American cheesemakers must balance innovation & cost with consumer education to thrive

By Elizabeth Crawford contact

- Last updated on GMT

American cheesemakers must balance innovation & cost with consumer education to thrive
Free from the constraints of the appellation d'origine contrôlée that dictate how cheese in Europe is made, American cheese makers are able to add innovative twists to traditional methods to create unique products that meet evolving consumer demand, according to leadership at the American Cheese Society.

“People from other countries see with some relish what young cheese makers in the US are doing and the exciting products they are making with different flavor profiles that really reflect their terroir and the diversity of this country,”​ ACS’s Executive Director Nora Weiser told FoodNavigator-USA.

But, she adds, this freedom to innovative comes with a high price tag, which many US consumers are hesitant to pay – creating a challenge for operators in the space.

She explained that maintaining a sustainable business model is one of the biggest challenges facing small US cheesemakers who follow traditional manufacturing methods but who also offer innovative, small batch products that are delicious but with which consumers may be unfamiliar.

“Being a small cheesemaker is not the most profitable business,”​ in part, because many consumers do not understand the real cost of food, Weiser said. “There are so many ways in which the true cost of food is not always passed along to consumers and in large parts of the industry that is a little easier to absorb [by producing at scale], but for small producers, they need to charge consumers the full price of production in order to make a living.”

American Cheese Month raises consumer awareness

To help consumers better understand the true cost of small-batch, artisan US cheese, and convince them to pay it, the American Cheese Society has launched a grassroots education campaign that will extend throughout October.

“Every year we celebrate American Cheese Month in October as a way to provide information to consumers and retailers about American artisan cheese and American specialty cheese,”​ Weiser said.

She explained on americancheesemonth.org there is a calendar of events that showcases how cheesemakers and retailers are promoting products. It also has ideas for hosting in-store tasting events or creating easy-to-follow menus that will encourage consumers to try a new cheese. Along those same lines, the website encourages retailers and cheesemongers to offer different discounts throughout the month to encourage trail with the hope that once the holiday season is in full swing in November, more consumers will consider sharing specialty cheeses with friends and family.

The association also hosts another website – the cheesemaking hub – that helps connects small manufacturers with retailers who are looking for something special or local to offer their consumers.

Other ways ACS is helping address industry challenges

In addition, the association tries to raise awareness for innovative cheeses made in the US at its annual summit and competition, where judges evaluate thousands of cheese for technical and aesthetic qualities. The feedback from the competition creates a “perpetual loop”​ to help innovators fine-tune their product, as well as shine a spotlight on their successes, Weiser said.  

Recognizing that paying to attend a national conference can be a challenge for smaller players who are struggling to make ends meet, the association is looking for new ways to make its conference more sustainable and affordable for members, Weiser said. She added that the group also is looking for more ways to provide education and outreach throughout the year to more members, particularly those in underserved parts of the country.

To do this “we ae looking for more strategic alliances and partnerships with other organizations where we can work together and where there might be some overlap so we can have economies of scale,”​ Weiser said.

ACS recently hired Karoline Corbett, a certified meeting planner, at its new meetings and events manager to help spearhead this effort, as well as take a bigger picture approach to the group’s annual conference and educational programing, Weiser said.

“Karoline will work with our core members and ​Weiser those all along the dairy chain from the farmer producing the milk to the cheesemaker, to identify pain points and what we can do as an organization to make those pain points a little easier on our members,”​ Weiser said.

ACS also hopes to gain additional insights into its members’ needs by analyzing and publishing data collected in 2018 for its second State of the Artisan and Specialty Cheese Industry report, which will be published in early 2019, Weiser said.

She noted the first report was published in 2016, which means there is the potential to identify some trends and shifts in the marketplace by comparing those findings with the information gathered in 2018.

ACS is raising the bar

ACS also is striving to elevate the industry’s level of professionalism by publishing guidance documents and offering different certifications, Weiser said.

For example, this year, she said, ACS published a cheese and dairy products lexicon and glossary to provide a standardized way of talking about their products, looking at potential flaws in the products and outlining strategies to avoid those flaws.

The group also offers two certifications and is exploring adding a third in the coming years, she said.

The first certification offered by ACS was launched in 2012 and is a Certified Cheese Professional, of which the group now has 1,000. The second certification launched this year is for a Cheese Sensory Evaluator Certification that is a practical exam of tasting the cheese for flaws and positive attributes and identifying single qualities that set products apart from one another.

“Our goal in a few years is to have a certified cheesemaker designation as well, and that would be something for producers themselves to show that they have achieved a certain level of knowledge and expertise that could run the gamut from everything a cheesemaker does to the early phases of starting a business,”​ Weiser said.

Building on a the idea that a rising tide lifts all boats, Weiser also noted that many larger cheese companies are working with ACS to lift up smaller players through the group’s sponsorship program. This lowers the cost for smaller players to attend the conference or other educational programing, which in turn will increase the touchpoints for consumers.

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