SAN FRANCISCO — Cheese dominated the south hall of the Winter Fancy Food Show, held Jan. 22-24 in San Francisco. It is no wonder, as research from the Specialty Food Association shows that cheese and cheese alternatives have 7.7% share of the $120.5 billion specialty foods market. It is the leading segment in the booming industry.

The association defines specialty foods as foods or beverages of the highest grade, style and/or quality in their respective categories. The specialty nature derives from a combination of some or all of the following qualities: uniqueness, origin, processing method, design, limited supply, unusual application or use, extraordinary packaging or channel of distribution/sales. The segment is thriving; in fact, just 10 years ago, it was valued at only $38.5 billion.


Styles of cheese produced

In 2016, 33% of specialty food consumers said they purchased cheese and cheese alternatives, according to “Today’s specialty food consumer,” an annual report from the Specialty Food Association. Knowing it’s the most popular specialty food category, cheesemakers across the country are responding with innovative craft offerings. Creative cheesemakers are producing cheese of many styles, ranging from fresh un-ripened varieties to cooked, pressed and aged varieties, according to data from the inaugural State of the U.S. Artisan/Specialty Cheese Industry survey from The American Cheese Society (A.C.S.).

The report provides a snapshot of the small businesses that make up the community of craft cheesemakers in America, a community that has been growing for years yet has never been quantified. The survey attempts to fill that void by providing data reported directly from producers.

Craft cheese
Creative cheesemakers employ craft processing methods to stand out in the competitive specialty cheese sector.
2016 U.S. Artisan/Specialty Cheese Industry survey from The American Cheese Society


For the survey, A.C.S. identified and reached out to more than 900 craft cheesemakers operating in the United States. The survey was conducted on behalf of A.C.S. by agricultural economists at the University of Connecticut and University of Georgia with funding provided by the American Cheese Education Foundation.

“This is the first survey of its type focused on this specific segment of the cheese industry, and it is exciting for producers to now be able to gauge their own operations while understanding the diversity of the industry,” said Nora Weiser, executive director of A.C.S. “Our inaugural report paints a picture of the hardworking small business people who are caring for their animals and their land, and struggling to make a living crafting delicious, local products.

“Hearing directly from producers adds richness to the data that simply cannot be found in data collected through traditional channels like retail sales. The survey makes it clear that cheesemakers are an intrepid sort, driven by passion and commitment, and focused on unique products that reflect a sense of place.”

Craft cheese
The majority of craft cheese makers indicate they use milk from cows not treated with artificial growth hormones.
2016 U.S. Artisan/Specialty Cheese Industry survey from The American Cheese Society


Key findings among respondents showed that in the past year:

•  74% produced 50,000 lbs of cheese or less;

•  66% made their cheese using milk from their own animals;

•  67% of businesses reported gross revenues less than $500,000;

•  92% of their production was sold domestically; and

•  42% said they produce other dairy items in addition to cheese.

The A.C.S. defines specialty cheese as a cheese of limited production, with particular attention paid to natural flavor and texture profiles. Though A.C.S. differentiates between artisan, farmstead and specialty cheesemakers, the Specialty Food Association recognizes all three as being participants in the specialty foods industry.

The word “artisan” or “artisanal” implies that a cheese is produced primarily by hand, in small batches, with particular attention paid to the tradition of these cheesemaker’s art, according to A.C.S. The process uses as little mechanization as possible.

Craft cheese
Many cheesemakers report they fit more than one definition of craft cheese manufacturer.
2016 U.S. Artisan/Specialty Cheese Industry survey from The American Cheese Society


In order for cheese to be classified as “farmstead,” the cheese must be made with milk from the farmer’s own herd, or flock, on the farm where the animals are raised. Milk used in the production of farmstead cheeses may not be obtained from any outside source.

All of the cheeses may be made from all types of mammalian milk. They often include flavorings, such as herbs, spices, fruits and nuts.

Many of the respondents to the A.C.S. survey report they fit more than one definition of craft cheese manufacturer. Only 20% identify solely as artisan, 17% solely as farmstead and 6% solely as specialty; however, more than one-fourth (28%) said that all three definitions suit their business. Almost one-fifth (17%) stated they are both artisan and farmstead, while 10% stated they are artisan and farmstead and a mere 2% said they are both farmstead and specialty.

With all cheesemakers, cow’s milk is the most common milk used, with 75% of craft cheese makers using cow’s milk. An impressive 44% use goat’s milk, while 20% rely on sheep’s milk. Only 3% make cheese from buffalo milk and less than half per cent get creative with yak’s milk.

Craft cheese
Small portioned packs of specialty cheese are finding their way into home delivery meal kits.


Many craft cheese manufacturers are packaging products in smaller portion packs in order to explore new distribution channels. For example, Anderson International Foods Inc., Jersey City, N.J., markets the Sincerely, Brigitte brand of natural cheese. To compete in the meal solutions/salad makings section of the retail perimeter, the company developed a line of salad toppings. The diced cheeses come in four packs of single-serve 1-oz cups and 3-oz multi-serve cups. The varieties are: chipotle, cheddar, garlic and variety (cheddar and Muenster).

BelGioioso Cheese Inc., Green Bay, Wis., offers a range of convenience cheeses, including pre-cut wedge of Parmesan designed for easy snacking. There is also a 70-calorie Fontina Snacking Cheese that contains three cubes in an individual 0.75-oz package.

“Our 3-oz mini mascarpone cup is a great introduction for many consumers to a new fresh cheese they may otherwise not try,” said Jamie Wichlacz, marketing and public relations manager at BelGioioso. “The same is true of our 5-oz mini ricotta cup. The ricotta is a high-protein food that can be consumed with fruit and granola, or as a creamy dip for vegetables.

“Both products can be included in home-delivery meal kits. This is a great way for our brand to get in front of consumers.”