A USDEC-organized Specialty Cheese Trade Mission started in New York, headed to Vermont and will be finishing a week-long, whirlwind tour in Wisconsin on Saturday.
Jalal Thamer and 12 other prominent dairy buyers from the Middle East gathered Monday at Spring Brook Farm. It features 100 Jersey cows you can pet and award-winning artisan cheese you can taste, all tucked away in the lush Green Mountains of Vermont.
The group was on a three-state Specialty Cheese Trade Mission for Middle East importers organized by the U.S. Dairy Export Council with funding from the dairy checkoff program.
Thamer’s topic of discussion: the quality of U.S. cheeses.
“I think U.S. cheeses are better than the French, Belgian and even the Italian cheeses,” proclaimed Thamer, whose trading company, Alholool Almulemah (English translation: “Inspiring Solutions”) is based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
His clients include exclusive Saudi hotels, highly rated restaurants and supermarket chains desiring gourmet food from around the world that Thamer helps them find.
What Thamer finds and chooses to send home can’t just be good. It must be excellent and unique. He wondered if he would find it here.
Seeing, tasting, believing
The group landed in New York City on Saturday, June 22, and attended the Summer Fancy Food Show, the largest specialty food industry event in North America.
Cheese buyers from Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Lebanon and Qatar pose for group shot in Vermont.
They then spent two days in Vermont, including a visit to the headquarters of Cabot Cheese, which manages four plants in three states, employing more than 1,000 people.
Part of checkoff-funded strategy
The mission is part of a larger cheese strategy aimed at building awareness and heritage for U.S. natural cheese in retail and foodservice channels.
With farmer funding through the dairy checkoff program, USDEC is enhancing awareness of U.S. cheese heritage, cheese tastes and applications among buyers, distributors, chefs, consumers and other end-users around the world.
This builds sales in the added-value, non-commodity end of the market, which benefits farmers and others in the industry.
The efforts contribute to an industry-wide initiative led by USDEC called “The Next 5%.” The goal is to build U.S. dairy export volume from about 15% of U.S. milk solids to 20% — while at the same time increasing value.
“We know cheese exports add value to dairy farmers’ paychecks and processors’ profitability,” says Ross Christieson, senior vice president of global cheese strategy at USDEC.
Vermont farm small but illustrative
The cheese buyers on this mission—from Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Lebanon and Qatar—finish their trip in Wisconsin on Saturday before heading home on flights from Chicago’s O’Hare Field.
In Wisconsin, they are getting a “360-degree view” of U.S. cheesemaking through tours of cheese plants, meetings with dairy industry leaders, and a mini-trade show where they are meeting one-on-one with Wisconsin cheese companies.
The Wisconsin visit is coordinated by USDEC with support from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection; Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin; the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Dairy Research and other dairy organizations.
The Spring Brook Farm and Spring Brook Farm Cheese operation they visited in Vermont is tiny compared to some of the plants the group toured on the trip.
But it made an impression, showing the quality and craftsmanship of artisan U.S. cheesemakers.
The buyers toured the barn, where they petted and bonded with some of the 100 registered Jersey cows. The gregarious Thamer insisted on a photo of himself with the farm’s tour guide.
The group made its way to the adjacent Spring Brook Farm Cheese operation, where the artisan cheese is made and aged to create distinctive flavors.
Taste test: moment of truth
Spring Brook Farm Cheese comes in only three varieties, displayed on wooden cutting boards for sampling. It was the moment of truth for Thamer’s discriminating palate.
Jalal Thamer samples cheese at Spring Brook Farm.
His face revealed his delight.
He savored the cheeses named Ashbrook and Reading.
But his favorite was Tarentaise, the farm’s signature, award-winning cheese aged at least nine months. According to a Spring Brook Farm handout on Tarentaise, “Depending on the season, the flavor ranges from a complex, almost nutty flavor of the winter cheese to a bright floral taste in the summer.”
Envisioning these cheeses in Saudi Arabia
Thamer wants all three cheeses in Saudi Arabia for his customers and their customers.
He knows this cheese will be a winner in his country if the logistics of exporting are figured out and the products are properly introduced to Saudi cheese lovers. According to Thamer, many don’t realize the U.S. makes cheese.
This despite the fact that the United States was the world’s largest cheese exporter by volume in 2018 and once again cleaned up in global cheese competitions (See U.S. Cheesemakers Win 89 Medals at World Cheese Awards).
Wearing his black beret, Thamer cheerfully sought out the business manager. He requested 1,200 pounds of each cheese.
While that volume is modest for most U.S. cheesemakers it’s a big deal for a small cheesemaker and the three local farm families that provide the essential ingredient, milk. The economic ripple effect will boost the surrounding rural community.
The upside for U.S. cheese
Thamer believes the potential upside is big for these three cheeses in particular and huge for U.S. cheeses in general.
“Our market has been dominated by French cheese and I want to see competition,” explained Thamer. “I wish this farm had more than three flavors. I would buy them all. The quality isn’t just good. The quality is excellent.
“This is just our first order. I believe these cheeses will do big business for us.”
Dairy buyers from the Middle East learn how Spring Brook Farm cares for it cows.
Middle East dairy buyers pet Jersey cows that provide milk for artisan cheeses.
Dairy buyers from the Middle East enjoyed cheese samples from Spring Brook Farm.
The cheese aging room at Spring Brook Farm.
Following the farm visit, the delegation attended a U.S. specialty cheese reception.
Chef John Esser guided the Middle East buyers though the cheese selection.
The next day, the group toured Cabot Creamery in Vermont.
The Middle East delegation liked what they saw (and tasted) at Cabot Creamery.