High hopes for Hispanic cheese

by Eric Schroeder
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When it comes to the U.S. population, Hispanics are the fastest-growing segment with the U.S. Census Bureau projecting the population to reach 55.2 million by 2020. So it comes as little surprise that Hispanic flavors are on the rise in the specialty cheese market.

But Hispanic specialty cheeses aren’t simply a product drawing interest as a food away from home for the Latin American population. Instead, more companies are taking steps to push the products into mainstream America.

With a variety of functions and flavors, Hispanic cheeses may add new appeal to entrees, snacks, sauces, appetizers, side dishes and salads, presenting new market opportunities for cheese processors and food manufacturers.

In December, Dairy Management Inc. introduced the "Hispanic Cheese Reference Guide," which provides a primer on more than 60 types of Hispanic cheeses from Latin American countries. The guide includes translations, origins, flavors, mouthfeel, melting points and detailed production tips. Most importantly, the guide serves as an education tool for companies and individuals who are considering making their own versions of the popular Hispanic cheeses.

Dean Sommer, cheese and food technologist for the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said a common problem encountered by companies dealing with Hispanic cheeses is that identical varieties may have different names in different countries. What may be called Queso de Puna in Puerto Rico might go by the name Queso Fresco in El Salvador and Venezuela. The "Hispanic Cheese Reference Guide," which Mr. Sommer helped bring to market, clarifies such details so food manufacturers and cheese processors may explore the new world of Hispanic cheeses and tap into potential markets, he said, and the initial requests for the guide have been strong.

In addition to helping publish the guide, Mr. Sommer and the other researchers at the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research are instrumental in educating cheese makers, cheese buyers and consumers about all types of cheeses. He said the center is set up in a way that allows for the researchers to tell people how to make cheese, educate them and show them. He said the researchers also visit plants to help companies iron out any problems they may be having.

Six varieties to watch in ’09

While the guide identifies more than 60 different Hispanic cheese varieties, Mr. Sommer highlighted six that he believes may have the biggest impact in the United States during 2009.

The first three varieties — Queso Fresco, Queso Blanco and Panela — are considered "fresh cheeses," and are historically madeand eaten in Latin American countries. Unlike cheeses used in the United States, Queso Fresco and Queso Blanco are made without starter cultures and contain virtually no acid, Mr. Sommer said.

"These cheeses are very functional and are really at the core of a lot of Latin American individuals’ cuisine," he said. "They have a unique quality in that they don’t melt. You can put them in a frying pan and they won’t deform. They really have a lot of things going for them."

Panela, while used like Queso Fresco and Queso Blanco, is traditionally made in a cone shaped basket. It is the most popular cheese in Mexico.

The second grouping of Hispanic specialty cheeses fall under the category of "melting cheeses," and include Queso Quesadilla and Oaxaca, Mr. Sommer said.

Very popular in Latin America, Queso Quesadilla is similar to a Muenster cheese in the United States and, as the name suggests, primarily is used in quesadillas, Mr. Sommer said.

Oaxaca, on the other hand, is similar to a string cheese, he said.

"The difference is Oaxaca is braided into a ball," he said. "It is used much like we use mozzarella cheese. It’s hand-braided and you just peel it apart. It’s about the size of a baseball and is a very visually appealing cheese in the store."

The final category of Hispanic specialty cheese is the "hard cheeses." A product within this subset that Mr. Sommer sees having the most potential for impact in the United States is Cotija, which is a Mexican version of Parmesan cheese. Mr. Sommer said the cheese is a hard, grating cheese.

"This cheese is mealy enough that you can break it up by hand — it doesn’t require a machine grater," he said.

Mr. Sommer said all six specialty cheeses are available in mainline stores as well as specialty stores. As a result, they are the most likely to make an impact both in the Hispanic community and among the rest of the U.S. population.

Not quite ready to make a mark

Less likely to make an impact are a few varieties that either have tastes unfamiliar to the mainstream U.S. population or that have short shelf life. Included in that list are Requeson, Enchilado, Cuajada and Queso Nica.

Although common in Mexico, Requeson is rarely seen in the United States, Mr. Sommer said.

"For one, it is very similar to ricotta," he said. "So, we already have a similar cheese, and it has a very short shelf life. It’s also not a well-known name."

Cuajada is similar to cheese curds, and although popular in Venezuela, has failed to catch on in the United States in part because of very long distribution channels, Mr. Sommer said.

Enchilado, while available in specialty shops in the United States, has failed to catch on primarily due to taste — the cheese is spiced with chili powders.

Another cheese where taste has proven a barrier is Queso Nica.

"It’s very popular in Central American countries but hasn’t caught on here because it is costly to make, and secondly, has a very unique flavor we aren’t familiar with," he said. "Nica tastes fishy and smoky. People in Nicaragua look for that and want it."

Getting product to market

Looking generally at Hispanic specialty cheeses, Mr. Sommer said the most common use in the United States is in quesadillas. Fresh cheeses, meanwhile, are used in cooking and frying, were consumers may cube the cheese and then put it in a stir fry dish with vegetables and rice. They also are common in stuffed peppers. Because it is a crumbly cheese, Queso Fresco is a popular variety for tacos, burritos and to top beans. Mr. Sommer said Hispanic specialty hard cheeses are used much like Parmesan cheese, but instead of sprinkled on pasta they tend to be used on beans or other Mexican dishes.

With different looks and different tastes, finding ways to introduce specialty products into mainstream American eating patterns may be difficult. When it comes to Hispanic specialty cheeses, "authenticity is everything," Mr. Sommer said.

For the traditional Hispanic consumer, in order for a product to succeed it must have authentic packaging, flavor and performance, Mr. Sommer said.

"The cheese must have the shape, packaging and the flavor and be as authentic as possible to create an image that is just what they were used to back in their home country," he said. "For instance, Queso Fresco better be square for the Nicaraguan population, but for the Mexican market it needs to be cylindrical. Authenticity is everything."

For the more mainstream U.S. population, the key to success ultimately lies in education.

"Companies must somehow reach out to potential consumers with some sort of education of what the cheese they’re marketing is and how it should be used," he said.

Specialty cheese hits the spot

Wisconsin. It’s not known as "The Dairy State" for nothing. Even as the state is poised to break the all-time milk production record this year, cheese — and specifically specialty varieties — also is growing at a breathtaking pace.

According to data issued in early December from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (W.D.A.T.C.P.), specialty cheese production in the state was expected to grow by 4% to a new record of 419 million lbs in 2008 (data will be released in May 2009). The most popular specialty cheese in terms of production is feta, followed by Hispanic, specialty provolone, Parmesan wheel, specialty cheddar and Italian Fontina.

Nicole Breunig, senior agricultural marketing consultant for the W.D.A.T.C.P., said it’s especially exciting to see the "all other" specialty cheese category growing at such an impressive clip (see table).

"This shows that Wisconsin cheese makers are creating innovative products that consumers are obviously enjoying," Ms. Breunig said. "These specialty cheeses are carving a niche for the cheese makers, plants and the state of Wisconsin, which produces over 600 types, styles and varieties within its borders."

Since the inception of the Value Added Dairy Initiative in April 2004, Wisconsin has experienced a 20% increase in specialty cheese production. The program was created to provide funding to individuals or groups, businesses and organizations to help fund projects geared at innovation, market development and modernization of dairy processing. In the latest round of funding announced in late December, Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle awarded $121,000 to qualifying companies. Two of the companies — Hidden Springs Creamery and LaClare Farm — intend to use the funds to create specialty-type cheeses.

The increase in specialty cheese production has not been limited to select companies. According to the W.D.A.T.C.P., 99 of Wisconsin’s 136 cheese plants now craft at least one type of specialty cheese, which marks an increase from the previous year. And as of Nov. 1, 2008, the state has welcomed 9 new specialty dairy plant openings and another 15 major expansions.

Looking beyond Wisconsin, data from Information Resources, Inc., states that specialty cheese represents about 6% of the volume of U.S. cheese sales, said Meredith Griffin, vice-president, business development category leader — Cheese, Dairy Management, Inc. Specialty cheese is defined by high quality and limited quantity with an annual volume of less than 40 million lbs.

"Key drivers to mainstreaming specialty cheese products are making them available in more convenient forms and packaging that consumers are used to buying," Ms. Griffin said. "Looking at both feta and Blue cheeses, the growth took off as companies started to manufacture the cheese in crumbed forms and re-sealable tubs."

In addition, Ms. Griffin said the growth of specialty cheese is being driven by the adventurous, flavor-seeking consumer and the food service industry, leveraging knowledge that consumers will pay more for menu items with cheese, especially specialty cheeses like Asiago or gorgonzola.

Continued consumer education by cheese manufacturers on how a specialty cheese type performs and additional uses beyond entertaining will continue to drive the use of and mainstream acceptance for specialty cheese products, she said.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Dairy Business News, January 20, 2009, starting on Page 1. Click here to search that archive.

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