Developing a taste for the big cheese
The big cheese is back, Barry's Bay Cheese owner Mike Carey says.
With the growing awareness of food, how it is made and where it comes from, as well as the trend to favour local produce, the Banks Peninsula cheese factory is seeing a resurgence in demand for specialist cheeses like its massive 36-kilogram rinded cheddars which take months or even years to mature.
Barry's Bay was the only cheese factory in New Zealand still producing the 36kg traditional rinded cheddars, and was ramping up production this year due to the renewed interest, Carey said.
These enormous cheeses were made that big to reduce moisture loss over the years of maturing. Unlike modern cheddars which are aged and sealed in plastic bags, these cheeses are cloth bound and then waxed before ageing.
Carey says it's a "real purist's cheese" as a unique flavour develops with the rinding.
There is a degree of risk in making a product that can take years to be ready for market.
"You can't make aged cheese. You make cheese, then you age it. You have to sort of take a punt we're going to be able to sell it."
But Carey and wife Catherine, who took over the business seven years ago, have seen a definite shift in customer demand for the more traditional sorts of cheeses.
There has been a lot more interest from Akaroa restaurants in the last year, wanting to source locally made products to reduce "food miles".
Customers were more discerning and sophisticated in their food shopping, Carey said. Sales of multipacks, including different cheese varieties, have surged. People would now put together a cheese board with a variety of premium cheeses for entertaining.
"I can tell you when the All Blacks play at home on a Saturday night in the winter because we sell a lot more cheese. We can see it in our sales that week."
However, while there is that growing customer sophistication around cheese and growing demand from local restaurants in Akaroa for Barry's Bay products, the cheese factory's sales were flat on last year, and the last few years had been quite tough, Carey said.
The costs of doing business continued to rise, while the rate of return did not necessarily keep pace.
In previous years the factory and retail store's roadside location on SH75 between Christchurch and Akaroa used to capture a lot of tourist trade.
But since the earthquakes, with fewer hotels, restaurants and tourists in Christchurch, the tourist trade has been thin.
Noticeably absent are the Australians.
"Normally over the winter there is a whole lot of Australians. We didn't really see any of those this year.
"If we were relying on the inner harbour and Akaroa, the last few years would've been pretty tough."
Carey said he was keen to see more top end restaurants and hotels reopen in Christchurch.
That would attract tourists to the city who would then travel to Akaroa for the day and stop en route to buy their cheese.
"We are just not seeing the volume of travellers that we traditionally did.
"We used to see a lot of free travelling independent Europeans coming over here and they'd come into the shop and it's no problem to spend a good few dollars."
Since the earthquakes the cheesemakers have had to concentrate on developing the business off the peninsula.
Eighty per cent of Barry's Bay cheeses go to New World and Countdown, but it also sells to boutique retailers like the Canterbury Cheesemongers, and boutique retailers in Auckland and Wellington.