As American Cheese Month, October is a great time to reflect on the current state of American cheese. I am often asked about industry trends, but recently I was asked in an interview about American artisan cheese itself as a trend. I was surprised by the broadness, and underlying assumption, of the question. When asked about trends, I tend to mention buzz words that show industry growth and maturity — affinage, consumer demand, popular cheese styles — and generally that suffices. Everyone likes to feel they are on the cutting edge of a trend, so in a way, everyone colludes to create the aura of one. But trends are, by nature, transient. And while people like to be part of something “trendy,” they don’t want to be part of a flash-in-the-pan that might evaporate as quickly as it materialized. That is why I was surprised to be asked about our broader industry as a trend.
What I find so compelling about America’s cheese industry is that, while the media may wish to tout it as trendy, it has a solid foundation and history. That which seems trendy is really just a rare combination: a newness of vision coupled with an adherence to and respect for strong traditions. This creates an energy that is powerful enough to move an industry forward. Finding the sweet spot where passion meets profitability is where American cheese thrives. It may come across as crass to discuss the financial proposition in an industry where story and romance are central, but it is the reality of any business. All the passion in the world is not sustainable if it doesn’t lead to a viable business model — and all the money in the world is meaningless without passion and creativity behind it.
I attended Slow Food Cheese in Italy this year, and in meeting after meeting with my European counterparts, I heard the same thing: there is a sense of admiration and amazement at the vitality of cheese in America, the passion of young people getting into the industry, the commitment to professionalize and elevate the work of cheesemongers, and the quality, quantity, and variety of cheeses being made. Like the media, they too wanted to link this to a definable trend — hopefully one that could be equally successful abroad. Again, I chalked it up to a shared passion between cheesemakers, cheesemongers, and cheese consumers. All are seeking something similar, and the place where these passions collide is the American cheese industry. You cannot force that synergy to happen, and you cannot define it or classify it merely as a trend. To do so undermines the very power that fuels it.
So, while I am happy to discuss industry trends in terms of small snippets of the bigger picture, I can’t get on board with calling American artisan cheese, or its rising popularity, a trend. Perhaps the best direction for any industry is an avoidance of trendiness. Industry growth, new products, creative new businesses… these are tenets of a healthy industry, not indicators of a passing trend.