It’s official – America loves cheese. Per capita cheese consumption in the U.S. is projected to reach 34 pounds by the year 2015, with annual cheese production following the upward trend from 8.2 billion pounds in 2000 to 9.1 billion pounds in 2005.
What’s driving our love of cheese? Many attribute the cheese growth to broader societal trends and changing demographics in the U.S. population. Americans continue to heavily rely on eat-out or carry-in cheese-friendly meals or meal parts. From imaginative sandwiches in casual or fast food restaurants to Mediterranean cuisine and cheese courses in white tablecloth establishments, cheese is a winning component. The growing Hispanic population is also having an impact, not only in overall consumption, but on cheese varieties as well. Add to that, the continuing popularity of pizza.
Perceived as a natural and wholesome food, cheese also fits America’s desire for “well-being.” Enhancing its attraction is its relationship to the land and its makers. Cheese embodies the values we place on minimally processed foods, those personally cared for and produced by farmers and craftsman.
But much of the per capita increase is probably driven by taste. Americans simply like the taste of cheese, and they are discovering new varieties and bolder flavors to embrace.
Wisconsin cheesemakers recognize this dynamic marketplace and are leaders in the production of lower volume, value-added specialty cheeses, from ethnic varieties to finely crafted cave-aged styles. Commodity cheese production is moving west, where very large dairy farms produce excess milk.
Wisconsin continues to reign supreme over American cheesemaking, however, producing more than one quarter (26.4 percent) of the U.S. cheese supply and boasting the most advanced, comprehensive dairying and cheesemaking infrastructure in the nation.
Through the years, Wisconsin has become an international hub of cheesemaking innovation, craftsmanship and technology. The University of Wisconsin and the Center for Dairy Research (CDR) offer accredited classes in the art and science of cheesemaking, where cheesemakers from around the world come to learn the latest techniques for assuring quality and safety.
Tradition in the Making
Wisconsin’s current total of 14,500 dairy farms is mostly comprised of small family operations with an average herd size of 85 cows. And many of Wisconsin’s cheesemakers are at the forefront of the trend towards more distinctive varieties.
According to the Wisconsin Specialty Cheese Institute, “specialty cheese” has one or more unique qualities, such as exotic origin, particular processing, design, limited supply (typically less than 40 million pounds produced annually), unusual application or use, and extraordinary packaging or channel of sale.
Specialty cheese varieties such as Blue, Feta, specialty Provolone, Hispanic-style cheeses, Parmesan wheels and Asiago are demonstrating strong growth. In fact, Wisconsin makes about 25 percent of all Hispanic varieties, from Asadero to Queso Blanco. In addition, there are several specialty cheese categories that are experiencing increased popularity including Wisconsin originals, farmstead cheese and washed-rind cheeses.
Wisconsin cheesemakers consistently win more awards for their cheeses than any other state or country. During 2006, Wisconsin cheesemakers captured more than one-third of all awards given at the World Championship Cheese Contest and received 43 awards at the World Cheese Awards in London, nearly one-third of all U.S. medals awarded.
Data from the Wisconsin Agricultural Statistics Service (WASS) show that specialty cheese production rose by 7 percent in 2005, to 355 million pounds, or 15
percent of total Wisconsin cheese volume. In fact, 77 of the state’s 115 cheese-making facilities produce at least one type of specialty cheese. Wisconsin is currently the only state to track production of specialty varieties.
All of the innovation and progress in Wisconsin’s cheese industry is firmly grounded in its cheesemaking heritage. These makers are dedicated to quality and the pride generations of cheesemakers experience from crafting excellent cheese.
Marilyn Wilkinson is director of National Product Communications for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. For more information on cheesemaking activities in the state, as well as specialty and artisan cheese varieties visit: www.wisdairy.com.