Dick Groves
Editor, Cheese Reporter

 

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New Products Bode Well For Industry’s Future

What’s new in the cheese and dairy industry? Quite a bit, it turns out, and that’s as good a sign as any that the industry’s future will be bright.

Walking the many aisles at this week’s IDDBA show and seminar in Houston, TX, as well as spending some time in the New Product Showcase, we were impressed, if not a bit overwhelmed, by the sheer number of new or recently introduced cheese products targeting various consumer segments.

New products being sampled at the IDDBA fell into a number of different categories. Arguably the leading category for new product introductions was the convenience category.

Indeed, we had to chuckle while listening to IDDBA chairman John Cheesman, of Clyde’s Donuts, discussing the IDDBA’s humble beginnings back in the mid-1960s as the Wisconsin Cheese Seminar.
Times have certainly changed in the 50-plus years since that first seminar was held in Milwaukee, WI.

Back then, if consumers wanted to snack on cheese, they pulled out a chunk of cheese from their refrigerator and cut off a piece or two. Pretty simple, really, but today’s snacking consumer has an almost endless array of convenient options that don’t require a cheese slicer or a knife.

For that matter, they don’t even need a refrigerator for their cheese any more. Several companies exhibiting at the IDDBA show this week were introducing (or have recently introduced) dried cheese products.
Probably the best-known of these is the award-winning Cello Whisps, from Arthur Schuman Inc., which is made from the company’s Copper Kettle Parmesan.

This is another sign of how much things have changed since the IDDBA’s beginnings. Half a century ago, if you wanted dry cheese, you left it out on the kitchen counter, unwrapped, until it dried out.

It’s also interesting to see how just the nature of “convenience” has changed in recent years. A decade or so ago, convenience seemed to primarily mean shredded or sliced cheese, available in numerous varieties but limited by the types of cheese that could be shredded or sliced by high-speed equipment.

Today, convenience is limited only by the imagination. Sticks of cheese? Those are available in varieties ranging from String cheese (and flavored versions of String) to Cheddar (and, again, flavored versions of Cheddar). Or if you’re not into sticks, there are endless varieties of other individually wrapped cheeses in shapes such as rectangular mini-blocks, or mini-wheels.

Speaking of flavors, the cheese industry is coming up with new flavor varieties that were unimaginable 50 years ago — or even 30 or 40 years ago, for that matter. And there are a couple of areas where flavors are really taking off.

The first is in “hot” products. A couple of decades ago, “hot” meant jalapeno peppers, and maybe chili peppers, and that was about it. Then habaneros came along to raise the heat level.

But apparently that’s no longer enough. Ghost peppers and various other very hot peppers intended to kick up the heat are being added, very carefully, to cheeses these days, and consumers can’t seem to get enough of them.

And some cheese companies are going a step further by pairing hot and sweet flavors, such as mango and habanero, in the same product.

Here in the 21st century, this is another area of expertise that’s almost a requirement for cheese makers: familiarity with the Scoville scale, which measures the level of heat in peppers.

Another interesting area for flavored cheeses is in flavors that weren’t around, at least not to any great extent (and at least not in the US), a decade or two ago. Garlic and herbs, dill, caraway and a few others have been around forever (or so it seems), but fenugreek? Sriracha? Truffles?

New products hitting the market these days are certainly not just limited to domestic products. Imports are also getting in on the act. This is noteworthy if for no other reason than because US cheese imports last year were above 400 million pounds for the first time since 2007, and through the first four months of this year, they’re up 25 percent from the same period last year.

Cheese imports fall into several categories, including commodity cheeses, but lately imports have been moving into areas largely occupied by domestic cheeses, such as individually wrapped products, and flavored cheeses.

Obviously a major target of all these new products is Millennials, a nice little “niche” market of consumers who were ages 18 to 34 last year. That’s more than 75 million consumers, slightly more than there are Baby Boomers.

Being quite a bit younger than Boomers, Millennials will tend to eat more. And they will also tend to be more adventurous in their tastes, hence the interest in hotter flavors in cheese, as well as in flavors that weren’t common, or even available, a couple of decades ago.

That’s not to say that Baby Boomers are suddenly an insignificant market. After all, they remain a “niche” of roughly 75 million consumers, and as they get older, their taste buds aren’t quite as sharp, meaning they too have a greater interest in stronger-flavored cheese, whether that strong flavor comes from peppers or any number of other ingredients.

Industry representatives who attended the very first Wisconsin Cheese Seminar more than half a century ago probably wouldn’t recognize many if not most of the cheese products on display this week. The way new products are being rolled out, we’ll be able to say the same thing in perhaps another 20 or 30 years.

Cheese Reporter welcomes letters to the editor. Comments should be sent to: Dick Groves by Fax at (608) 246-8431; or e-mail your comments to dgroves @cheesereporter.com.

 

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