The surprise boom for Aussie cheesemakers
An unexpected side effect of the global pandemic has local Artisan cheesemakers reaping the benefits as lockdowned Aussies appetites’ for cheese soars.
The cost of European imported cheese has skyrocketed due to lack of international flights coming into the country. Most cheeses (especially soft cheeses like brie and camembert) are freighted on passenger flights and the lack of flights means for the first time European cheeses are either on par or costing more than Australian cheeses.
Australian importers are also challenged by lack of availability and increased supply chains in obtaining European cheeses.
On the upside, Artisan Australian cheesemakers are seeing huge demands in the direct consumer market. Whilst wholesaling, catering deals and corporate catering has all but ceased, online sales are booming.
Director of the Australian Specialist Cheesemakers’ Association Alison Lansley tells Fine Food Australia that COVID has given artisan cheesemakers an opportunity to be thrust into the spotlight.
“Australian cheese has been getting better and better over the last several years and there’s a lot more small artisan cheesemakers doing really quality cheese,” says Lansley.
In a “silver lining” for the industry, Australians are becoming more invested in shopping locally, and combined with the shortage and increased expense of European cheeses, are sampling more Australian cheese.
“What’s exciting us in our small artisan cheese world is that it gives people the opportunity to see what Australian cheesemakers have been doing, the fact that they’ve got less of a choice of imported product plus the fact want to support local producers—every cheesemaker i’ve spoken to in Australia have been doing really well,” says Lansley.
This has been echoed by retailers including Chief cheesemonger at Cornelius Cheesemongers, Matt Steele, who tells Fine Food Australia since late March his Brunswick business has had online sales similar to Christmas almost every month.
Online sales were previously about 30% of business at Cornelius Cheesemongers but during COVID has become his only revenue stream. Aussies have been sending their loved ones cheese gifts for Easter, Mother’s Day, and ISO—but interestingly a new kind of cheese giving has emerged.
“All of these products have previously been offered online but we’ve seen a huge upswing in staff care packages and online tasings and people all receiving the same cheese and having it for friday night drinks for their corporate welfare.”
Cofounder of Cheese Therapy, Sam Penny, has also seen sales soar and positive results for Australian cheesemakers.
“COVID has seen our business boom. In fact, our sales in August were three times our entire sales of 2019. But more importantly, we have been in a position to help almost 20 small cheesemakers get through a very tough time…in all, I suspect we have kept several hundred people in their jobs,” says Penny.
Why has cheese been so popular?
Food evokes memories
Steele says this surge in cheese is from people fondly thinking about memories abroad.
“Generally what we find is when they (customers) travel they come in and ask can you get me this cheese that has a memory of a day on a beach in Catan, or an Isle of malt cheddar sampled in Scotland,” says Steele.
“What it does do is people travelling a lot more domestically and travelling and sampling cheese in their own backyard and wanting to source that cheese from Bright or Mornington.”
Both Steele and Penny were already operating as eCommerce businesses, but through COVID have seen sales of their cheese boxes soar.
For Cheese Therapy they sold 8 tonnes of cheese sold in August alone—which in one month was close to three times their entire 2019 Annual Revenue or an insane 3600% growth. They are now delivering 1200 boxes of cheese per day, holding virtual tastings, and sell two Cheese of the Month box’s—one international and one all Australian.
The boon in business means Cheese Therapy have expanded their Sunshine Coast operation to warehouses in Geelong and Brisbane employing 25 staff—all during the global pandemic.
History of tough EU competition
Along with hundreds of years of history in the tradition of cheesemaking, dairy farmers and cheese makers in Europe have been heavily subsidised by the EU, making it historically challenging for Australian cheesemakers to compete.
Combining the lack of passenger flights with Airline margin squeezes bought on by COVID-19, and the cost for importing European cheese is likely to remain high for quite some time. This has for the first time put prices on par with local artisanal cheeses
“I’m hoping the fondness for the local product particularly when people see what the quality is like, that will continue and more cheesemongers like Matt and Sam to educate consumers about cheese,” says Lansley.
Bright future for Australian cheese
The future’s looking good for the Australian Cheese Industry—which is being thought to be having its dawning era similar to what the Australian wine industry experienced in the 80s and 90s.
“With the uncertain future for the flight industry, there is a huge opportunity for artisan cheesemakers to dominate the soft cheese market,” muses Lansley.
Lansley also hopes as restrictions begin to ease to see more in person classes and workshops around cheese, and continuing collaboration of great cheesemongers with producers. Perhaps even one day having the equivalent of a sommelier to really cement the industry.
Cheesemonger Penny has seen the industry make huge strides in 2020 and is encouraged for a strong 2021.
“In fact, most of our cheesemakers have better sales than the same time last year. Australian artisan cheese hasn’t had it better in the past two decades as we have been able to showcase just how great Australian cheese really is. With a decline in imports, it is Australia’s small cheesemakers to have the spotlight shone on them. We have worked so hard with our small makers that most are now not eligible for JobKeeper,” says Penny.
“It’s an amazing result! We are so proud of what we have done, how our cheesemakers took up our challenge to step up and how Australians responded to help an industry in need.”
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