We know our cheese, you know?” Hempenstall says. “We say, ‘Grass yesterday, milk today, and cheese tomorrow.’ That’s my philosophy. And that’s what we do here — we grow the grass, we produce the milk and we make the cheese. It’s all a natural flow, from farm to fork, as some people refer to it. We have the cows, we have the parlor, we have all the farmyard smells that you associate with a dairy farm; it’s quite unique in that respect. And we have the range — there’s no other cheesemakers in Ireland that make a range of cheeses like we make, so that’s what sets us apart.”  

Goat or cow, it’s what the animals eat throughout the year that gives different flavors and accents to their milk, which is in turn subtly impressed upon the cheese when it’s made, according to what time of year it is and what the animals have been eating. This is the advantage of using unstandardized milk — but what exactly does that term mean?

“In the US today, you’ll find that what happens is that (dairies) come in and strip all the fat out of the milk,” Smith explains. “And then based on government regulations, they’ll put a certain amount of fat back in, like with skim, 1 percent milk, 2 percent milk and so on. So pretty much, standardization means that if you were to get a gallon of milk in California it would taste like a gallon of milk in New York, because that standardization process is the same throughout the US.”

Another essential factor to understanding exactly what artisanal cheese is: like many other trending foodie products, most contain no artificial preservatives, additives, colors or flavors. For these cheesemakers, it’s all about the short, organic ingredients list.

“People are becoming more and more concerned with what they’re putting in their bodies,” Smith says of her goat’s milk and cheese, which both the tastemakers and the lactose-intolerant can consume. “If that’s a concern for a shopper, then we’re an alternative for them.”

Hempenstall agrees. “We don’t use any colorings, additives or artificial flavors or anything like that, it’s all very natural, and it’s all vegetarian,” he says. “The cheese is all cultures, salt, milk, and rennet — those are the four ingredients used in our cheeses.”

Smith’s products are now in Hen House Markets, a couple of Hy-Vee supermarkets, and select Kansas City and St. Louis Whole Foods chains as well. While Hempenstall refrained from mentioning his big-name carrier for purposes of rebranding, he did spend much of this summer touring the US and hopes to keep growing Wicklow’s presence here.”The milk we have here,” he says, “because it’s produced from grass and it’s a different environment, is different in flavor, and that comes through in our cheese. That’s why our cheese is distinctly different in taste compared to the American cheese, and there’s a place for small amounts of that in the US.”

Hempenstall also adheres to an all-natural policy with his cheeses. “We don’t use any colorings, additives or artificial flavors or anything like that, it’s all very natural, and it’s all vegetarian. The cheese is all cultures, salt, milk, and rennet — those are the four ingredients used in our cheeses, so they’re of a very good standard and good quality. ”

Not every artisan cheesemaker strictly adheres to the qualities that have been put forth so far though — as noted, the cheese-making community at large is still working to define the parameters of the term. For example, Burnett Dairy is a cooperative of farmers in Wisconsin that use local standardized  milk, have no artificial ingredients or preservatives, and offer cheeses that come in different (all-natural) flavors. They’re a big operation — but no less artisanal for it. Wicklow also has a large variety of cheeses, and as Burnett’s range sets them apart from the competition here, so does Wicklow’s in Ireland.  “The first cheese we started making was a bleu brie, Wicklow Bleu it’s called,” Hempenstall says. Wicklow Bleu is still their most successful product, and won the British Cheese Award this year, as well as numerous others, both national and international (75 can be found on their website, though it only lists those awards they’ve received up until 2014).

But Hempenstall also produces a double-cream brie, and a number of cheddars: plain white cheddar, Beachwood smoked, a cheddar with nettle and chive, one with basil and garlic, and another with sundried tomato and Italian herbs. And all those awards his cheeses have won have led to his partnering up with other local cheesemakers to establish an LTD company, which allows for all of its member-owners to pool their resources for things like distribution.

Distribution is actually one of the biggest hurdles an artisan cheesemaker will face while establishing their business, Smith says. While Burnett is a cooperative and Wicklow an LTD company, for most artisanal and farmstead cheesemakers, their operations are just small enough that they can’t afford to bring in a distributor. In many cases, it’s actually easier for a retailer interested in carrying artisan cheeses to simply come directly to them instead of relying on distribution partners to find and bring their wares to you.

“I would love to have a distributor,” Smith says, “but here’s the bane of all small farmers: distribution will take all of your profit.

“For example, I sell my jars of goat milk caramel sauce for $14, but in order for me to sell that at a manufacturer’s resale price, I have to sell it to the distributor for $2, and everyone down the line is going to be making more money than me. And I can’t survive on $2 a jar when somebody else is going to be making $7 or $8, and the jar itself is $1. So I wouldn’t end up making any money on it.”

And that may be the crux right there: to bring in the best artisan cheeses that will garner the most cult following among your shoppers (not to mention the most profits), you’re going to have to be as curious and adventuresome as your consumers now are, and really take the time to seek the multitudinous varieties of artisanal cheese out. After all, the whole point of artisan cheese is that it’s unique and handcrafted with care — and its selection by retailers should be no different.