Monday, February 28, 2011

Embracing the Middleman

Middleman: it has bad connotations. Someone who’s taking a cut when a deal is made. Someone who’s not really adding value, just making sure business passes through them. Advert after advert impugns the middlemen. Factory pricing—We go direct to save you money! We are taught that middlemen are economic parasites.

In that context it might seem odd that two young artisan cheese makers would want to enter the middleman business. After all, even if there’s money in it—and what cheese maker doesn’t need money?—for Andy and Mateo Kehler there was very little soul, cachet, or fame, three things they’d achieved modest amounts of with their dairy, Jasper Hill, and its justifiably popular cheese Bayley Hazen.

Toward the end of the last decade, however, just as the housing bubble was leaking gas, they took the leap into middlemandom, building an underground cheese warehouse on their property in Greensboro, Vermont. Warehouse is a poor word since, in the middleman’s world, it signifies a place where inventory sits until people need it, all the while getting progressively worse. In the Kehler’s warehouse, on the other hand, the inventory gets progressively better.

In the seven vaults the Kehlers built, the cheese transforms. It ages. Moisture evaporates, concentrating flavor. Enzymes multiply and work, creating complex amino acids. And people tend the cheese, scrubbing, washing, scraping and turning the wheels so they don’t get too dry, too wet or too moldy.

This activity, along with taking customer orders and coordinating shipments, is a distraction for most cheese makers. They don’t want to do it. They want to make cheese, full stop. The activity also costs a lot of money. To have a room for storage is one thing; it costs some money. To sit on the cheese for six months to a year and a half with no one paying you for it; that costs real money. As Ed Behr wrote in the Art of Eating, “in cheese making the biggest profit lies in the initial transformation from liquid to solid. Much less profitable is aging, because it takes so much labor and ties up money.”

This is not something unique to American cheese makers. European makers have had the same problem for over a century. They created a similar solution. Comté is sold from a middleman. Gruyère, too, and many other mountain cheeses. So is Parmigiano-Reggiano. The middleman allows the cheese maker to do what they do best. The middleman solves the cash flow issue.

The Kehlers have another goal in being a middleman, a goal with a bit of soul, so to speak. They want to grow the number of Vermont cheese makers. Right now there are less than a handful and it’s expensive to start a cheese making business, especially for a cheese that needs to age. Mateo said, “We want to lower the barriers to entry, so we’re taking out the biggest amount of labor.”

The Kehlers buy young cheeses from Doug and Debby Erb at Landaff and Marcel Gravel at Cabot Creamery, among others, age and care for them in their caves, then select wheels for us. You can find both of them  here.

No comments: