For every Lake to Lake, however, there are scores of smaller companies around the country manually producing one-of-a-kind cheeses, from fresh mozzarella to goat and sheep cheeses. While these cheeses may not account for a large percentage of the industry's production, their sales are growing at a considerably faster rate than Cheddar, brick and other so-called American cheeses.
"The cheese business is changing quite a bit," says John May, director of purchasing for dairy and deli at Giant Food Inc., a Washington supermarket chain. "We're not selling as many processed cheeses such as American cheese. That business is basically flat or even declining a bit. . . . The whole specialty-cheese area is where a good amount of growth is coming from."
And much of that growth, May adds, is being generated by domestic companies. Business in imported cheeses is declining, largely because the strong value of the dollar has sharply increased the price of foreign cheese.
As is the case with many current trends, aging baby boomers are behind the surge in specialty cheeses. For one thing, many have traveled extensively and tasted the wide variety of sharp-flavored cheeses made on the other side of the Atlantic.
Then there's the fact of their changing taste buds. "The same thing is happening to cheese that happens to wine," notes Jim Tillison, the former director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Assn. "When you're 20 years old, you like simple wines, but when you hit 40, you get into California Cabernets. . . . Children enjoy American cheese, but as they get older they want cheese with more snap."
Laura Chenel, an acclaimed California goat-cheese maker who is regarded as one of the nation's pioneers in the cheese revolution, confirms this. "You can look at the fast-food level," she says, "and there are so many more Mexican and Chinese restaurants now, especially compared to 10 to 12 years ago. Then look up a culinary level or two and you'll find at least one or two American regional restaurants in every city across the country where some young chef is trying new food combinations using American ingredients but in a different way. All of that indicates people are more adventurous in their eating."
When Chenel first sold her chevre in 1979, there were only two or three companies experimenting with goat cheese. "Now," she points out, "there are over 60."
Cheese makers also attribute cheese's growing popularity to America's increasingly time-pressed life style. Despite its relatively high fat content, the fact that it's a good source of calcium makes most consumers regard cheese as a healthful and convenient snack food. It's no wonder, then, that cheeses of all flavors and forms are being packaged for on-the-go consumers.
Notes Floyd Gaibler, executive director of the National Cheese Institute: "When I first came here in 1988, there was very little string cheese being sold. Now it's mushroomed so that almost everybody is making mozzarella and Italian-type cheeses and marketing them as snack items."
The use of the microwave has also spurred cheese sales, particularly processed cheese. A few years ago, Kraft took its Cheez Whiz--a product from the 1950s, originally marketed as a bread spread--and started to promote it as a microwaveable cheese sauce, especially good on vegetables and nachos. The result has been double-digit sales increases every year, says Bob Eckert, Kraft's executive vice president and general manager for the retail cheese division.
Then there's the nation's most popular carry-out food: pizza. Thanks to the sharp growth in its consumption, mozzarella use has risen more than 164% in the last 15 years. Cheddar cheese, on the other hand, has seen per-capita consumption climb by only 75%.
As a result, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that mozzarella now makes up more than 25% of U.S. cheese production. Cheddar, which in 1983 accounted for almost half of all domestic cheese production, now comprises only 40% of the cheese made in the United States.
Overall, the United States is increasing its cheese consumption at the fastest rate in the world, according to Dan Carter Inc., a specialty-food marketing firm that advises a large number of cheese companies. In 1954, per-capita consumption was 7.5 pounds; 20 years later it was 14.4 pounds. In 1988, it had grown to 25 pounds. Even so, America has a long way to go before it catches up with France, where consumption averaged 47 pounds per person in 1984, according to a report by the Manhattan marketing and research firm Find-SVP.
Ironically, the growth in American cheese consumption comes amid concerns about the healthfulness of foods high in fat. While dietitians caution consumers to limit the amount of fat they eat to 30% of their daily calories, most natural cheeses, such as Cheddar, blue, Gouda, brie and provolone, typically derive between 66% and 75% of their calories from fat.