As Our Industry Evolves, So Should Our Terminology

Volume 131 No. 40 - Friday, April 6, 2007

We have found that it is important to build relationships between producers and consumers. When we show maximum respect for the consumer, we build the strongest relationships.

Well-defined terms help clarify and move things forward. Outdated definitions hinder rather than help and lose their meaning. 

With the changes in the landscape of American cheese over the last 15 years, some widely used expressions no longer match current realities. 
They need to be dusted off and brought up to date, and other terms need to be created so all producers can use them in marketing their products without diluting their meaning.

Categories should simply and clearly describe what is, without embellishing or making judgments. The following definitions we feel match more closely what is really being produced and how:

Farmhouse Cheese:
Cheese made on a small farm, by the farmer or a family member, mostly by hand, in or near the milking barn, with milk from the farmer's own herd, respecting age-old cheesemaking traditions. 

Farm Cheese:
Like farmhouse, farm cheese is made from the farmer’s own milk, mostly by hand, and with respect for tradition, but in a larger, more commercial manufacturing facility not necessarily attached to the dairy.

Mostly handmade in modest quantities, respecting age-old cheesemaking traditions, with milk from neighboring farms and carefully monitored herds, with the hands-on involvement of the cheese maker. Cannot be fully mechanized. 

An artisan cheese probably should not be sealed in plastic, and certainly not aged in it. It should have a natural protective rind. 

By definition artisan cheeses pre-date modernity, in this case refrigeration, the artificial creation of environments by mechanical means, but cheeses produced in artificial environments, which reproduce those natural environments, can acceptably be defined as artisan, if they are true to the traditional process.

Artisan Style:
A cheese manufactured in larger volumes with respect for cheesemaking traditions and the natural development of flavor, but utilizing mechanical aids to replace some of the traditional work done by hand, or made from the milk of many farms. 

Cheese which may be produced with mechanical aids replacing most human labor and made from the milk from many farms, usually in high volume, but with superior flavor, variety and distinction.

Cheese produced in any format or volume that enables it to be sold in large volume to compete on price: should not be seen as inherently negative. 

These categories match our present realities, but even they will require modification over time. A starting point, not a fixed point, they come from the principled position that we are all playing in the same sandbox; with respect we can learn to co-exist, large and small, each prospering without stealing the other’s thunder.

Redefining American Families:
There is no central authority that dictates how to categorize cheese into families. Current systems vary according to the needs of those using them. If you are a store, you use families that fit what you sell, etc. 
As the variety of cheeses produced in the US has grown, holes in the logic of how we familiarize them have been revealed. The old families, rather than clarify, confuse.

The aim should be to provide enough information for the producer to know how to package, the distributor how to treat, the seller how to describe and, most importantly, the consumer to know what they are buying. 

A better way would be to describe the make process, which determines the texture, to help consumers choose, then the rind, which the consumers see, and affects how it needs to be packaged and stored, then the milk, the raw material whose qualities come from the kind of animal and how it is treated. 

Process/Texture Rind Treatment Milk
Fresh No Rind Raw Cow's
Stretched Clean Rind Pasteurized Goat's
Soft Natural Rind Whole Sheep's
Blue Brushed Rind Partially Skimmed Buffalo
Uncooked Pressed Bloomy Rind Skimmed Mixed
Cooked Pressed Washed Rind Double or Triple Cream  
Processed Herb or Spiced Rind    
Flavored Wax or Coated Rind    
  Leaf or Flower Wrapped    

The Table above illustrates the system. For instance, a Camembert would be described as a “Soft Bloomy Rind Cheese from Pasteurized Whole Cow’s Milk.” A Parmesan a “Pressed Cooked Brushed Rind Cheese from Partially Skimmed Raw Cow’s Milk.” A block Cheddar a “Pressed Uncooked No Rind Cheese from Whole Pasteurized Cow’s Milk.”

It may seem more cumbersome at first, but it is more accurate, telling the consumer what they are buying (once they figure out that an uncooked pressed cheese is softer than a cooked pressed cheese), lets the distributor know how it needs to be stored and helps the producer figure out the best way for it to be packaged.

To list the milk as organic, from pasture-fed or free ranging is optional.

Other Definitions To Consider:

The art of finishing cheese. French term applied to cheese that was shipped young because they were too fragile to ship at optimum time of consumption prior to the advent of refrigerated travel. Commonly the affineur was the Cheese Monger.

American Original: 
A cheese that is distinctly different than any other known cheese at the time of creation and is the evolution of a unique process. Such US cheese would be Monterey Jack, Dry Jack, Colby, Teleme, Brick, Winter Sun, San Joaquin Gold and others.

Natural Cheese: 
The cheese made from milk with the use of cultures, natural or added with or without rennet. 

Process Cheese: 
Cheese made from natural cheese or other ingredients primarily of dairy origin with the aid of heat and chemicals to produce a cheese with a modified chemical structure and no bacterial or enzyme activity so aging is not possible.

Soy Cheese:

Cheese aged naturally in an open atmosphere controlled to reproduce air flow, temperature and humidity common to aging caves, cellars and rooms from the pre-mechanical age. 
Under such conditions cheese may or may not lose moisture during the aging process. 
A characteristic common to many rinded cheeses is to lose moisture during aging, thus becoming more stable and dense with concentrated flavors.

Cheeses packaged in vacuum, shrink or modified environmental packaging that requires the cheese to have a finished composition at the time of packaging.

Cave Aged: 
Cheese aged in natural caves.
Cellar Aged: Cheese aged in custom environments simulating historical use of caves.

Aging Room: 
A room with a custom environment ideal for aging cheese.
Grass or Pasture Based: Cheese made from milk of cows from a farm that is self-sufficient, without fodder brought in from other farms, grazed mostly on pasture. 

Grass or Pasture Fed: 
Cheese made from the milk of cows being grazed on grass with minimum inputs.

Winter Cheese: 
Cheese made from cows not grazing grass but fed on forages, (hopefully grass-based forages).

Wild Aging: 
Cheese aged in a natural or artificial aging facility with minimal intervention by mechanical means, with some limited access to the outside environment influencing the cheese-ripening flora on the surface of the cheese. •

Dan Strongin is managing partner and owner of Edible Solutions, a consulting company focused on helping companies making great food make a profit. He will be writing a monthly column in Cheese Reporter. Strongin can be reached via phone at (510) 224-0493, or via e-mail at


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The above article is Dan's first column for Cheese Reporter.
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