Cheese Makers Find Success With Cold Pack Cheese
A number of specialty cheese companies looking to increase sales and exposure are finding success by adding cold pack cheese spreads to their product line. Often prepared with a Swiss or Cheddar base, cold pack is made by blending natural cheeses without the use of heat. Its origins trace back to early 20th century Wisconsin and while the cheese has deep midwestern roots, more areas of the US are starting to recognize and appreciate this versatile product. Phil Lindemann, president and CEO of Pine River Pre-Pack, Inc., Newton, WI, said he has definitely seen an uptick in cold pack consumption, particularly since the start of the pandemic.
“People are staying home more and eating good cheese. It’s a simple, protein-packed snack,” he said. “I think all these artisanal companies are looking for this line extension because it gives them another opportunity to get their name out.”
Decatur Dairy of Brodhead, WI, recently introduced its Stettler Colby Swiss and Stettler Swiss Cheese Spreads. Owner and cheese maker Steve Stettler said he never anticipated making a cold pack style, having already found success in manufacturing Havarti, Muenster, and Gouda Cheese.
“I never thought I’d do a cheese spread, but I had an opportunity to partner with Pine River and it worked out really well,” Stettler said. Decatur was making Lacy Swiss for a client, and the idea came up one evening for mixing Colby and Swiss for a cold pack spread.
“At first, I thought it was a dumb idea, but then I did it and it stood out,” Stettler said. “It turned out to be a really good product.” The spread ended up being such a hit that Stettler added Swiss to the line, with plans for a third flavor in the future.
“With cold pack, the style of and flavor of the cheese really matters. The cheese you pick really comes through…”
Craig Gile, Cabot Creamery
“That will be enough. The sales and response has been really good, so it’s a product that we’ll carry and hopefully take it to retail,” he said.
“When it first came out, we ended up selling 1,500 cups in a month-and-a-half just at our store,” he continued. “I doubled up our production. We sell it every day.”
There are also several big national brands investigating the possibility of a spreadable cheese line, Lindemann said. I’m going to call them inclusions – they take their product and shred it or chop it and put it into a mayonnaise base, similar to a pimento cheese spread, he said. An inclusion provides some texture, giving people something to bite into, said Mary Lindemann, Pine River brand ambassador and director of marketing. They also like convenience – the easier and faster, the better. Cabot Creamery Cooperative, Waitsfield, VT, launched its line of cold pack spreadable cheese roughly 12 years ago. Flavors include Port Wine, Horseradish and Extra Sharp Cheddar.
Cold pack accounts for a small slice of the company’s total cheese production – roughly 80,000 pounds annually for nationwide retail distribution.
“When it comes to customer recognition, cold pack comes off as a bit more natural than your average processed cheese,” said Craig Gile, Northwest regional sales manager for Cabot. The idea to launch a cold pack line began at the supermarket deli counter, searching for new sales opportunities and the missing hole was cheese spread.
“There weren’t a lot of cheese spreads at the time,” Gile said. “We were thinking about doing it in-house, but then came across Phil and Mary – probably some of the best people in the industry when it comes to doing cold pack,” Gile continued. It allowed us to take our cheese – which is a distinctively sharp Vermont Cheddar – and have it converted into cheese spread, Gile said. If you’re making something like a cheese sauce, a lot of the flavors coming from the cheese aren’t necessarily going to pass over on that style of cheese as much, Gile said.
“With cold pack, the style of and flavor of the cheese really matters,” he said. “The cheese you pick really comes through, as opposed to other kinds of processed cheese.” Gile, who recently relocated to the West Coast, said the cold pack trend is more noticeable out East, particularly over the last few years. In the Midwest, it’s everywhere.
“It seemed like all the grocery chains carried cold pack under private label brands,” he said. “Once you hit private label, it’s turned into a pretty big product form.” For Cabot as an aged cheese manufacturer, funneling product that’s pretty aggressively flavored into cold pack is one more outlet for innovation, he said.
Speaking of aggressive flavor, customers love Pine River’s Ghost Pepper Spread, even though it’s so hot you can hardly eat it, Stettler said. People exclaim when they taste it, but they can’t put it down. That sweet heat is how Henning’s Wisconsin Cheese, Kiel, first entered the cold pack market. Initially, we had customers ask about the possibility of adding hatch peppers to cold pack, said Kert Henning, Henning’s Cheese.
“We took some of our Hatch Pepper over to Pine River, and they made a blend for us,” Henning said. “They nailed it the first time; it was spot-on and we were very, very pleased.” Since then, it’s grown tremendously for us, he said. We’re selling at the retail store, and a few stores across Wisconsin.
“We don’t do much in the cold pack areas of the store, because it would be a single item on the shelf; a single item would probably get lost, which is why we never really pursued it very hard in Wisconsin,” Henning said.
“As you get outside of Wisconsin and stores have cheese cases, it was just a perfect fit to have that product in there,” Henning continued. Henning’s carries a supply of hatch peppers throughout the year. The spread was initially one of those cheeses available in the fall, but its popularity has pushed it to be all year long, Henning said.
Cheese maker Kerry Henning manufactures a mild to medium hatch pepper cheese, he said. “From a customer perspective, you’ve got these two dynamics going on – from a very mild to medium, and up to a sharp Cheddar, which creates some excitement for the customer.”
How To Launch A Cold Pack Line
The successful creation of a new cold pack product comes down to taste and technique, Mary Lindemann said.
“We always start out tasting the cheese,” Phil Lindemann said. “Before we partnered with Cabot, I told Mary two days before Cabot called that ‘boy, that Cabot would make good cheese spread.’ We’ve been making Cabot spread for years now.”
A Master Cheesemaker will give Phil some of their cheese and say “We want it to taste like this, but spreadable,” Mary Lindemann said.
There’s so many variables that make cheese optimal for cold pack, Phil Lindemann said. It’s not only the flavor, but the break-down – does it turn into sand or rubber when you start cutting it up into a homogenous mass? The flavor also has to mesh with the other ingredients we add, he continued. The base flavor should improve with what we add to it.
“The big thing is, how can we make it taste close to what the manufacturer is making, and still be able to run it through our process,” he said. The style of base is likewise critical. Cold pack utilizes cheeses like Cheddar, Colby or Swiss.
“We won’t compromise the situation in our plant by bringing in live mold,” Phil Lindemann said. “With a cold pack facility, everything needs to be clean. You can’t have active elements.” The philosophy behind quality cold pack is if the cheese – the star ingredient – isn’t good, the end product won’t be good, Phil Lindemann stressed.
“We don’t cook the cheese or do anything to it but cut it up and blend it cold,” he said. “We don’t take under-grade cheese and make award-winning cheese.”
“We’ve had plenty of opportunities to make cheese spread with stuff that wasn’t up to par, and don’t do it because we know it’s not going to taste good,” he continued. “We’re not going to compromise our standards.”
You’ve got to use top-of-the-line cheese, Lindemann said, but not everyone agrees with that. Some add extra flavors, but we don’t do that. We want the cheese we make it out of to come through in the end.
At Renard’s Cheese in Algoma, WI, Chris Renard is the third generation of the Renard family who have been making cheese spread and cold pack cheese. Renard’s is known for a variety of artisan-level cheese varieties, as well as unique cuts and styles.
“We offer many varieties under our label in Cream cheese-based spreads and Cheddar-based cold pack,” Chris Renard said. “Our number-one seller in spreads is Cream Cheese & Chives, hands-down. It’s been the most popular one for over 25 years.” The company offers the spreads and cold pack to the wholesale industry and retail operations in 8-ounce and 16-ounce packaging.
“We blend together any number of ingredients with the Cream cheese-based spread,” he said. Renard’s also offers many flavors of cold pack, from Port Wine to Swiss Almond.
“It extends the offerings that we currently have, and gives us bigger presence in the retail market,” Renard said. “It’s been a successful way to create brand awareness for our entire line of cheese.”
Big Flavor, Small Size, Good Price
Kert Henning recalled several accounts asking for “that spread,” because they didn’t want to take the chunk cheese, which we didn’t have in an exact-weight package yet.
“This gave them some hatch cheese to carry without taking a wheel of cheese in to cut and wrap at the store level,” he said.
“This next year that’s coming up, we’re going to be offering the Hatch Cheddar in a smaller pre-package for these stores, so they can carry that plus this spread at the same time,” Henning said.
I never wanted Hatch Pepper to be a commodity item, he continued. I wanted people to yearn for it during a certain time of the year, kind of like a McDonald’s Shamrock Shake.
“But the call for it has just continued to grow. We’re rethinking if that’s the best way to go, or do we limit it coming out so there’s more anticipation,” Henning said.
The concept of “hibernation” is great from a marketing perspective, he added. We could bring a product back, or not bring a product back. Instead of calling a product non-existent or out of production, it could simply be “in hibernation.”
“You can always take time to bring it back, without committing one way or another,” Henning said. Hatch Spread has been around for roughly 10 years, but year-round requests began about four years ago, he said. One never knows which of these flavor profiles we come up with might lead to another line of spreads that people might find extremely interesting. Hatch Spread sales have grown every single year Henning’s has offered it, and Zoom meetings of late have expressed interest in the spreads which we’ve never shown or offered anyone before, he continued.
Cold Pack “extends the offerings that we currently have, and gives us bigger presence in the retail market. It’s been a successful way to create brand awareness for our entire line of cheese.”
Chris Renard, Renard’s Cheese
Cold pack cheese packaging also seems to be more pandemic-friendly. Henning said that many of his customers don’t have the help to accommodate large blocks of cheese, and we may have help, but “I don’t want our help cutting and wrapping cheese anymore.” A new packaging machine for Henning’s helped garner sales in exact-weight and random-weight lines the company would never have been able to fulfill under the old system, Henning added. Our sizes are now perfect for someone gathering three or four items at the store for a small, family gathering, he continued.
Historically, cold pack has been marketed towards highly-educated Boomers in the upper income bracket, said Cabot public relations manager Bob Schiers. Now, we’re skewing a bit more towards Millennials. The evolving market is seeing more spreads than ever, and a lot of them are private label products, said Joe Widmer, owner of Widmer’s Cheese Cellars, Theresa, WI. One of Widmer’s first introductions to cold pack was 20 years ago at the International Dairy Deli Bakery Association (IDDBA) Expo in Minneapolis.
“I walked the aisles in amazement at all the great cheeses out there, and came across a guy that was sampling cold pack cheese spreads I thought were outstanding,” Widmer said.
“So I asked this guy – who happened to be Phil Lindemann – if anyone out there has a Brick cheese spread,” he said. Lindemann recalled his father making a Brick spread per request years ago, and asked Widmer if he’d like to give it a try.
“A week or two later, I sent him some aged Brick to experiment with and he made some mock samples for us,” Widmer said. “We found making it with just Brick and not blending it with another cheese made a very stinky spread.”
“So Phil – being the master cheese blender that he is – mixed aged Brick with aged Cheddar. The combination was an excellent spread, smoothed out by the Cheddar, but allowing the palate to get a good hint of the washed rind flavor,” he continued.
The first batch of 35 cases, each containing 12 8-ounce containers, launched in January 2002. The spread was initially available at Widmer’s on-site retail store, with the company sending out samples through its distribution network. The product was so well-received, a second batch of 83 cases was made one month later. Today, enough Widmer’s Brick Cold Pack Cheese Food is typically made to fill between 1,800 to 2,000 cases at a time. The company has also recently added Green Olive Brick and Jalapeno Brick to its spreadable cheese line. The 8-ounce retail cups are sold in select specialty and grocery stores through various distributors throughout the US.
Widmer’s also started producing cold pack for higher-end food service, with two 10-pound containers per case. This went along very well until the pandemic put restaurant sales in a tailspin – especially the white tablecloth ones that probably don’t see much takeout in Styrofoam containers, Widmer said.
“One very high-end restaurant group in Florida with eight restaurants started serving their bread with our spread in all eight locations,” he said. They were buying a pallet of 58 cases at a time, but had to stop when the pandemic hit, he continued.
Trends in the cold pack category mimic trends for most cheese products: more flavors, individual sizes for convenience and a smaller price tag, according to Widmer. The trends for all cheese including spread is flavored cheese and in smaller sizes for convenience sake as well as a smaller price tag. However, the overall success of a particular spread comes down to quality cheese and practiced blending.
“We make a world-class Brick cheese at Widmer’s – which is a big part of the spread – but credit for the great combination of ingredient blending to achieve perfect flavor and texture should go to the wizard of cheese spreads: Phil Lindemann,” he continued.
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Source: Cheese Reporter