EDWARDSVILLE, ILL. – As US consumers, especially younger ones, continue to expand their flavor palates, more and more specialty cheese producers are spotlighting and expanding their flavored cheese programs.

Five years ago, Prairie Farms launched its flavored cheese program.

The goal of the program, said Tim Fink, sales director for Prairie Farms’ Shullsburg Creamery brand, was to create flavored natural cheeses where the cheese complemented the flavored component and vice versa.

“In a lot of flavored cheeses, the flavor overwhelms the cheese itself,” Fink said.

Prairie Farms started with 20 flavored varieties. Today there are nine, six of which are among the original 20. Fink said all are made the “old world way” — in small batches and in an open vat. Each vat produces about 2,000 pounds of finished product per batch.

The top flavored seller for the company is Bourbon Barrel Smoked Cracked Black Pepper.

Prairie Farms buys empty bourbon barrels, removes the slats, breaks them down and burns them. The smoke from the fire infuses the cracked black pepper, which is then added to the white cheddar base.

“It’s very subtle smoke and bourbon flavors,” Fink said. “It doesn’t have that overwhelming taste that you sometimes get with smoked cheeses.”

“It’s surprisingly balanced,” added Sonya Leitner, Prairie Farms’ national retail sales manager. “You taste the pepper first, then the bourbon mellows it out. It’s gone gangbusters across the US. We just got it into Food Lion, and we’re already getting comments on our website, people saying, ‘This is definitely my new cheese.’”

Almost every single retail account, from the East Coast to the West, has added the popular product to its flavored cheese lineup, Leitner said.

Bourbon Barrel Smoked Cracked Black Pepper and Prairie Farms’ No. 2 and No. 3 top flavored sellers, Jack and Dill, and Three Pepper Marble Cheddar, are all among the original 20 the company trialed at the beginning of the program, Fink said.

Jack and Dill features Monterey Jack cheese, and Three Pepper Marble Cheddar includes jalapeno, chipotle and habanero peppers.


Packaging upgrade

Prairie Farms sells the vast majority of its flavored cheese in case-ready, 7 oz chunks, including a new square-cut chunk.

Thanks to a recent brand label change, Prairie Farms cheeses now feature a banner in the middle of the company’s traditional black and tan label, color-coded depending on the flavor of the cheese.

“It really looks good in a case,” Leitner said. “Something like a cranberry red color really stands out.”

The company also sells a 2 ½ lb loaf, in addition to the traditional 5 lb loaf. It’s often hard for retailers to get through a 5 lb loaf within the seven days health department regulations require, Fink said. Most loaf sales are to distributors who do both retail and foodservice, he said.

One of Prairie Farms’ retail customers does a flavored cheese of the month, featuring a different loaf every month, Fink said.

And if a retailer wants to cut and pack loaf product, Prairie Farms provides it with labels for 7 oz cuts.


Targeted marketing

While some flavored cheeses do well nationwide, others are targeted to more regional audiences, Leitner said.

Prairie Farms’ salsa-flavored cheese, for instance, does well in the West, while Buffalo Wing Cheddar is a big hit in the Southeast.

Maple Bacon Cheddar, on the other hand, moves well in the Northeast because of the maple, and in the South because of the bacon.

“I’ve found that anything with bacon in it, a Southerner is going to eat,” said Leitner, who compared Maple Bacon Cheddar to eating a pancake with maple syrup and bacon on the side.

One of the newer additions to the Prairie Farms flavored lineup is Sweet Peppa Chedda, which is notable for its use of the urfa pepper, a pepper variety from Turkey that’s sweet and savory, “very different from other peppers,” Fink said.

For retailers that are looking to do something different for the holidays, Prairie Farms offers a Cranberry Chipotle Cheddar, a “really nice, sweet heat,” Leitner said. The company also makes a Blueberry Cheddar.