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.

Friday, February 25, 2011

It's time for my close up.

From a series of articles in the upcoming Zingerman's catalog featuring American cheese.

American Cheese Takes the Stage

Twenty years ago you could count the number of great American cheeses on two hands. Maybe that’s exaggerating, but not by much. Back then, being a small-scale cheesemaker was like being a beekeeper—a strange hobby, with little reward or recognition. Half the cheesemakers crafted nearly identical tiny wheels of goat’s milk cheese, which, given that we had no American goat cheese tradition to speak of, cheese shops insisted on calling chevre, the French word for goat. If you went into any serious cheese shop in America in 1994 chances are the only American cheeses you found were chevres and cheddars.

Have things ever changed.

At Zingerman’s Deli, cheesemonger Carlos now offers over a hundred American cheeses, almost half his total inventory. At the American Cheese Society’s annual conference judges had to wade through nearly 1,500 American cheeses to pick winners in 22 categories. In July, I attended a cheesemonger’s event in a warehouse in New York that had all the buzz and fun of an illegal, underground concert. It was packed with people watching other people cut cheese.

What has happened?

It’s impossible to point to one thing that’s given cheese such a spotlight. There is, however, a network effect among cheesemakers and cheesemongers that is different than any other I’ve seen in the food business. For the last two decades, dedicated merchants have educated a gang of cheesemongers. They’ve taught customers what good cheese is and how to buy it. The customers, in turn, have demanded better cheese. The cheesemongers have given feedback to the makers, who’ve improved their cheese. Cheesemongers and makers are thick as thieves. When I go to trade shows or food trips the cheese people all hang out together. They’re like a mafia. They have their own language and customs. They aren’t exclusive, though. Anyone can join. Just make or sell cheese, take it seriously,  you’re in.

I give credit to our currency for the transformation, too. The dollar was relatively strong through the 1990s. It made great European cheeses relatively cheap to import. John Loomis, who made Great Lakes Cheshire—unsuccessfully—at that time told me, “Great imported English cheshire, made by people with decades of experience, retailed at $20 a pound. I was selling a local cheshire, made in Ann Arbor for 8 months, and it cost fifty percent more. I couldn’t compete. I quit after two years. But now, I started making it again, and with the British pound what it is, my cheese seems like a relative bargain.” That begs the question: what happens when the dollar rises again? It might make tough going for American cheesemakers. 

What about the move to buy local? It certainly hasn't hurt. Many cheesemakers have found they can make ends meet just by selling at a few farmer's markets. (I've seen the same story unfold in England, too.) Still, if the the dollar gets stronger the cheesemakers will have the same problem John faced:  experienced imported competition at low prices. At that point customers may be less concerned about having something nice and local and will look for something great to eat, something that makes them return to buy more.

Meanwhile, as eaters, all this is our win. We are in a golden age of American cheesemaking. Like Hollywood in the middle of the 20th century there is a glut of great talent. I just realized Oscar night is Sunday so — cheese and red carpet? Seems about perfect.