Posted: 25/11/2019

Ready and waiting

A tricky international trading climate is making exports challenging for US artisan producers. But as ELYSE GLICKMAN reports, the promise of new craft cheeses, unconstrained by tradition – or PDO rules – is an intriguing prospect for European buyers when trade opens up.

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The United States has long been known as a “great melting pot”, but that’s more true than ever as consumers and artisan food producers becoming increasingly global in their outlook. 

This, in turn, has inspired a new generation of American cheese producers from coast to coast to find creative ways to fuse Old World techniques with the geological attributes of their regions. 

What ends up being produced—be it rooted in Swiss, Dutch, Italian, French, English or Spanish recipes—is unmistakably American in all the right ways. 

At the 2018 World Cheese Awards (WCAs), the US had a banner year, with its artisan cheesmakers taking home 89 awards: eight SuperGolds, 25 golds, 24 silvers and 32 bronzes.

While the bloomy, bark-wrapped Harbison, from Cellars by Jasper Hill in Vermont, was named the Best American Cheese, others recognized by the judges in Bergen included Montchevre Kiss My Ash from Saputo Cheese USA in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (SuperGold), Midnight Moon from Cypress Grove in Arcata, California (SuperGold) and the Muuna Classic Plain cottage cheese from Muuna in New York (gold).

The collective success of US producers was no small feat considering the inherent challenges of competing with local cheesemakers in Europe, on their own turf, without the same level of support and subsidies that some European governments provide. 

However, under the direction of the US Dairy Export Council (USDEC), the USA Cheese Guild is currently pushing to get producers past those challenges and dispel prevailing myths about American cheese as a singular, bland, and predominantly industrial product. 

The US may be the world’s largest cheese producer and exporter but the Guild is educating industry and cheese lovers about the diversity of the US cheese landscape. 

Prime examples are the Guild’s sponsorship of this year’s Best USA Cows’ Milk Cheese trophy at the WCAs, and its ongoing financial and marketing support for producers, helping them participate in trade shows and international competitions.

According to Angélique Hollister, Executive Director of the USA Cheese Guild, the current trading environment is limiting access to export opportunities, so the UK and other countries are missing out what American artisanal producers have to offer. 

However, she argues that if those barriers can be overcome, the possibilities for American cheesemakers and enthusiasts from around the globe are endless. 

Once regulatory access permits, she says, the Guild will move forward to promote US cheeses in the Britain and Europe as it already does via culinary education and retail promotions in the Middle East, North Asia and Latin America. 

“They have really supported our participation in the WCAs, because they’re going to pay our shipping this year,” says Matthew Brichford, who owns and operates Jacobs & Brichford Farmstead Cheese in southeastern Indiana with wife Leslie Jacobs. 

“Even if winning the awards means being sold in just a few shops overseas, and even if we’re not dealing with a whole lot of volume, opportunities to compete [in events like the WCAs] certainly lend prestige to our brand and help with advertising and marketing.”

Hollister suggests her nation’s long history as a melting pot of backgrounds and cultures is one of the selling points for artisanal cheese. Producers have plenty of experience but they’re not hidebound by tradition, leavingt them free to creating new cheeses that can only be found in the USA. 

For the European market in particular, she says, US cheeses may allow consumers to experience a fresh twist on a classic. “Whether that comes from rubbing local lavender, or soaking the curds in a local stout, cheeses that are original to the US give consumers something they can’t find anywhere else.”

Lydia Burns, who specialises in sourcing speciality food products for retailers and restaurants, sees a number of export challenges faced by small US cheese producers face, even as they are winning major awards on the international stage. 

In addition to distribution costs, which inevitably drive up the retail of US cheeses abroad, and possible tariffs on the horizon, she says many European producers have the advantage of being generations-old family businesses. US producers, in contrast, are just getting off the ground. 

“When you’re starting a farm [for cheese production] from scratch, the price of your cheese will be higher, based on what the producers are paying for their land, their animals – especially with sheep and goats – and other costs,” she says. 

“Another advantage European producers have in keeping prices down is access to co-ops, where those making cheeses in the same area can share ageing facilities communally and keep prices lower.”  

At Zingerman’s Creamery near Ann Arbor, Michigan, retail operations manager Tessie Ives-Wilson, says the small scale of many US cheesemakers and the costs of keeping cheese in good condition during transport make it hard for them to classic European-style cheeses in Europe. But she adds: “The one category I feel like is most poised for success in the European market is that of the ‘American Originals.’ 

“Cheeses like Dry Jack, Teleme, and Brick that don’t have regional recipes from Europe really represent the innovation and experimentation that the US cheese makers are currently engaged in.”

Despite the hurdles, several American cheese-producing pioneers are making inroads into export. Oregon’s Rogue Creamery, which has been successfully exporting Rogue River Blue, Smokey Blue, Caveman Blue, and Oregon Blue Cheese since 2007, show how products with a distinctively New World in influence and style can win over fans internationally. 

“All these cheeses are distinct but share characteristics in texture, with a fudgy, creamy, buttery mouthfeel and clean notes of sweet cream and pepper, finished with a hint of tang on the palate,” says David Gremmels, the president and cheese maker at Rogue Creamery. 

Even with the inherent appeal of Rogue Creamery’s products for foreign markets, it took a mix of wins in the WCS and a few other measures to carve out a trail from Oregon to shops in the UK – one that could also help future WCA winners and other independent cheese makers.   

In 2003, says Gremmels, Rogue River Blue was awarded best American Cheese, Best Blue in the World and Reserve Champion overall. That created demand in Europe for Rogue River Blue, but it took nearly four years before the USDA came up with health certificate to export raw milk cheese into the EU. 

“That said, the standards for creating organic cheeses like ours are strict and present real hurdles in exporting,” Gremmels adds. 

“The importer and distributor must be registered with the USDA TRACES program. There are few importers and distributors worldwide who are willing to add this level of scrutiny for keeping Organic Cheeses segregated from conventional cheeses. This is a high bar worth getting registered for.”  

At Jacobs & Brichford Farmstead Cheese, Leslie Jacobs and Matthew Brichford have been playing the long game, with the support of USDEC, to find export markets for their portfolio, which Brichford describes as “European-style cheeses with a definitive New World twist”.  Since the family made contact with USDEC at an American Cheese Society conference some years back, they were impressed with its efforts to build overseas markets for American cheeses.    

“I’ve won seven different awards at the World Cheese Awards, and that exposure definitely gets you noticed,” Brichford says in a Midwestern, matter-of-fact way. 

“While we haven’t been contacted by exporters other than USDEC, we are very much amenable to working with the right one to get our cheeses into new markets. 

“While most of our cheeses probably travel well, I am playing around with format of our JQ – a mold-ripened thing that falls between a brie and a camembert, and won a silver at the WCAs a couple of years ago –     to give it a little more shelf life should the opportunity to export come around.”

“There’s always room in the market for something new, for a little adventure, and I think that’s where American cheeses can fill a gap,” says Maize Jacobs-Brichford, who assists her family in marketing the cheese portfolio, She reiterates the family enterprise is committed to slow, steady, and smart growth. 

“Basically, we riff on European styles of cheeses, and nobody else in America is necessarily doing it the way we do it.”

Free of any PDO ties to a precise European recipe, they can be “a little more playful” and create something really original.

“Our Ameribella, for example, may be based on the northern Italian Taleggio style, but it’s not going to taste exactly like it. Our Everton is not going to duplicate the Alpine styles that it’s based on. 

“This is intentional, as we want cheese lovers to enjoy our playful experiments,  resulting in something fresh and different.” 

The USA Cheese Guild’s Hollister says innovation presents the biggest opportunity for US cheese makers,” says Hollister. By pushing traditional limits, they can come up with “new and elegant flavourr combinations and presentations of cheeses that can’t be found anywhere else”. 

The Guild, she adds, is helping the world see that quality cheeses are not geography-specific or country-dependent – for example, by promoting the fact that all 50 US states now produce award-winning cheeses.

Lydia Burns, who previously served as senior procurement manager for retailer Pastoral Artisan Cheese Bread and Wine in Chicago, concurs with Hollister and others that while American producers can’t yet compete with the European producers for tradition and history, it’s potentially exciting that they are less restricted by Protected Designation of Origin rules.

“As a European consumer, if you’re looking for a cheese that you’ve never experienced before, you’ll realize that there’s a lot of that happening in America,” Burns says. 

While there is innovation among Europe’s cheese makers, she says, their US counterparts, scattered across a vast country, are each developing products with a specific identity and terroir. “A craft cheddar from Vermont or Wisconsin will be very different from a cheddar made in the UK.”

This story originally appeared in 2019-20 issue of Good Cheese, you can find the digital edition here.

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