The relationship of cheese, milk and China has always been hard. While northern Asian populations such as Mongolians and Koreans actually use milk and milk-based products a lot in their diet, for Chinese it is different.
Soy milk for them is a cheaper option. Yogurt is slowly growing on younger generations, but cheese is having really a hard time with Chinese. As a consequence, cheese has had no real success yet in China. The sweeter types, such as mozzarella, are more accepted. The smell of the most “hardcore” variants of cheese, though, keep away customers who don’t even mind smelly tofu.
But maybe things are about to change.
A Chinese cheese-maker: Le Fromager de Pekin
A company based in Beijing, Le Fromager de Pekin (from french, “The Cheese-maker of Beijing”) is recently growing in sales. This is achieved regardless of the competition of international brands.
Le Fromager de Pekin works on what in China is a niche product: french-styled cheese.
The company is promoting high quality cheese, meant for people who can really appreciate it. Its most smelly cheese has been compared by the founder, Liu Yang, to smelly tofu, as an acquired taste. Indeed, it is so for both products. At the beginning it is hard to accept why people would even appreciate them. But many will eventually accept its uniqueness and even grow to like its strong odor.
Liu Yang studied cheese-making in Corsica, France. Still, even if his products are based on that style, he doesn’t mind to add some Chinese flavor. In order to do that, he uses additional ingredients to meet his customer’s own tastes.
China and Cheese are starting to get along more
Foreign cheese, like wine, is getting more and more famous in China. Still, the challenge of Liu Yang is very hard. He needs to both help spreading the cheese culture in China and produce it locally. Various restaurants and consumers are choosing to buy their cheese made in China. The reasons? Simply because Liu Yang’s product is good, and manages to effectively influence Chinese food culture. On the other side, Liu Yang also appreciates feedback and applies it to satisfy more customers. Furthermore, the availability of fresh mozzarella is mandatory for any professional italian pizzeria. Delivery from Italy is extremely hard, especially for buffalo mozzarella, due to the long distance and the particular storage conditions. These factors help local suppliers as well.
This year Le Fromager de Pekin is taking part to Taobao Maker Festival. That’s where the most innovative products and producers of China are, brought together by Alibaba Group. His business just recently turned more seriously to the online business , making also educational material about cheese. This involved not only how to appreciate cheese in general, but also more specific tricks about how to combine this typical European product with Chinese food. This worked very well with Generation Z as well with other luxury consumers and educated adults with an international background. The result: he went from having to rely on 40% of his regular sales (as his business was not mostly online) to a sixfold increase in overall sales to customers.
A combination of Chinese and European culture: Hey Tea
Another example of cheese gaining popularity in China is the combination with tea.
Hey Tea, founded in 2012, is a famous cheese tea brand, which is comparable to the various milk tea types available all over China and in many other countries. The specialty of Hey Tea is to combine fresh fruit of the season with tea, milk and New Zealand cheese to produce a unique flavor. The combination of ingredients manages to meet Chinese taste, as their business bloomed to the point of reaching extremely long queues of even one or two hours for a glass of their “cheezo tea”.
Hey Tea gained traction 4 years after its foundation, in 2016, when it got additional funding, receiving in total more than 100 million RMB by IDG Capital (historically the first foreign investment fund to invest in China, with investments on Baidu, Tencent, cTrip, Bilibili and more) and angel investor He Boquan.
The company opened, in just 8 years, more than 280 stores all over China and in Singapore, and started to add also a bakery in its venues to provide more diversity of products.
The future of cheese in China lies on imports
While it is unlikely that most cheese will be made in China any soon, the growing interest will make more businesses try to employ it in their activity, like Hey Tea. And if demand grows, it is very possible that more and more local suppliers will appear, although this won’t be enough to immediately slow down cheese imports due to the amount of knowledge the West has on the topic.
In January, Chinese government decided to help the market by decreasing tariffs on importing cheese to a max of 8%, coming from 12-15% last year.
It is definitely a very good news for suppliers all over the world: both China and Chinese are opening up to cheese.
New Zealand is still the biggest exporter of cheese for China, but that could easily change as more and more producers will look to China as a market with huge potential.