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Article Archive - August 26, 2005

Defining Colby: commodity cheese or closet specialty?

Editor’s Note: Each month, CMN profiles a different cheese in these pages, giving our readers a comprehensive look at production, marketing and sales, as well as any other interesting details we can unearth. Please read on to learn more about this month’s featured cheese: Colby.

By Amelia Buragas

MADISON, Wis. — Colby has grown from a small, farmstead cheese produced in central Wisconsin to a commodity cheese found on nearly every supermarket shelf in the United States. However, many cheesemakers are asking if a return to its roots would revitalize what they say appears to be a faltering demand for Colby.

“Colby is Wisconsin’s first original specialty cheese,” says Scott Stocker, president and CEO, Shullsburg Creamery Inc. “But the product itself has been slowly losing its true identity.”

The problem, cheesemakers say, is that today’s Colby is better described as a mild Cheddar than as Colby. Traditional Colby is sweeter and milder than Cheddar, and without taste to set the two apart, consumers are gradually turning away from Colby.

• A dairy state original

Colby cheese is named after its city of origin, Colby, Wis. The city of Colby is located in North Central Wisconsin and today has a population of approximately 1,600 residents. The city is named after the Colby family, who helped to bring the Wisconsin Central Railroad to the area in the 1870s.

The birth of Colby dates back more than a century. In fact, this year the cheese celebrates its 120th year in production. A state historical marker in the city credits the development of Colby to Joseph Steinwand in 1885. Steinwand created and produced the cheese at his father’s cheese plant, which according to the marker was the first cheese factory in northern Clark County.

The city of Colby celebrates its namesake annually with Colby Cheese Days, a three-day celebration held on the third weekend of July. Featured activities include a Main Street parade, street dances, amusement midway and free samples of Colby cheese.

Colby is a semi-soft cow’s milk cheese that often is compared to Cheddar. However, due to a washed-curd process, where the curds are rinsed with fresh water to remove excess whey and lactose, Colby is milder, sweeter and moister than Cheddar. Colby ripens quickly and is best consumed shortly after purchase or it will dry out and lose its flavor.

The most common style of production is the “Longhorn,” a 13-pound cylinder. The federal standard of identity lists Colby as having a maximum moisture content of 40 percent and minimum milkfat content of 50 percent. One ounce of Colby contains 110 calories, 6.7 grams of protein, 9 grams of fat and 214 milligrams of calcium.

• Everyday cheese on the table

Cheesemakers say Colby is a family cheese — it is inexpensive and has a mild flavor that children enjoy. According to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board’s 2002 cheese channel volume study, 150 million pounds of Colby were consumed in 2002. Usage was split between foodservice at 57 percent and retail at 43 percent.

Bob Wills, president, Cedar Grove Cheese Inc., Plain, Wis., describes Colby as an “everyday cheese.”

“People who are buying Colby are looking for something that is very predictable and easy,” says Wills. “When you’re just sitting down and looking for lunch, Colby is a great cheese to have.”

Barbara Gannon, vice president, corporate sales and marketing, Sargento Foods Inc., Plymouth, Wis., says the major trend is to use Colby on sandwiches, and her company markets Colby slices for that purpose. However, Gannon says Colby is finding its way into other uses as well.

“It’s used a lot in Mexican-style cooking, if people don’t have access to the authentic Hispanic cheeses,” says Gannon.

She adds that even where Hispanic cheeses are available, Colby may be the cheese of choice for consumers who want to use a familiar cheese to make an Americanized version of Hispanic dishes. Colby also is being used in new Hispanic food products. Safeway Select Chicken Enchiladas use Colby cheese, according to the Mintel Global New Products Database.

Other new products that use Colby are Schwan’s Bright Starts Four Cheese Omelet, which contains a blend of Swiss, Monterey Jack, Colby and American cheeses, and Archer Farms Five Cheese Garlic Breadsticks, which are topped with Mozzarella, Provolone, Muenster, Cheddar and Colby cheeses.

• The perfect pairing

Colby often is paired with Monterey Jack to create what could be considered its own category of cheese – Colby-Jack. Monterey Jack is another American original, having been developed in Monterey County, Calif. With Colby’s yellow color and Monterey Jack’s creamy white color, the cheeses are marbled together to create a visually appealing cheese often chosen for cheese trays and appetizers.

Gannon says Colby-Jack also is popular because consumers like to put more than one type of cheese on sandwiches, which is a primary use of plain Colby. A marbled cheese makes mixing more convenient. Wills says he has found that although Colby is declining in popularity, “there seems to be a bit more enthusiasm” behind Colby-Jack.

• Production and sales

USDA combines Colby production data with that of Monterey Jack to form the “other American” category, so it is not possible to track Colby’s production in the United States. However, cheesemakers say production is stagnant at best, and possibly declining.

Stocker says that 15 years ago Colby was his company’s No. 1 cheese. Now, he says Colby is no longer in the top five and he doesn’t see it returning to its previous place.

“Sales have been declining over the years steadily,” says Stocker. “I don’t see Colby coming back up to No. 1. There are too many other players on the field right now and a lot of cheeses competing for the consumer’s buck.”

Information Resources Inc. scanner data from 2003 and 2004, shows a decline across the board for Colby grocery retail sales. Between 2003 and 2004, total grocery sales declined 6.5 percent, from 45.1 million pounds to 42.1 million pounds.

The exact weight category takes up approximately 68 percent of the market and between 2003 and 2004, declined 6.3 percent from 29.6 million pounds to 27.7 million pounds. Random weight sales fell from 15.5 million pounds in 2003 to 14.4 million pounds in 2004 — a 7 percent decline. Random weight sales make up 34 percent of the market.

“It used to be significantly different than Cheddar,” says Wills. “When properly made, Colby is more open and a milder cheese. I think part of the reason the category hasn’t grown more is that today’s Colby is what I would describe as a mild Cheddar.”

Stocker says Shullsburg plans to try to grow the market for Colby by using traditional techniques to produce a more traditional tasting cheese, saying Colby is a “misunderstood cheese.”

“We’re working to produce a Colby cheese like our customers are used to,” says Stocker. “A true old-fashioned Colby is hard to find.”

Joe Widmer, Widmer’s Cheese Cellars, Theresa, Wis., says production of his traditional-style Colby has roughly doubled over the past five years as word spreads that he offers the Colby flavor that people remember from their childhood.

“I think when enough people find out about the real thing, it will become more of a specialty cheese,” says Widmer. “Mine sells at a much higher price and people are willing to pay for it if they know it’s different.”

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