This is the first installment in a multi-part series in which Raymond Hook will interview influential people in the cheese world in order to provide a broader perspective on great cheeses in America and beyond.
The following is Hook’s interview with David Grotenstein, a NYC-based specialty food retailer consultant. A native New Yorker, Grotenstein is the Chair Emeritus for the American Cheese Society judging and competition – the most prestigious cheese event held in the USA – which he presided over for seven years. He is one of the very few people who have tasted the actual wheel or form of each Best of Show cheese at the ACS competition for the past twelve years.
The topic of this interview: cheeses made in America.
RH: What is the state of the American cheeses selling in the marketplace today?
DG: It has never been better; we’re in the golden era. It’s the retail category that gets the most consumer attention, has the most room for growth and attains the highest-quality improvements.
RH: How do the top-quality American cheeses measure up to the best of the rest of the world?
DG: The top American cheeses can easily stand alongside the best cheeses of the world, with pride.
RH: How about cheeses that are American originals?
DG: There are so many now, and more being developed every day. Crafting originals has become a true mission for many American cheesemakers.
RH: How is the market different for American cheeses vs. European cheeses?
DG: They are actually an easier sell at the moment, even when American artisan cheeses are sold at a premium.
RH: Do you often get questions on the premium prices for American cheeses?
DG: Yes, I do. I just explain that they come from small farms, are made in small batches, and that they are handmade and truly different from non-artisan cheeses, so they are worth the difference in price.
RH: What would be your recommendation for how many American cheeses to carry in a new retail shop?
DG: Unless your shop has a particular theme otherwise, I’d suggest one third to one half be American artisan cheeses.
RH: What do you find to be the most intriguing category?
DG: The large format, over-ten-pound wheels require longer aging and investment in care, and are now showing their real terroir [regional flavor]; the cheesemakers of these wheels have found extremely unique ways to represent where they are from.
RH: Are American customers educated on American regional specialty cheeses, and if so, who is doing the education?
DG: Consumers may not be any more knowledgeable of American regional and artisanal cheeses than they are of imported cheeses, but they're definitely more interested in learning about them. Telling customers about how a family really makes something on a farm, from their own herd, etc. is the easiest conversation to have with a shopper.
RH: What are some of the better selling styles of American cheese (i.e. cheddar, goat, etc.)?
DG: I would guess that fresh goat cheeses are probably the bestsellers. Cheddars, both block-style and clothbound, move well also, as customers are familiar with the styles. That said, it's the newly named, newly created cheeses that currently get the most inquiries and generate interest in the category as a whole.
RH: Why aren’t American sheep’s milk cheeses easier to find?
DG: Like sheep's milk and its cheeses almost everywhere, there's just not that much of it being produced. It's the lowest milk yield by far [between sheep, cow and goat] and is challenging and expensive to produce. But the cheeses are out there…you just have to ask.
RH: What does the future look like for American artisan cheeses?
DG: As I've said, we're basking in the glow of the greatest awareness of American cheeses ever. To me, this is just the beginning.
Additional reporting by Madeleine James.