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Americans Travel to Great Britain One Cheese at a Time

By Lucas Witman

From the royal wedding to the London Olympics and from Harry Potter to Downton Abbey, British culture has never been more popular in the United States than it is today. Americans seem positively poised to pounce on any book, movie, television show or event emblazoned with the Union Jack or featuring iconic Briticisms. Once much maligned on this side of the Atlantic, British foods have not escaped the U.K. invasion, including what has perhaps become the most sought after British food staple in the United States: cheese. Today, shoppers at any artisan cheese shop in the United States or even any grocery store specialty cheese case can choose among a wide variety of British offerings.

When it comes to bringing British cheeses to the U.S. market, companies in the United Kingdom must navigate several particular challenges. Perhaps the biggest technical challenge British cheese producers face in exporting their products to this country concerns the different standards for the use of antibiotics that are in place in the United States and Europe. In Great Britain, a farmer can use antibiotics to treat a sick animal, but that animal must then be quarantined for several months before it can be allowed back into the herd. In the United States, once treated with antibiotics, the animal must be permanently removed from the herd. Some British cheese companies have overcome this disparity in standards by raising two separate herds, one producing milk for cheeses to be consumed domestically and one producing milk for cheeses intended for export to the United States.

Beyond the technical issues facing British cheese exports, however, there are a host of other adaptations companies in the United Kingdom must make in order to effectively reach out to American consumers. The Irish Dairy Board found this out when it first began selling its Pilgrim’s Choice line, one of the most popular cheese lines in Great Britain, in the United States.

“A key headline for our business is that U.S. Consumers want to know where the product comes from,” said Conor O’Donovan, Category Sales Manager for U.K. Cheese at the Irish Dairy Board. “While Pilgrim’s Choice as a brand name has strong resonance in the U.K., it was relatively meaningless in the U.S. so it was important to define the origin of the cheese and find a name that resonates for the consumer.” By changing the name of the cheese line to Londoner and placing a Union Jack prominently on the label, the company found that it was finally able to effectively market its cheeses to U.S. consumers.

Another part of successfully marketing British specialty foods in the United States is learning about and responding to uniquely American trends. According to Nicola Turner Export Director for Kingdom British Organic Heritage Cheeses, perhaps the biggest American trend to which her company has been forced to adapt is the U.S. local products movement.

“In the U.S., there is very much a drive for local and supporting local,” said Turner. “In the U.K., this exists too but imported specialty cheeses offer something different. It’s about discovery—allowing you to experience a new place, a new culture from your own four walls.”

Turner also noted that cheese consumption in the United States is tied to wine consumption in a way that does not necessarily translate to the British marketplace. “There seems to be far more focus on wine pairings in the U.S. It does happen in the U.K., but in the U.S. you guys take it to another level,” she said. “In the U.K. … there isn’t this whole culture of matching wines. That’s something that I’ve had to get up to speed with quickly here.”

Still, despite a variety of cultural differences separating U.S. and U.K. consumers, British cheese companies have found that when it comes to the consumer flavor palate, there is relatively little difference between the two countries. “What we’ve found is that flavor profiles that develop in the U.K. are a good benchmark of what’s coming to the U.S.,” said O’Donovan. “We find that whatever flavor profile is becoming big in the U.K., generally America will follow. That’s been our experience,” said O’Donovan.

Richard Newton-Jones, Commercial Director for Welsh cheesemaker Snowdonia Cheese Company echoes O’Donovan’s observations, arguing that as Americans taste his company’s cheeses, the varieties and flavors that they most respond to are the same varieties and flavors that are the company’s biggest sellers in Great Britain. Although not yet commercially available in the United States, Snowdonia is planning to introduce its cheeses to this market in the near future, and Newton-Jones says that it will make no changes to the product in order to appeal to American palates.

When it comes to cheeses native to the British Isles, there are several products that are historically synonymous with this nation. Stilton, for example, is a popular bleu cheese linked to the British counties of Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. Caerphilly is one of the most popular Welsh cheeses, a mild, crumbly cow’s milk cheese with a pleasant tang. And Wensleydale is one of the most popular cheeses throughout Britain, often found blended with cranberries or apples.

However, the undisputed king of British cheeses is Cheddar. “The cheese market and the specialty cheese market is very competitive. There are hundreds of cheeses here,” said Turner. “Cheddar is our first offering, because everyone likes a good cheddar.”

Cheddar cheese represents British culinary heritage perhaps more than any other food. The cheese was originally made in and is named for the village of Cheddar in the southwestern corner of the country. Historically, the cheese was aged in the area’s many caves. Cheddar cheese benefited from the region’s unique climate, and the abundant grassy landscape that provides almost all of the diet for the area’s cows.

There are a number of things that make authentic British cheddars a much sought after cheese treat throughout the world. “British cheddar offers a discovery of an area that is very much well known for the taste of its cheese. You’ll have a different Cheddar experience,” said Turner.

“It is a different flavor profile, and the whole make process is different,” said Newton-Jones. “Basically the starter cultures which are used in these products are different from American cheddars. Also it’s different because the climate is different. For Snowdonia, we have a very high rainfall. The dairy herds in North Wales are grassfed herds. So we don’t have very high yielding herds … The result of that is that you get a higher level of butterfat and protein in the milk. So that allows us to produce a very high quality cheese as well.”

In explaining what makes British Cheddar so special, O’Donovan offered a British saying, popular among the country’s cheesemakers: “You have the grass in the cow’s tail,” he said. “What it means is that literally the cow’s tail is in the grass. Therefore you have the real grassy flavor.”

For Turner, bringing her company’s cheese to American consumers is about giving them an opportunity to figuratively travel to a new place. Regardless of the popularity of local foods in this country, when it comes to cheese, she believes there will always be a place in the U.S. consumer landscape for imported products that offer a taste of a particular place in the world.

“It’s unique, and it’s a discovery, and I think that’s what consumers are saying,” said Turner. “When it comes to specialty cheese, it gives them a way of discovering new things. You can support local, but it adds a little more spice by trying different things. It’s a bit like traveling the world without going anywhere.”

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