American Cheeses Benefit from 'Local' Movement

Heading optimistically into 2012, some specialty retailers and cheesemongers see a year of continuing passion for fine American cheeses, as customers delve deeper into artisan styles and distinctive flavors.

"We pretty much sell only cheese made in the USA with a focus on Midwest cheese," said Aubrey Thomason, cheese maker and managing partner for Zingerman's Creamery in Ann Arbor, Mich. "People are loving all that is made locally, so we have a region-by-region focus. The more we know about the people or the place, the more people love it," added Thomason, who also manages the creamery's retail and farmers' market program.

The "local" emphasis is a theme repeated over and over by other retailers. Not surprisingly, Steve Ehlers of Larry's Market in Milwaukee has found that his customers love to support local producers. "There tends to be good support with local media also in supporting Wisconsin business so it works both ways for us and the cheesemakers," he noted.

Some professionals extend the local trend to include cheeses made throughout America. "There are so many great American cheeses -- more and more every year. Our customers like to support small producers," said Amy Thompson, head cheesemonger for Lucy's Whey in Chelsea Market, New York City. In fact, Dutch customers come back and ask for Marieke's Goudas, farmstead cheeses made in traditional styles and flavors in northern Wisconsin, she noted.

Eric Larson, owner of Marion Street Cheese Market in Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago, agrees that the excitement about American-crafted products is growing. "Cheeses made in America are certainly a hot item, and they only continue to grow in interest and popularity," he pointed out, reporting that he sees an increasing number of customers specifically seeking American artisan cheeses of all sorts.

On the West Coast, southern California retailers echo the observation. "American domestic cheeses have been garnering a real following," said Jenny Knotts, specialty foods director at Wally's Cheese Box in Los Angeles, citing her clients' curiosity about the companies who make the cheese and where they're located.

In Beverly Hills, Norbert Wabnig, owner of the Cheese Store of Beverly Hills, said, "Actually, Wisconsin cheese is one of the trends we're seeing in our store." Referring to Hook's Cheese in Mineral Point, Wis., he said the Hooks' 12- and 15-year-old Cheddars have a "cult following."

Antonelli's Cheese Shop in the Hyde Park area of Austin, Texas, is a relatively new store, but owners Kendall and John Antonelli are already expanding into more space. Encouraging their customers to branch out, Kendall said they actually have "a ways to go in educating about the quality of American cheeses." But once customers are offered a similar style made in the U.S., "they usually end up loving our alternatives," she said, citing examples that include Wisconsin Pleasant Ridge Reserve for some Alpine varieties and Wisconsin Dante for Spanish Manchego.

The retailers shared some similarities in citing specific popular varieties, along with some regional differences:

  • -- Aubrey Thomason, Zingerman's Creamery: A lot of Cheddar, strong flavors, but not necessarily stinky.
  • -- Steve Ehlers, Larry's Market: Experienced customers tend to buy fuller flavored cheeses. Growing categories include well-aged cheeses, Blues and washed rind styles.
  • -- Amy Thompson, Lucy's Whey: Bold flavors, especially in winter, natural rinded English Cheddar style
  • -- Eric Larson, Marion Street Cheese Market:  Aged Cheddars, wide variety of Alpine style, Blue styles and washed-rind stinky cheeses
  • --Jenny Knotts, Wally's Wine & Spirits:  Herb and spice-encrusted cheeses are tempting palates of customers.
  • -- Norbert Wabnig, Cheese Store of Beverly Hills: Blue styles, really rich Triple Crèmes
  • -- Kendall Antonelli, Antonelli's Cheese Shop: Soft/ripened/bloomy rind cheeses and firm cheeses, but choices are diverse.
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