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New Cheese Makers Think They Have The Recipe For Success

April 9, 1988

PRATTSBURG, N.Y. (AP) _ The ingredients that have created the 13-pound wheel of cheese Brian Bailey thumps with his thumb include the weakening U.S. dollar, America’s trade imbalance, and, of course, carefully selected milk.

The maker of the cheese, Steuben Foods Inc., believes the combination is going to make the European-style cheese a big hit with American consumers who are buying more cheese than ever.

″We believe we have a lot of things going for us,″ said Ken Schlossberg, president of Steuben Foods, a subsidiary of the giant New York City-based Elmhurst Dairy Corp. ″This is where we think the next opportunity in the dairy business is.″

Here are the reasons for his optimism:

-Americans are looking to buy more unusual cheese, the kind consumers find in gourmet sections of local supermarkets, but much of that cheese is imported from Europe.

And, although it is not widely known, the United States has strict import quotas on the amount of cheese that can be brought into this country, allowing only 240 million pounds a year.

American cheese makers produced 5.3 billion pounds of cheese last year.

″It’s about as restrictive a policy as you can imagine,″ said Richard Koby, counsel for the New York-based cheese importers Association of America. ″I don’t think anyone could say how much cheese would come in if there were no quotas.″

-The dollar’s value has weakened against other major world currencies, which means some imported products have become more expensive. While the dollar’s strength is often talked about in terms of the price of automobiles or stereo equipment, it also has an impact on the cheese business.

″I don’t want to say we’re economic geniuses, but three years ago we thought the dollar was pretty high and it could only go one way and that’s come to pass and we’re now starting to see some real rising in the price of European products,″ Schlossberg said.

The weak dollar makes Steuben’s cheeses, called Castleborg and Saint Rochelle, more attractive when displayed next to the European or Scandanavian cheeses.

-The cheeses are made using the traditional know-how of Finland’s largest cheese maker, Valio, and Finnish and Danish equipment, along with bacteria cultures flown in weekly from Helsinki.

Bailey learned Finnish, sat in saunas and brought back a pair of clogs and the knowledge of the master cheese makers of Finland to supervise the production of about 16,000 pounds of cheese a day.

″During one visit they made me an honorary Finn. That’s where you have to roast in the hot sauna and then run and jump into the icy Baltic,″ he said.

Signs confirming the company’s optimism for the new cheese are beginning to appear.

The Castleborg cheese - a sweet, Swiss-like variety - won the top award in the open competition at the U.S. Cheese Makers Association contest last fall, even before it hit store shelves. This spring, both cheeses, priced at $5 a pound, will be available across the country.

″What we’re hoping is to make consumers aware of the brand of cheese so they feel comfortable buying it. We’ve found that when people go to buy this kind of cheese they’re very nervous and suspect about what they’re actually going to get,″ Schlossberg said.

Ventures like Steuben’s are becoming more and more common in the cheese industry, which for a long time was like winemaking, where foreign and American interests seldom hook up.

Several European firms have bought cheese factories in Wisconsin and other states to make their products in the U.S. for a number of reasons including freshness, the currency and quota fluctuations said James Tillison, executive director of the U.S. Cheese Makers Association in Madison, Wis.

″I don’t think you’re going to see a mad rush, but I think the trend will certainly continue,″ he said.

He said cheese sales in the United States have increased by more than 25 percent in the last four years, and that one of the fastest-growing segments is specialty cheese such as Brie, Jarlsberg, Gouda, Edam and Camembert.

By far the most popular cheeses consumed in this country are American and Mozzarella, accounting for nearly 80 percent of all the cheese produced in the United States, Tillison said.

Wisconsin is by far the nation’s largest cheese maker, followed by Minnesota and New York.

″It’s a shame, but Americans seem to buy and judge their cheese by how well it melts over macaroni or whether you can make pizza with it,″ Bailey said. ″In Finland, they eat pieces of cheese for breakfast. That’s the way it should be.″

Bailey carefully selects the right milk from the 58,000 gallons of milk that come into this small plant each day, saving some for the cheese and routing the rest to the milk plant in New York or to Steuben’s Whitney yogurt plant near Buffalo.

He can almost look at milk and know what kind of cow it comes from, and when he taps parafin-coated wheels of cheese he can fairly accurately predict the size and amount of ″eyes,″ or holes, in the cheese.

Making such cheese with care and attention to detail is somewhat unusual in the United States where huge processing plants roll off millions of pounds of American, mozzarrella and cheddar in assembly-line fashion.

Schlossberg said Steuben Foods didn’t want to follow in those footsteps. ″As we looked into it, we heard the same things that you hear about American wines; that you couldn’t produce good cheese in the U.S., that there’s something about Europe, it’s the milk, it’s the who knows, it’s the air,″ he said.

″Needless to say, we didn’t buy that.″

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