Americans love cheese—so much so, that the average per capita cheese consumption in the United States nearly tripled between 1970 and 2006 to reach 32 pounds, according to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center.
Looking at USDA data, consumption of American-type cheeses, which includes cheddar, colby, monterey and jack cheeses, among others, nearly doubled since 1975, from about 8 pounds per capita consumption in 1975 to 16 pounds in 2021. Consumption of other cheeses nearly quadrupled during that same time, from about 6 pounds per capita consumption in 1975 to 22 pounds in 2021.
While cheese’s rising popularity can be attributed to many factors, there’s no doubt that growing consumer interest in more exciting flavor options plays a key role. “There are more quality aged cheeses on the market today than ever before—primarily due to the increasing quality and knowledge of cheesemaking,” said Kate Neumeier Clarke, president/CEO at Wisconsin Aging & Grading Cheese, citing market trends toward traditional cheese flavors with a twist, like heat and variety blends.
In the world of cheese, the aging process is essential to developing unique and interesting flavors.
“As cheese ages, it loses moisture while enzymes and microbes continue developing within the cheese,” Clarke explained. “These friendly bacteria help transform lactose into lactic acid and build other amino acids to give aged cheese its unmistakable taste.” Aging also lends cheeses like parmesan their notable crunchy textures, she said.
Affinage is the process of ripening and grading cheese—what Clarke describes as “nurturing cheeses—so they can develop to bring out their best qualities. Cheeses commonly aged include parmesan, asiago, blue, cheddar, gouda, gorgonzola, alpine-style and brick, per Clarke.
“The process of aging cheese is highly precise and scientific,” Clarke said. It starts after the cheese has been made. To help the cheese develop, graders turn to various treatments, including rubbings, brushings, sprayings, wrapping in cloth and/or regular turning. The cheese’s environment is also vital to the process, requiring factors like temperature and humidity, length of curing time, type, degree and frequency of treatments to be carefully managed.
Various techniques are also employed, and each lends unique flavor attributes. These include surface ripening and interior ripening.
“As the name suggests, [surface ripening] is when cheese is aged from the surface, down through to the cheese itself,” Clarke explained. “Surface-ripened cheeses are often known for their unique and often tasty rinds.” To facilitate surface ripening, cheesemakers rub the cheese with washes, brine or by introducing microorganisms to the surface.
Interior ripening uses cultures or native flora in the cheese to develop flavor. “Cheesemakers will often cover the cheese in wax or wrap it in bandages to isolate the surface from aging,” she said.
The United States is the second-largest producer of cheese in the world and produced more than 13 billion pounds of cheese in 2020, per the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center. Wisconsin is the largest producer of cheese in the United States, contributing more than a quarter of the country’s cheese.
Wisconsin is also the only state that requires graders to have a license, Clarke said. That ensures the cheese was produced in a USDA-approved plant.