When smear-ripened cheese is stored in airtight packaging, it often loses some of its flavour and becomes sticky. A new manufacturing process resolves this problem. It was devised with the help of a stocking.
The Assisted Patent Search provided clarity about patentability. Hans-Peter Bachmann, research project manager at Agroscope Copyright: Agroscope
Roughly half of Switzerland’s cheeses are smear-ripened. They are smeared with a mixture of water, salt and, in some cases, microbial cultures. This process is used for traditional cheeses, such as Appenzeller, Tilsiter and Raclette, but also for numerous local and regional specialities. It produces an orange-brown rind consisting of microflora – the cheese smear – which breaks down the cheese’s lactic acid and thus contributes to its characteristic flavour.
Currently, 90% of cheese is distributed pre-packaged, and only 10% is sold over the counter. When cheese is stored in airtight packaging, the microflora in the smear die off, the cheese may become sticky, and an off-odour develops. “That was what prompted me to look for a solution. A great product like Swiss cheese is packed when at its best, and it then loses some of its quality. The cheese sector noticed this too,” says Hans-Peter Bachmann, a research project manager at Agroscope.
The eureka moment with a stocking
Attempts to resolve the issue drew inspiration from the manufacturing process for Vacherin Fribourgeois AOP. A piece of gauze is wrapped around each cheese wheel to hold it together during the ripening process. When the gauze is removed, most of the smear disappears. However, the characteristic orange-brown colour remains. Hans-Peter Bachmann and his team went a step further and wrapped the cheese up completely. They looked for a flexible material that would bind with the cheese, so that the microflora would grow on the material and not beneath it. A team member eventually came up with the idea of using a stocking. It soon became clear to everyone involved that the stretchy material was well suited to the cheese experiment. The result was gratifying: less mould formed on the cheese. “The fibres act as physical barriers against the spread of mould mycelium. This means that the cheese doesn’t need so much care,” says Hans-Peter Bachmann.
The process has another positive side effect: the tissue reduces water loss and thus speeds up the ripening process. “Our process gives cheese a softer texture and a more intense flavour,” says Hans-Peter Bachmann.
Assisted Patent Search
“Once we made this discovery, we wanted to know how unique our process is,” says Hans-Peter Bachmann. He visited the IPI for an Assisted Patent Search, aiming to find out whether the innovation could be patented.
He was immediately caught up in the momentum of the search with the patent expert. “She was well-prepared and was very familiar with the subject area,” recalls Hans-Peter Bachmann. He was impressed by all the patent data that was unearthed with the help of search tools, search terms, etc. “The patent expert discovered other cheese ripening patents that were new to me. That provided us with very useful information for our project.” As well as providing clarity about patentability, the Assisted Patent Search also gave the Agroscope team inspiration for further projects.
“Writing patent specifications is a fine art”
A year ago, Agroscope filed a patent application with the European Patent Office. The researchers contracted a patent attorney to do the preliminary work: “I could never have written the patent specification myself. It’s a fine art,” says Hans-Peter Bachmann. The results of the Assisted Patent Search were also very valuable for the patent attorney.
The process is now being implemented in conjunction with partners from the cheese and textile industries. As there is a wide variety of cheese types and the premises used for cheese ripening are very different, practical input from cheese-makers is needed. The dairies involved have been given exclusive use of the process until the end of 2025 in return for their cooperation. It is not yet clear how the patent will be managed after that.
Hans-Peter still grins when he thinks back to their first attempts: “The idea with the stocking was unusual, but it worked from the start. It was more than just a crazy idea.” The lack of water loss and the superb quality of the cheese speak for themselves. The process no longer uses stockings, of course, but rather a biodegradable textile from a plant that grows in Switzerland and therefore fits well with the cheese’s image. Hans-Peter Bachmann is keeping all further details to himself.