American cheese: Does it deserve its bad reputation?

Cheese from Chapel Hill Creamery

Everything you think you know about American cheese is wrong.

That’s what the cheese makers and cheesemongers of the US want to tell you. They’re fed up of people thinking their prized product is a joke.

When you do a Google search of “why is American cheese…”, among the top suggestions for completing the sentence are “bad”, “so gross” and “not cheese”.

It doesn’t help that “American cheese” is the name for the orange, plastic-wrapped slices – as well as representing the whole nation’s cheese output.

So what does the world need to know about US cheese, instead of thinking all that’s on offer is bland and mass-produced?

“Of course they think that,” says Patricia Michelson, founder of London’s La Fromagerie. “Because that’s what gets exported.”

“Certainly in the UK there’s a misconception,” agrees cheese journalist and senior World Cheese Awards judge Patrick McGuigan.

“If you ask most British people to name an American cheese, they’d go for that orange plastic cheese, which is what the country is known for internationally. But perceptions are changing, especially among people in the know. American cheeses have done well at things like the World Cheese Awards.”

It doesn’t help that it’s hugely expensive to get US cheese across the pond. There are some massive tariffs on US cheese – currently set by the EU and the UK, depending on the type of cheese – to come into the UK.

“It’s up to £60 ($73) a kilogramme,” says Mr McGuigan. “If you’re trying to sell to a British customer, you’re saying, ‘we have this cheese that’s amazing – it’s £60.’ You can see a lot of shoppers going, ‘hmm I’m not sure.'”

“They are good cheeses. But there are some good cheeses [from elsewhere] which are half price.”

Cheddar, for example, is subject to a 167.10 euro ($187.72) per 100kg tariff, with Colby at 151 euro ($166.92) per 100kg.

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Lisa Linder

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Patricia Michelson wrote about US cheese in one of her books – then couldn’t find publishers for it in some European countries

Trying to find US cheeses in London, for people to taste test it for this article, proved impossible. It’s usually only brought in for special occasions, like Thanksgiving and Christmas, which is when Ms Michelson buys it in for her world-renowned cheese stores.

She had also intended to import some for Independence Day this year, but paperwork held up the consignment, which currently comes via Paris.

She says there is a “mountain of red tape” to get unpasteurised cheese (which is made from raw milk, and has not been heated to remove bacteria) sold in the US itself – and then even more red tape to get them out of the country and into the UK.

As well as logistical issues, she says there are other barriers.

Ms Michelson says she loves American cheese, writing a “huge chapter” on the subject for her second book, Cheese.

“But trying to get other countries to publish it was impossible,” she laments. “Places like France, Italy and Germany said there was too much on American cheese. It galled them – they’re snobs.”

“Farmhouse cheeses are even really difficult to get in the US,” Ms Michelson adds. “You’ll only get them in a specialist shop, a farmers’ market or a very upscale supermarket.

“America itself is not promoting the farmers and their wonderful cheeses – so how on earth is it going to travel everywhere else?”

What doesn’t help either is that “it’s pre-packed and processed within an inch of its life” so that “there’s no smell at all” she says, lamenting that people are “scared of the smell of cheese”.

She adds that another reason the mass-produced product does well is that people “don’t want to wait – they want to make something, cut it, pack it, sell it”.

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Getty Images

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When people think of American cheese do they think of this…

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… or this?

Cheese author and speaker Laura Werlin has a theory about the image problem.

“It’s because American cheese grew up as a manufactured product primarily,” she says. “We took to factories fairly quickly in our country’s evolution and as a result, people got used to manufactured cheese.”

Now the artisan cheese movement “has really taken hold”, she says, “but one of the challenges is that the price of American artisan cheeses [in the US] tend to be higher than many decent, or really good, imports”.

That, she explains, is simply because of the high costs associated with the business in the US.

“So as a result, even Americans tend to buy the manufactured cheeses more than the artisan cheeses – unless they themselves are cheese fanatics.”

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Julia Gross, whose tattoos include one of a cheese mite

Hundreds of those cheese fanatics are at the American Cheese Society conference, being held this year in Richmond, Virginia, where the cheese revolution is on full display.

At the event they call “cheese camp” they take part in workshops and talks.

Local craft beers are paired with regional cheeses at bars around town, the self-proclaimed curd nerds sharing their vast knowledge on the subject.

They even do cheese karaoke (one sings Curds and Whey, to the tune of Purple Rain, sample lyrics “I never said you were just solids / I never meant to send you down the drain / There’s only one way to get them both together / Only once you cut the vat do you see curds and whey”).

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Independent cheesemonger Julia Gross (whose tattoos include one of a cheese mite) wants to dispel the myth that cheese is in any way elitist.

“Cheesemaking is fundamentally working class. It’s a myth that cheese is just for wealthy people. The workers are the main part of the farm, the cows are happy and it’s entirely sustainable,” she said. “We need to connect that labour of love to the customer.

“It’s not just buying something delicious, it’s being part of a life cycle.”

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Mary Quicke says US cheeses can compete on an international stage

British expert cheesemaker Mary Quicke, of Quicke’s Cheese – the 14th generation of the Quicke family on the farm in the English county of Devon – has judged at the American Cheese Society competition for many years and is treated as something of a celebrity.

“Being an arrogant English person, the first year I judged here I thought, ‘Ah bless, the Americans are getting the hang of it’,” she laughs.

“Over the nine years I’ve been judging this competition there has been an absolutely phenomenal increase in the quality of cheese.”

“It’s a massive renaissance,” she adds.

She says cheesemakers on both sides of the Atlantic can learn from each other and launched the Academy of Cheese professional qualification in the UK, inspired by a similar scheme run by the American Cheese Society.

Meet the big cheeses

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Central Coast Creamery

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Avery Jones with her award-winning cheese

A total of 1,742 cheeses were entered into competition at the American Cheese Society conference this year (for comparison, in the first year in 1985 there were 89 entries).

Here are the top three cheeses this year:

  • Stockinghall, best in show – the cheese was made as a collaboration between Murray’s Cheese, New York, and Old Chatham Creamery, New York, which supplied the cow’s milk and the cheesemaker, 33-year-old Brian Schlatter. The cheddar is described as having meaty bacon and sour cream flavours with a pineapple scent. Only 30 truckles are made a month
  • Professor’s Brie, second place – Brian Schlatter was also the cheesemaker for this square-shaped triple cream cheese made with sheep milk, cow’s milk and cow’s cream, again from Old Chatham Creamery, which is aged in Wegman’s Good Markets’ caves
  • Aries, third place – this sheep’s milk cheese from Shooting Star Creamery, California, was made by 15-year-old Avery Jones with the help of her father Reggie Jones’ Central Coast Creamery. It’s aged for eight months and is only available at Sigona’s Farmers’ Market in California

Michael Koch of Maryland’s Firefly Farms, joint organiser of this year’s conference, says: “The level of quality has dramatically increased. We’re returning to a more localised food system that Europe never left.”

He says that the US has a lot to offer the world – partly because of its lack of cheese-making tradition.

“In the States, we aren’t confined by tradition. So there are cheeses in Europe that have been made in the same way for a very long time.

“Here, we’re free to do things like trying to model this type of cheese – but then I’m going to twist it and be whimsical. We have the freedom to colour outside of the lines. We are bold with cheese.”

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Beehive Cheese

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Britton Welsh, third left, with others at ‘cheese camp’ holding their awards

Cheesemaker Britton Welsh certainly agrees. One of the bestselling products made by Utah-based company Beehive Cheese, of which he is president, is the unusual Barely Buzzed – a cheese rubbed with coffee grounds and lavender.

When it’s been sold in the UK however, it was for the equivalent of $70 per lb – and in the US, it retails for $24. While an exporter took care of process, Mr Welsh says there were huge transportation and tariff costs imposed on the cheese, and as a result it ended up “being exorbitantly expensive and inaccessible to most UK consumers”.

“Hopefully someday it will change and consumers in the UK will be able to enjoy our unique cheeses,” he adds.

The young farming family

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Trisha Boyce on her farm

Trisha Boyce, a third-generation dairy farmer, and her husband Jarred took over Chapel’s Country Creamery in Maryland two years ago. Their toddler son Trace is in his element on the dairy farm, running around, saying hello to the cows (he even has his own) and sampling blue cheese, one of his favourites.

“The price of milk is too low to make a living off anymore,” says Trisha, explaining why they bought the farm – already an established creamery – and chose to specialise in cheese rather than milk. “The great thing is we get to stay here as a family all day and market our own products.”

She says that if there were more small-scale artisan cheesemakers, then the perception of American cheese would change.

But she said that producing things on a small scale is expensive, and “a lot of Americans want luxurious foods at a regular price”. It doesn’t help as well that European cheeses have a greater reputation than home-grown goods as they’re better known for their cheese.

“I would encourage people to take more time to look at where their food is coming from, how it’s produced, and the care that’s put in behind the scenes. I would love more restaurants to do the farm to table thing and support their local farmers.

“You go to local stores here and it’s full of Irish cheese, French cheese, Spanish cheese. People say ‘it’s imported, so it must be good’. We’re actually trying to work with some local grocery stores now and get connected with them. It just takes time and it’s a lot of hard work.”

He adds: “A lot of people have really interesting conceptions of what ‘American cheeses’ are. But we’re entering cheese competitions in Europe and winning ribbons against people who have been doing it for hundreds of years.

“Instead of being governed by tradition, what we have is a willingness to try new things and go where no cheese has gone before. So we’re trying new things and having fun.”

Many of the top cheeses competing at the American Cheese Society conference are already competition winners at international events, where they line up with the creme de la creme of the dairy world.

“US cheese can absolutely compete” says Ross Christieson of the US Dairy Export Council. “Not just compete, but lead the world.

“The US is the largest exporter of cheese in the world that nobody knows about. What we export ends up on a pizza, a hamburger or in a cheesecake. But it’s the specialty cheeses that are really going to give us a reputation. We’re not going to get a reputation from being in something, or on something.”

He is at the conference with his colleague Angelique Hollister – part of their mission is to urge people to apply for the World Cheese Awards.

The Frenchwoman admits she didn’t realise what a wealth of US cheese was on offer when she moved to the US – and now wants to work to “change the perception and image of US cheese around the world”.

“What is made here in the US absolutely compares to what you can find in France, in Europe,” she says. “But one of the problems we’ve identified is the supply chain. The US is a big country and it’s difficult to get products from one area to the other.”

The small-scale production doesn’t help matters either.

“This is something that doesn’t sell in a full container load – it’s a pallet at a time or even a carton at a time,” she adds. “We need to help get that to the customer, at a price that makes sense.”

Nora Weiser, executive director of the American Cheese Society, which runs the annual event, sees a parallel with that other butt of the joke – British food.

“People around the world will say, ‘oh, British food is terrible, they boil everything and they’ve got mushy peas’. But there are amazing things happening.”

Author Ms Werlin argues that cheese manufacturers in the US haven’t quite worked out “how to make really good tasting cheese at scale” – so “very few artisan cheeses are exported” as a result.

“I don’t know if misunderstood is the right word – I think it’s just unknown. I don’t know if it is just going to remain our little secret over here in the US.

“The word is going to get out when people taste it – that’s how it spreads. I think it will take a long time for it to just roll of the tongue with the allure that French cheese does.”