Artisan cheeses, made in small batches using traditional methods, are increasingly popular on menus and in markets.
From the gooey goodness of homemade mac and cheese, to freshly cut wedges of farmstead feta, Americans are reaching for artisan cheese at a briskly increasing pace. According to Packaged Facts’ study of Natural & Specialty Cheeses, conducted in March 2014, sales in the natural and specialty cheese market will reach $19 billion in 2018. Jeffrey Roberts, author of The Atlas of American Artisan Cheese, reported 825 licensed producers of artisan cheeses in the U.S. in 2012, up from 410 in 2006.
There has been a 33% increase in the use of the words ‘artisan’ and ‘artisanal’ to describe menu items.
The word “artisan” has special cachet for menus these days. “A review of our MenuMonitor shows that in the past two years, there has been a 33% increase in the use of the words ‘artisan’ and ‘artisanal’ to describe menu items,” says Mary Chapman, senior director of product innovation at Technomic, Inc. “While that term is most often used to describe bread, it’s also increasingly used to describe cheese at higher-end restaurants, in such items as cheese plates.” In fact, the once-rare cheese plate is up 44 percent on menus since 2010.
“For many connected to the cheese industry, the word ‘artisan’ is often used, but rarely well defined. It’s really about two factors: first, using traditional, often hand-crafted, production methods, and second, being made in small batches.”
– Christine Keller, Director & Trend Practice at CCD Innovation
Keller notes that the already robust market for artisan cheese is continuing to grow in more mainstream venues. “You can find artisan cheese not just at Whole Foods, but at Safeway,” she says. “Consumers are grabbing more tightly onto the category.”
Within the artisan category, farmstead cheese is a growing sector. “It’s made from the milk of animals owned by the person who makes the cheese,” says Jonathan Fancey, cheese buyer for the legendary Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco. “Here at Bi-Rite, we define “local” as any cheese that’s produced within 100 miles, and those cheeses, especially farmstead ones, are big movers for us.”
Jodi Ohlsen Read is president of the Minnesota Cheesemakers Guild, and the owner of Shepherd’s Way Farms, which produces nationally distributed farmstead cheeses. She says that a growing number of consumers want to know the story behind the food they’re eating, and seek out a connection to the producer of their food. Read continues to add new variations to her offerings, including an increasingly popular blended milk cheese, which uses cow’s and sheep’s milk. All of her cheese is made with very few ingredients – just milk, bacterial culture, salt and rennet. Since she relies on so few ingredients, she insists on the highest quality for everything that goes into her cheeses, including the salt that’s added. “Having a range of choices for salt – different varieties and textures – gives me another ‘box of crayons’ to work with,” she says. “Salt in cheese provides preservative qualities, flavor enhancement and texture.”
Many makers and sellers of artisan cheese express optimism about the future potential for category growth, since consumers increasingly desire foods with ingredients perceived as wholesome, produced by small-batch vendors and created in their own geographical regions. In describing what makes the product unique, Fancey says:
"With artisan cheese, there is a connection between the producer, the retailer and consumers, and a story there that links everyone together.”
– Article by Cargill Salt, Food Processing In Perspective