Angelique Hollister, executive director of the USA Cheese Guild, reveals how US cheese products are bringing ranges of the highest quality to the market
Please tell us more about the USA Cheese Guild and its scope of activity worldwide, specifically in the GCC and UAE.
Created in 2019, the USA Cheese Guild® is a customer-facing brand identity and entity that raises awareness of the quality, innovation of cheeses from the USA around the globe through in-country programmes, events and activities targeting the import trade and consumers alike.
The USA Cheese Guild® runs a variety of marketing programmes in nine international markets to drive demand and ultimately sales. These programmes, primarily focused on the retail and foodservice sectors, aim to educate the local trade and consumers about cheese from the USA. Activities include, but are not limited to, educational workshops and trainings, in-store/online/menu promotions as well as a robust communication programme through social media and PR.
To increase consumption of USA cheese in the Middle East, the Guild outreaches to consumers through in-store and online promotions, and a social media programme (Facebook and Instagram: @USAcheeseGuildME).
It also works with the foodservice sector to educate young chefs about USA cheese through the USA Cheese Specialist® Certification Program; it consists of many different tracks to educate the difference segments of the trade (chefs, retailers as well as importers/distributors). By working with retail staff, this programme also helps buyers and in-store staff build proper knowledge and confidence in purchasing from the U.S. cheese industry and back to the stores dealing with shoppers.
In 2019, the World’s Best Cheese title was awarded to the USA; what makes the country’s cheese special?
The United States is home to the biggest variety of cheeses on the planet. Immigrants from France, Italy, the Middle East, Mexico, and many other countries have used ancient recipes, sometimes with a twist, to create some of the finest cheeses in the world — just ask the judges.
What other awards has USA Cheese won?
Tell us a bit more about the history of USA Cheese.
With immigrants from all around the world, the United States is a melting pot of diverse cultures. And with that comes culinary traditions that have evolved over centuries. The history of cheese making in the United States began with the very first settlers who came to America in the 1600s.
Being from Europe, settlers naturally brought cheese with them, while others brought dairy cows in hopes of continuing their dairy farming traditions. Once settled in their new environment, a small cheesemaking community soon emerged.
As the immigrants migrated westward from the rocky coast, they encountered fertile fields and lush grasses reminiscent of their homeland. Shortly thereafter, they started cultivating grains, which helped sustain them and their farm animals throughout the long, cold winters.
Growing grains also enabled them to feed their dairy cattle year-round. A surplus of fresh milk therefore became available. Cheese represented a process of preserving surplus milk, and since many European settlers were seasoned experts in cheese making, a tradition developed.
Originally, cheese was produced and consumed at home on the farm. As the industrial revolution created opportunities for increased production, it started to be traded locally and exported internationally. What was once a small part of farm life evolved into a calling for artisans and entrepreneurs around the country.
Today, the United States alone produces a quarter of the world’s cheese output in mostly large, state-of-the-art facilities. It’s home to some of the world’s largest cheese manufacturers, producing in one single facility more cheese than the whole country of New Zealand produces in one year. However, America is also the land of specialty cheesemaking, where hundreds of artisans across the country craft some of the world’s best artisanal cheeses.
How many varieties are there and who are the top cheesemakers?
Over 1,000 cheese varieties are produced in the USA.
The United States is home to nearly 1,300 registered cheese manufacturing facilities, from the largest production operations in the world to small, artisan facilities.
How does the USA Cheese Guild represent dairy farmers and the cheese community, and promote products? The USA Cheese Guild® works on behalf of American farmers and the entire cheese community to build global awareness of the excellent cheeses from the USA.
Through education and promotions, the Guild aims to inform retail and foodservice professionals as well as consumers about the craftsmanship, innovation, variety and versatility of USA cheeses.
The Guild sanctions the USA Cheese Specialist® Certification Program, which is offered through many prestigious culinary institutes and universities worldwide. In Dubai, the USA Cheese Guild® has partnered with one of the leading culinary vocational education training centres, the International Centre for Culinary Arts (ICCA).
Since the launch of the programme in 2018, 239 students have enrolled, with 100 completing the entire certification programme to date, earning the designation of Certified USA Cheese Specialist®.
How do you see the future of USA cheese products in the GCC markets?
In general, we see an upward trend for cheese consumption in the Middle East. The USA Cheese Guild® promotional programmes encourage higher demand for USA cheeses into the region.
Although 2020 was challenging in many ways, UAE, Kuwait, and Qatar fared well in the last year; there are more US exporters engaged in the markets, more local importers and distributors dealing with US cheese, and more retailers carrying US cheese. Hundreds of new SKUs have been introduced to the GCC, with more brands, varieties, and formats being channelled into the region’s markets. Our in-store activations are generating sales, up to 60 per cent during promotions and 6% post promotions.
We’re currently seeing more potential in Saudi Arabia, which we’re aiming to develop. We anticipate that the region will witness a surge in demand for USA cheese in the latter half of the year as the Covid situation improves.
What are some of the most unique characteristics of USA Cheese products and what is the latest technology being used?
All US producers adhere to the highest standards of production to create incredible and internationally recognised cheeses.
Cheesemakers across the country source high quality milk and use innovative and creative techniques to combine it with cultures, rennet and salt to create everything from authentic aged gouda to soft and spreadable cream cheese and everything in between — including the best cheese in the world, Rogue River Blue.
Our farmers also invest in the future and support technical progress. Dairy research centres in the United States are developing new ways to satisfy consumer demand with new cheese prototypes and processes that allow better control over production, safety, shelf life, flavour, and more.
Finally, innovation in US cheesemaking manifests itself through the never-ending new creations of our talented and passionate cheesemakers, who are not afraid of putting quite a few spins.
What’s coming up for the Cheese Guild in the region and what developments can we expect?
The certification and retail programmes (in-store promos and social media) are the key activations we’re running this year.
The USA Cheese Specialist® Certification programme is a cornerstone of the Guild’s marketing efforts. With it, culinary students and professionals as well as food importers, distributors, and retailers can learn more about cheese, how to use it or sell it, and most of all discover an exciting industry they never knew existed!