WCMA Notes: The Coming Curd Craze

Posted By: John Umhoefer WCMA News ,

Submitted by: John Umhoefer, WCMA Executive Director

In Wisconsin, it’s a trend too plain to see. America’s appetite for cheese curds is growing beyond its Upper Midwest roots, and a warm-from-the-vat tradition at least 70 years old is becoming a sales phenomenon.

It’s a two-pronged attack. Packaged natural curds are growing in retail grocery outlets and even stronger into foodservice channels, where breaded and fried curds are finding their way onto menus across the country and even overseas.

Ask an industry insider what product is made at the massive Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery flagship plant in Ellsworth, WI, and they’ll tell you barrel cheese. Ask Paul Bauer, Ellsworth CEO, and he’ll clarify: nearly 50 percent of Ellsworth cheese is milled cheddar formulated and packaged for sale as curd.

After flat growth in 2020, reflecting the cooperative’s heavy emphasis on chilled curd headed to breading operations and restaurants, Ellsworth curd sales are up 37 percent in 2021, Bauer said.

In the last 12 months, cheese sticks and fried cheese curd appeared on 50 percent more menus as a sandwich side and 36 percent more menus in a poutine appetizer at nationwide restaurant chains monitored by Technomic.

But let’s take a step back for the uninitiated.

Cheese curds are the end product of every cheese make, and cheesemakers have been scooping milled and salted curd directly from the vat or drain table for decades. Sid Cook, chairman at Carr Valley Cheese, remembers bagging up squeaky curds for farm patrons delivering their milk to the factory.

“We sell fresh curd in stores and stops all over south central Wisconsin, but the true aficionados come to the factory in La Valle to get them salty and warm,” Cook said.

Fresh curd, sold in a day or two, is a decades-old side hustle for dozens of cheese factories in Wisconsin. But Steve Stettler, President at Decatur Dairy in Broadhead, WI, and the first Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker certified in fresh cheese curd, considers high quality curd a challenge plants should embrace.

“I make my curd to be curd, not for forming,” Stettler said. “Curd will typically have a higher moisture, for the squeak, but not too high or you lose the texture. And curd will typically have higher salt.”

Like many manufacturers, Decatur has ventured into flavors or condiments added to the curd, such as buffalo, blue cheese, French onion and most recently ghost pepper. Decatur makes muenster curd and cheddar curd and the white curd outsells yellow 3:1.

At most factories, curd is a flagship product for an on-site store and regional distribution, but low in volume sales compared to truckload quantities of finished cheeses. But LaGrander’s Hillside Dairy, like Ellsworth Cooperative, has inverted that equation.

“Curds have grown tremendously for us,” said Ryan LaGrander, President of the Stanley, WI cheese factory. “All our growth – now over 25 million pounds annually – is cheese curd.” LaGrander’s produces formulas of cheddar – milled, salted and separated – for freezing in bulk. The end use is breaded curd for foodservice and at least one QSR chain, Culver’s, has highlighted LaGrander’s in their advertising.

“Curds are a hot market,” LaGrander noted. “We’re growing with existing customers and seeing 8-10 percent growth annually.”

Like LaGrander, Ellsworth’s Bauer described the food science of matching curds specs to breading types to give each restaurant chain the consistent cook, melt, stretch and flavor they demand. Curd size, moisture and salt all come into play.

Ellsworth sees its foodservice product moving outward from the Midwest, with inroads in markets as diverse as Florida, Alaska, Canada, China and Australia. Ryan LaGrander concurred with Australia: “People are going nuts for fried curds there.”

The next wave for curd is product packaged for longer shelf life in retail distribution.  Vacuum packaged or gas flushed offerings are lighting up IRI retail scanner data provided by Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin.

Retail sales of cheese curd finds sales rising from 3.9 million pounds in 2016 to 4.5 million pounds in 2020. Cheddar accounts for 73 percent of sales. Similarly, 72 percent of retail sales are unflavored curd while flavors, led by garlic, dill, herb and Cajun account for the remainder.

Bauer points out the cross-marketing potential for curds at retail: “In one Midwest chain, we sell curd for breading to the in-store restaurant, fresh curd for the grab-and-go area, long shelf-life product in the dairy case and breaded curds in the frozen section.”

Fresh, breaded or packaged, curd is expanding beyond its Midwest origins. “The craze isn’t over on cheese curd,” Stettler told WCMA. “People seek it out. Curd is still the love affair we see with people coming to the cheese store – it’s always been curds.”