More Cheese, Please: Americans Hungry for Specialty Slices

PHOTO: According to experts, cheese sales are on the rise.

Gouda news! October is American Cheese Month.

The third annual commemoration is culminating in festivities around the country at cheesemongers and creameries offering tastings, wine pairing seminars, dinners and other deals. Turns out, the industry has much to celebrate this year, as cheese sales are on the rise.

"People care about their food," said Greg O'Neill, president of the American Cheese Society and owner of Pastoral Artisan Cheese, Bread & Wine in Chicago. "Cheese is the largest category of specialty food and there is a great interest in the producers, their stories and their creations."

According to recent industry data, the average American consumed 35.5 pounds of cheese in 2011, adding up to total U.S. sales of $18.9 billion that year.

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Part of the rise in sales can be attributed to America's broadening palate. Euromonitor's "Cheese in the U.S." report, released in April, noted that "U.S. cheese consumers are becoming increasingly adventurous, and interested in trying new cheeses with more distinctive flavor profiles."

As a result, specialty cheeses with rubbed rinds, locally sourced ingredients and small-batch editions are becoming more popular, experts said.

"Even traditional large production states like California and Wisconsin, known for their more commodity approach to cheese in the past, have embraced that smaller batch cheese, made by hand and with the highest attention to style and quality, is not only viable but what the consumer expects," said O'Neill.

Cowgirl Creamery's fall seasonal cheese Chimney Rock, produced in Point Reyes, Calif., is a perfect example of the trend: Made from certified organic Jersey milk, the cheese is dipped in muscat wine before being dredged through ground pioppini and shiitake mushrooms.

"The trend I see right now [in American cheeses] is less dependence on re-creating European forebear styles or perhaps creating new rules for how they can be made," said O'Neill. "Many people are also practicing 'affinage,' the art of aging cheese to create nuances in quality and flavors."

In addition to their affinage cave-aging system, brothers Mateo and Andy Kehler of Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, Vt., are also known for using regional ingredients in their cheeses, such as the award-winning Winnimere, which is wrapped in spruce bark cut right on the farm and washed in beer from neighboring Hill Farmstead Brewery.

But with hand-crafted production comes increased prices. So be sure to savor specialty cheeses, dairy farmers advise.

In North Carolina, Chapel Hill Creamery co-owner Portia McKnight was giving a tour this spring when a young employee shared a story about her boyfriend misappropriating a limited edition wheel she had purchased.

"I came home last night and my boyfriend was making us chicken sandwiches with melted cheese on top, using slices of the wheel," she said.

"That's a $20 cheese! You do not put it on sandwiches!" she yelled, admitting after a pause, "It was really good, though."

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