Cheeses gaining attention among retailers include (top to bottom): Big Woods Blue from Shepherd’s Way; Bavarian Limburger; Rush Creek Reserve from Upland Cheese; Swiss Försterkäse; Wavreumont sheep’s milk cheese from Belgium; and Dante sheep’s milk from Sheep Dairy.

By Janet Fletcher

Whether looking close to home or across the pond, artisanal cheese-makers have shown innovation and staying power for the year to come. Learn which cheeses in 2012 will demand attention—and room in every retailer’s display.

The start of a new year means it’s officially trend-spotting season: time to stand back and try to distinguish the enduring changes from the evanescent. Which regions, styles or creameries have been building steam in recent months and may break through in 2012? What cheeses do you need in your case to be ahead of the curve?

To enhance my own predictions, I checked in with several leading retailers and distributors around the country. These conversations helped identify a few larger industry trends, some specific segments to watch, and even some individual cheeses that could be the year’s celebrities.

Potential Trendsetters for 2012

Cheesemongers and producers around the country weighed in on cheeses slated for a rise in popularity. Here are some of their picks:

American Sheep's Milk Cheeses
Barinaga Ranch Baserri
Carr Valley Cave-Aged Marisa
Hook's Little Boy Blue
Lark's Meadow Farms Ducinea
Shepherd's Way Farms Big Woods Blue
Swiss Cheeses
Andeerer Gourmet
Bavarian Cheeses
Anton's Liebe Rot
Bavarian Munster
Bavarian Limburger
Belgian Cheeses

Top Trend: Sticking Stateside

American artisanal cheese is a category that simmers with potential. Even European-born shoppers no longer believe that all the best cheeses come from Europe. If you aren’t allocating significant space to domestic selections, you’re missing out on sales. From those first tentative steps with fresh chevre, American cheesemakers have conquered more challenging territory. “I’m seeing an explosion of styles being produced and a significant increase in the state of the art,” says Matt Rubiner, owner of Rubiner’s Cheesemongers in Great Barrington, Mass.

Hyper-local is still hip, but merchants are broadening their view, reports Brad Dubé, president of Food Matters Again, a Brooklyn, N.Y., importer and distributor. New York City retailers who used to insist on “cheese from nearby” are now snapping up artisanal selections from Wisconsin, Idaho and beyond. Dunbarton Blue from Roelli Cheese Haus in Wisconsin and Big Boy Blue and Pluvius from Washington State’s Willapa Hills Cheese have scored big in the Big Apple for Dubé.

Sheri LaVigne, proprietor of The Calf and The Kid in Seattle, sees a bright future for Rush Creek Reserve, a Vacherin-style creation from Wisconsin’s Upland Cheese. “The trial run was unbelievable, and I already have customers clamoring for this year’s run,” wrote LaVigne in an email last fall. This raw-milk cheese, a sibling to the prize-winning Pleasant Hill Reserve, is made only in autumn, when the cows’ milk spikes in fat and protein.

American sheep’s milk cheeses finally constitute a legitimate, if minuscule, category. Almost every expert questioned mentioned this niche as a trend—then acknowledged that it might just be wishful thinking. But the critical acclaim for sheep’s milk beauties like Barinaga Ranch’s Baserri (California), Carr Valley’s Cave-Aged Marisa (Wisconsin), Hidden Springs Creamery’s Ocooch Mountain and Driftless (Wisconsin), Hook’s Little Boy Blue (Wisconsin), Lark’s Meadow Farm’s Dulcinea (Idaho) and Wisconsin Sheep Dairy’s Dante make the case that this under-represented class is on the rise.

“We’ve been doing really well with the Big Woods Blue,” produced by Shepherd’s Way Farms in Minnesota, says Rachel Cohen, cheese buyer for Tomales Bay Foods, a West Coast distributor. This luscious sheep’s milk wheel ranked among the top of its class in 2011’s American Cheese Society competition. “It’s shining at the moment,” Cohen adds.

Cohen also foresees strong interest in cheeses from the American South, such as the tomme-style raw-milk Cumberland from Sequatchie Cove Farm in Tennessee. “The American Cheese Society conference being in Raleigh this year is wildly appropriate,” Cohen notes.

Renaissance for European Cheeses

For the first time in years on this storied cheese continent, the buzz centers on Switzerland. A change in the subsidy structure has roused Swiss cheesemakers from their decades-long dormancy. Government policies that actively discouraged innovation have been dismantled, freeing these skilled artisans to explore recipes beyond Gruyere, Emmental, Appenzeller and raclette. Thus the emergence of treasures like Heublumen, a raw cow’s milk wheel aged in hay; the washed-rind Senne-flade and bark-wrapped Försterkäse; the organic alpine-style Andeerer Gourmet; and the exquisite Chällerhocker.

“The big star of the year has to be Chällerhocker,” says Chester Hastings, cheesemonger at Joan’s on Third in Los Angeles. “The cheese is so complex, so rich, so nutty. Poor cave-aged Gruyere never stands a chance when this cheese is available.”

Shelli Morton of Crystal Food Import in Massachusetts expects big sales this year for Swiss cheesemaker Willi Schmid, who produces a goat’s milk reblochon and the raw-milk Jersey Blue, named the World’s Best Jersey Cheese in 2010.

From Italy,Casa Madaio’s cheeses are gaining traction, says Morton. “Over the years, I have tried unsuccessfully to sell their cheeses, and suddenly the time has come,” she says. Casa Madaio’s Ficaccio, a fig leaf–wrapped and raffia-tied wheel made from cow and buffalo milk, is certainly a head-turner.

France, Italy, Spain and Britain continue to dominate the import category, but other countries are gaining a foothold. This could be the year that puts Bavarian cheese on the map. Matt Rubiner is finding takers for Anton’s Liebe Rot, a Bavarian washed-rind beauty; others mention Bavarian Munster and Limburger, worthy cheeses from a region heretofore best known for Cambozola.

Jennifer Gillis of CWI Specialty Foods, a San Francisco Bay Area importer and distributor, predicts a banner year for Belgium’s artisan cheeses, such as Cabricharme, a washed-rind wheel from goat’s milk; the sheep’s milk Wavreumont; and the highly original blue-veined Grevenbroecker. I have sampled all these cheeses, and I share her enthusiasm. They are uniformly sublime.

Aging Aficionados

If there’s a word of the year in the cheese business, 2012’s is surely affinage, the art of cheese-aging. Food Matters Again’s Brad Dubé argues that acclaimed affineurs such as Jean d’Alos and Hervé Mons have helped revive American sales of French cheese, which had sagged in the wake of conflict over the Iraq war. “American cheese buyers have opened up again to the French,” Dubé says. “They all want to find new, interesting cheeses from affineurs.”

The return of these expertly nurtured French cheeses is on its way, Dubé predicts, as importers note the successes of affineurs’ efforts. The affineur’s prestige makes it possible to sell little-known regional cheeses such as Clisson (Tome d’Aquitaine) to chefs and consumers who might otherwise choose a more familiar AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée) cheese.

Outlook Good

Perhaps the safest prediction for specialty cheese in 2012 is that sales will climb. The flood of new books, classes, shops and blogs devoted to high-quality cheese suggests that consumer interest is mounting. Despite the still-troubled economy and retail prices that can top $40 a pound, specialty cheese remains a draw.