Three key tips for innovating products and processes

How do you innovate products and processes in a sector that has, at its core, remained very traditional for years? One cheesemaker provides the perfect case study of how to innovate using three different approaches.

The dairy industry is a traditional one, the process of making milk, cheese and yogurt has remained largely unchanged for years.

For example, one of the world’s best known cheeses, cheddar, originates from the small village of Cheddar in Somerset and it has been produced there since the 12th Century.

Barber's is the world's oldest cheddar maker - image courtesy of Alex Steele Perkins.
Barber’s is the world’s oldest cheddar maker – image courtesy of Alex Steele Perkins.

Technology has aided cheesemaking and made it more precise, consistent and better tasting because its quality can now be measured.

But, at its heart it hasn’t changed in decades. So, how does an industry like cheesemaking innovate?

Do you create a new type, do you try to entice markets that do not traditionally consume cheese, or do you, because of the high amount of waste (in the form of whey) created in the cheesemaking process, turn that into something else to sell? Or do you attempt all three?

To answer these questions, we visited Barber’s, the world’s oldest cheddar maker who produce over 80 tonnes of cheese every day.

“The British market is more mature than many, but cheese is still a growth sector in the UK, certainly it is not on our agenda to be static,” says director at AG & RG Barber, Giles Barber.

Tip 1: Grow a global presence

With the food and drink industry, different markets have different tastes. The UK’s market for hard cheese is growing but it is saturated, and other countries like China and Japan are adapting to the idea of cheese.

Barber’s, which is situated in the rural village of Ditcheat, has trebled both the size of its turnover and output since 2000. The last five years has seen a significant part of that growth, with the business now exporting to over 30 countries.

Barber's is the world's oldest cheddar maker - image courtesy of Alex Steele Perkins.
We visited the innovative cheesemaker earlier this year – image courtesy of Alex Steele Perkins.

“Our exports, just over a decade ago, were point something of a percent of our sales, but now it is getting close to 20%,” Barber says.

“The biggest markets for cheese tend to be English speaking, or cultures that have similar tastes for hard cheese.

“Our biggest export market is the US, then Australia and Canada, but also a fair amount goes to the Far East to China, Taiwan, South Korea, we have exported there for four or five years now.

“We have a good foothold in those markets for when growth really picks up, part of it is dietary and people getting used to the concept of cheese, and part of it is the retailers in those countries adopting these products.”

Tip 2: Switch up your products

Even in traditional markets like cheese, there is still room to innovate products. “There are exciting opportunities within the growth of the British cheese market, there are sectors that are growing more rapidly like goat, halloumi, continental,” says Giles Barber.

“We have a process of looking at innovating cheeses, the challenge is finding the higher growth sectors of cheese and exploiting them.” One example of innovating current products is the addition of fruit within cheese, using dried cranberries or apricots in Wensleydale has gained favour in recent years.

Ford Farm in Dorset is also part of the Barber group and was acquired as the business’s second site in 2010, Barber explains innovation is about having the flexibility to try new things, even if they don’t work out.

“We are looking at innovation in goat’s cheese, as the market, and our position in it, grows. We might develop our products in Dorset, as it is a lower volume site, and then we make the cheeses here in higher volumes.”

Tip 3: Optimise by-products where possible

Optimising waste products or using a circular economy model is an increasingly popular trend in business, but more importantly it can save manufacturers time and money.

The team at Barber’s uses the entire milk fraction, the curds, whey and water. This is providing new revenue streams and utilising the factory’s current resources.

Barber’s uses the entire milk fraction – image courtesy of Alex Steele Perkins.

“Cheesemaking is the core of the business, all of the milk goes into that process, but about 85% of the milk is removed in the form of whey,” says Barber.

“We separate any residual butterfat from the whey, which goes into making farmhouse butter. We then take the liquid and process the whey protein through a sophisticated membrane and concentrate it to the right level to be used in infant formula products.”

The whey protein is then exported outside of the UK to infant formula factories in the Philippines, Thailand and Australia.

“The last part of the process is to separate the lactose. We separate this into a concentrated serum that then goes to either be fermented and distilled to make vodka, or sold to anaerobic digestion plants for energy creation.”

The final by-product created is water, which is used to wash down and clean the cheesemaking areas. Once that has been done, the water is then piped a few miles underground to a purification plant where it is cleaned to a standard that allows the firm to put it back into the water system. “It is often cleaner than the river it goes into, so it is improving the river water quality,” Barber says.

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