Artisan products have a new position in the US market as more consumers express interest about what’s in their foods and drinks—as well as where and how those items are produced.

“Mindfulness” has become a buzzword and it follows that consumers are increasingly mindful in their food choices. Knowing more about their foods and drinks helps many make decisions about issues of health, the environment (sustainability) and ethics. With this shift, more consumers are looking to traditional products and processes (such as fermentation) and considering those as more natural, healthy and authentic.


Grains of Truth

Bakery foods, particularly breads, have been an area where artisan-style products are gaining ground. These items are boosting interest and value in a mature market now dominated by large wholesale bakeries. For that matter, even large, wholesale manufacturers are taking to this trend with launches of artisan-style breads.

Back in 2016, Bimbo Bakeries USA launched a Sara Lee Artesano bread with thick slices, fine crumb and a soft texture. It was one of that year’s most successful launches with first-year sales of more than US$100 million. As well as the original offering, there now is a Golden Wheat variety and Artesano buns and rolls. 

More recently, Flowers Foods, Thomasville, Ga., followed this April 2018 with its Nature’s Own Perfectly Crafted line. It includes Thick Sliced White and Thick Sliced Multigrain varieties. Described as artisan-style, the company says the new breads are Non-GMO Project Verified and contain no artificial preservatives, colors, flavors or high fructose corn syrup. A company press release said the breads feature “thick slices, soft texture, fresh-baked aroma, distinctive flour dusting, and, of course… incredible taste.”

Meanwhile, it’s clear more bakers are turning to ancient grains to provide a more authentic and traditional image, as well as more nutritional benefits. According to Innova Market Insights data, more than 15%  of US bread and bread product launches—tracked during the 12 months to the end of March 2018—contained ancient grains with millet, quinoa and sorghum coming in as the leading varieties. Of course, many products featured a combination of these grains. Recent launches include Brownberry Organic 22 Grains & Seeds bread from Bimbo Bakeries, and Aunt Millie’s Best Grains 15 Whole Grain bread from Perfection Bakeries Inc., Fort Wayne, Ind.

Still more ancient grain options combine artisan appeal with a gluten free formulation. Recent launches here include a Gluten Free Ancient Grains Bread from Canyon Bakehouse LLC, Johnstown, Colo. (with teff, quinoa, amaranth and buckwheat); a Gluten Free Artisan Baker’s White Bread from Dr. Schar USA Inc., Lyndhurst, N.J. (with millet and quinoa); and a Gluten Free Delicious Multigrain Sandwich Bread from Udi’s Gluten Free, from Pinnacle Foods (with sorghum, amaranth and teff).

Overall, wheat-based breads made just with yeast now dominate in many parts of the world, including the US. Pardon the play on words but rising interest in artisan bread also has meant new life for sourdough options. 

Sourdough bread involves dough fermentation with naturally occurring lactobacillus bacteria and yeast. It has a mildly sour taste no longer present in most breads made with baker’s yeast. It also features better shelf life thanks to lactic acid from the lactobacilli. Meanwhile, overall consumer interest in the health and flavor benefits of fermentation also bode well for sourdough breads.

Recent launches include Pepperidge Farm Farmhouse Sourdough Bread from Campbell Soup Company; and Francisco International Extra Sourdough Loaf, Sourdough Sliced Bread and Sourdough Sandwich Rolls from Bimbo Bakeries USA.

Last but not least, interest in traditional, artisan and handmade products also is reflected in the pizza industry, where crusts tend to carry some of the same artisan attributes. More traditional methods of baking also have boosted the popularity of “stone-baked” options, for example. 

There is also a focus on other types of baking, however. Schwan’s Consumer Brands says its Freschetta Brick Oven Crust pizza line features “a fire-baked, square cut masterpiece inspired by the brick ovens of Italy.” Elsewhere, The Kroger Company’s Mariano’s grocery chain (Chicago area) offers a Take & Bake Veggie Pan Style Pizza with a handmade crust.


Cheese with Charm

Cheese also has a strong artisan heritage—emphasizing skilled cheesemakers’ hand-made methods and traditional craftsmanship. The resulting cheese may have a more complex taste than modern factory-produced lines, with many items that are aged and ripened to achieve unique flavor and texture characteristics. 

A 2016 study by the American Cheese Society found that there were more than 900 artisan, farmhouse and specialty cheesemakers in the US—most fairly small, with 74% of them producing 50,000lb a year or less.

In the modern world, definition has become more of a problem, but the American Cheese Society defines artisan or artisanal cheeses as those produced primarily by hand, in small batches, with particular attention to the cheesemaker’s art (using as little mechanization as possible). Artisan cheese may be made from all types of milk and may include various flavorings.

Examples of recent launches recorded by Innova Market Insights focus on handcrafted products, usually made in small batches. These include a Sweet Vanilla Cardona goat cheese from Carr Valley Cheese Company, La Valle, Wis.; La Bottega de Belgoioso Artigiano Classico handcrafted by BelGioioso Cheese, Inc, Green Bay, Wis.; Big John’s Cajun Cheese from Beehive Cheese Company LLC, Uintah, Utah; and a small block, handmade Original Cheese Jalapeno from Rogue Creamery, Central Point, Ore.


Crafted Quaffs

Beer represents another US growth category for artisan or crafted products. Interestingly, the US has spurred the global craft beer movement; and stateside, led a resurgence in US brewery numbers and ongoing growth in a market that has experienced flat to declining volumes. 

Craft brewers are defined as small, independent and traditional, according to the Brewers Association, with annual production of 6 million barrels or less; less than 25% owned or controlled by a beverage alcohol industry member that is not itself a craft brewer; and with beers majority derived from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation. 

There are reported to be more than 6,000 US craft brewers, including regional craft breweries, microbreweries and brewpubs. That figure is up from less than 2,500 in 2012. In 2017, those craft brewers accounted for 12.7% of US beer volume and sales of $26 billion out of an industry total of $111 billion. The craft sector also saw 5% volume growth in 2017 while the overall beer category fell slightly. 

At a time when consumers are embracing products that are authentic and local, craft breweries are benefiting. Most promote new beers and beverages as local, small batch and hand made.

There have been some hiccups in the market, however. Overall growth rates are apparently slowing—perhaps reflecting market saturation with the continuing influx of new brands. Consumers also are becoming more educated about the differences between independent craft brewers and craft-like brands from mass beer producers. 

A look at industry news headlines shows that—although they retain a craft image—many smaller craft brewers have been acquired by larger corporations.

These include Blue Moon, now part of MillerCoors; and Shock Top, Blue Point, Golden Road and Goose Island, all now part of AB InBev. According to IRI, Blue Moon was the leading craft beer brand through multiple retailers in 2017, ahead of Samuel Adams (Boston Beer Company), Sierra Nevada and New Belgium. 

From a product development standpoint, the craft market is characterized by the large number of seasonal and limited edition launches.

Sierra Nevada, for example, has a flagship Pale Ale line and other permanent brands. Yet it also offers a Hop Bullet Double IPA at the beginning of the year for the spring season, Summerfest for the summer, Oktoberfest for the autumn, and Celebration IPA for the festive season. Oktoberfest is of particular interest, as it is produced in collaboration with German craft brewer Brauhaus Miltenberger to present a 6.1% ABV golden lager with an “authentic, rich and layered malt flavor balanced by traditional German-grown hops.” 

More broadly, the craft movement also has spread to other beverage alcohol markets—including cider and spirits. It also is a growing force in carbonated soft drinks and the craft soda market. Craft soda companies tend to focus on careful ingredient selection, usually with a natural image, often also differentiating with more unusual flavors and blends.

Within the overall rise in artisan-style carbonates/craft sodas, there also has been some growth in specialized categories—with ginger ale as a good example. For starters, the category can leverage the traditional image of ginger for digestive health. This fact hasn’t been lost on big players, such as Canada Dry (Keurig Dr Pepper), which has developed larger pack formats and new offerings, like Ginger Ale with Lemonade. Another leading market specialist is Dr. Brown’s Extra Dry Ginger Ale from J&R Bottling & Distributing, Los Angeles.

There also is a wider availability of traditional brands such as Fentimans (ginger ale), Hollows & Fentimans (ginger beer) from the United Kingdom. Other artisan options include WBC Spicy Ginger Soda, from Lifestyle Beverages, Wood Dale, Ill.; Sprecher Fire-Brewed Ginger Ale, from Sprecher Brewing Co., Glendale, Wis.; and Brooklyn Crafted ginger ale and ginger beer products from a Brooklyn, N.Y., company of the name.

Similar trends have also been seen in root beer, with launches such as Island Root Beer from Maui Brewing, Maui, Hawaii; and The Original Bulldog handcrafted root beer from retro soft drinks specialist Orca Beverage Inc., Mukilteo, Wash.

Innova Market Insights identified “Mindful Choices” as one of its Top Trends for 2018 and it is this consumer focus on making responsible food choices that is helping to drive interest in artisan and crafted options. As consumers become more concerned about the processing of their foods, techniques perceived as being more natural—and reviving traditional production methods—will help to reassure those shoppers.

Originally appeared in the September, 2018 issue of Prepared Foods as Artisan Appeal.