British cheese: The state of the sector in 2023

05 June 2023, 07:04 AM
  • The British cheese industry has faced a tumultuous few years, but Courtney Goldsmith finds that it is emerging stronger than before
British cheese: The state of the sector in 2023

Britain’s cheesemongers have well and truly had their mettle tested over recent years. From Brexit’s disruption of international trade to the transformation of the retail landscape in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, where do cheesemongers, makers and distributors stand today?

After Brexit, retailers look to local
The Brexit vote took place nearly seven years ago, but the UK’s exit from the European Union is not yet done and dusted. The finer details of the monumental legislation are still being ironed out, and no one knows this better than cheesemakers, mongers and distributors, who are exposed to every twist and turn when it comes to trade with Europe.

For small, artisan producers looking to share their cheese with the Continent, Brexit caused havoc. Those who relied on the growing European appetite for British cheeses to boost their profits were hit hard, and some made the decision to pull out of the exporting market. Others found new ways to make their businesses work abroad.

Late last year, British cheesemaker Cheshire Cheese Company was bought by Joseph Heler Cheese to maintain its presence in the EU. The small maker benefitted from its larger rival’s established operations and distribution hub in the Netherlands. “The sad thing is that small businesses like ours cannot have access to the EU,” Simon Spurrell, founder of Cheshire Cheese Company told The Guardian at the time of the deal.

“Selling the company is a great solution… it secures the future of the company with a historical cheesemaker.” Those businesses that are large enough to spread the costs of new requirements will be better off, but Britain’s small-scale farmhouse cheesemakers aren’t the only ones feeling the bite: research by the Centre for Business Prosperity at Aston University found that as many as 42% of the product varieties previously exported to the EU have disappeared since January 2021.

This was caused by a large number ceasing to export to the EU or streamlining their product ranges. On the other side of the coin, cheesemongers importing small amounts of European cheeses continue to face challenges. While UK dairy imports returned to pre-Brexit levels in 2022, rising 8% from 2021, hold-ups at UK ports are causing headaches for British cheesemongers looking to sell Continental favourites.

“Brexit continues to cause some issues, generally delays at Dover or Calais, with deliveries taking weeks rather than days,” Jen Grimstone-Jones, cheesemonger at Cheese Etc, The Pangbourne Cheese Shop tells Speciality Food. But while Continental cheeses undeniably deserve a place on cheesemongers’ shelves, there is a silver lining for
local cheese hounds.

“Whilst it’s frustrating,” Jen continues, “in a way it has helped our British cheeses as they are more readily available.” Indeed, cheesemongers and delis that only import small amounts of European cheeses have found the new red tape and costs discouraging, leading them to expand their stocks of British varieties.

Highland Fine Cheeses reported to the BBC that its sales had been boosted by Brexit as shops were stocking more British-made cheeses. From the consumer perspective, shopping local also means avoiding the costs importers are forced to pass on.

In Mintel’s 2022 UK Cheese Report, nearly half agreed that Continental cheeses had become more expensive since Brexit, and 64 percent of those surveyed said they would be interested in British versions of European-style cheeses, like British-made Mozzarella.

Svetlana Kukharchuk, owner of artisan cheese retailer The Cheese Lady in Haddington, Scotland, agreed that demand for local cheese is growing – and in some cases that demand is outpacing supply. “We sadly cannot offer local cheeses as there are no farmhouse or artisan cheesemakers in our region.

However, we are selling more and more Scottish and British cheese in general,” she tells Speciality Food. She sees big opportunities for cheesemakers in Scotland. “As a country we can definitely offer more farmhouse and artisan cheese to local consumers and to the rest of the world, so I hope that in the coming years we will see more and more wonderful and unique artisan cheeses emerging from Scotland.”

Covid’s lasting impact
The Covid-19 pandemic was another tale of two halves for Britain’s cheese industry. Businesses that relied on foodservice faced huge challenges, with some farmers even forced to dump milk as supply chains crumbled. Yet for many fine cheese retailers, Covid-19 was a time of feast, not famine.

In fact, many small operators had to quickly master online ordering systems, packing and delivery in order to cope with the huge amounts of demand that emerged. Following that time of frenzied sales, how are cheesemongers faring today? “Covid for us was a boom,” Jen says. “We were open every day through every lockdown and whilst it was hugely hard work and extremely challenging, we did our utmost to be there for our customers.”

The pandemic also kick-started new relationships with customers. “Our online sales increased by over 100%, and many of those customers still order regularly now,” Jen says. Not only did retailers tot up impressive sales figures, but the pandemic was also a time of blossoming collaborations and upskilling to improve operations and stay nimble to the ever-changing environment.

Looking back, some retailers believe this was a blessing in disguise. “As turbulent and challenging as both Covid and Brexit were,” Svetlana admits, “they made our business even stronger. We have learned to be flexible and quickly adapt to the market conditions and demands. Today, both Covid and Brexit have hardly any impact on our business.”

New challenges arise
That the British cheese industry has managed to cope with the turbulent times of the past few years is no mean feat. But while the path ahead is full of opportunity,
some dark clouds are hanging over the food and drink sector as the wider economy faces inflation and a cost of living crisis.

Cheesemongers are living with the reality of inflation in their shops. “Our utility bills are massively more than they were a few months ago, and this coupled with increases in wages after the last budget has meant that we’ve had to pass on more price increases to customers than we would like to,” Jen says. “We’re all hoping that energy bills will begin to go down and inflation will follow.”

And with consumers tightening their purse strings, it’s no surprise that cheese sales have been impacted. “The income squeeze will take its toll on cheese, with 42% of people who eat and buy cheese saying money concerns would make them spend less,” says Angharad Goode, research analyst at Mintel.

But despite this, there are still opportunities for high-quality cheeses. “How they pack a punch on flavour remains a key message to explore, to leverage the oft-seen ‘trading up while trading down’ mindset,” she added.

Jen isn’t worried that customers will turn their back on quality cheese. “Our customers are all feeling [the cost-of-living crisis], but many of them see good-quality,
artisan cheese as something they are willing to continue to pay that bit extra for,” she says.

Svetlana agrees that consumers will make exceptions for small luxuries like cheese. “We have noticed that some customers have reduced their cheese consumption and go for smaller wedges of cheese, but overall it looks like our customers still continue to consider good cheese a must-have. I find this unsurprising, as cheese is an affordable luxury within reach for most people, unlike expensive purchases like cars and even mobile phones.”

Plus, during trying times what could be better than fantastic tasting cheese that supports artisan producers? “Cheese can bring the joy that people crave in times of financial stress,” says Svetlana, “making it a popular choice for those seeking a small but satisfying pleasure.”

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