“Cheeses” is the Answer

| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 
Beecher's
Kurt Beecher Dammeier,
shown in the Pike Place Market creamery and retail store of Beecher’s Handmade
Cheese, is counting on the appeal of artisan cheese making to carry Beecher’s
into its next market: New York City.

We’ve been turning milk into a variety of products for
years, but recently artisan cheese makers around Washington are churning it to
a higher level. There are more than 40 such cheese producers in Washington, up
from just seven in 2003. The industry is growing “fast and furious,” says Kurt
Beecher Dammeier, owner of Beecher’s Handmade Cheese.

Dammeier’s production facility and retail shop in Seattle’s
Pike Place Market is already a leader in the field. It will take a giant step
toward winning recognition for Washington cheeses when Beecher’s opens a shop
in New York next February.

While Darigold, the state’s lone mass producer, is still the
king of cheese here, with the roughly 465,000 pounds of bulk cheddar and
Monterey Jack cheese that it pumps out daily at its Sunnyside plant, there is
growing interest among Washingtonians in the variety and quality of the often
higher-priced cheeses provided by smaller producers.

Beecher’s is the leader of the new generation of quality
cheese makers. While Dammeier doesn’t disclose production stats, he leads the
state artisans with his one-of-a-kind cheddars. Last year, the company took
first place in the American Cheese Society’s annual competition in the mature
cheddars category with its Flagship Four-Year Aged cheese. It also won second
place in aged cheddars and third in smoked cheddars.

Other artisinal cheese makers include:

  • Ferndale’s Appel Farms, which produces 500,000 pounds
    annually and includes quark, paneer and Gouda in its stable of varieties. 
  • The Washington State University Creamery, a state program
    designed to promote the industry and which produces about 500,000 pounds of
    cheese per year, most notably of its popular sharp cheddar, Cougar Gold, that
    becomes sharper as it ages.
  • Mt. Townsend Creamery of Port Townsend, which produces
    78,000 pounds of cheese per year and focuses on softer, distinctively flavored
    cheeses such as its Trailhead tome-style cheese and Cirrus camembert.

All these companies are competing for market share with more
traditional producers of fine cheeses in Europe as well as from California,
Vermont and Wisconsin.

These new cheese makers are tapping in to a growing taste
for fine cheeses to go with everything from fine wines to fine cooking. The
difference between artisan and mass-produced varieties is like the difference
between Mac & Jack’s and Budweiser beer, Dammeier says. While major
producers take varieties of milk from an array of farms, mix it together and
put it through a two-block-long automated cheese maker to keep costs down, the
artisan makers take the opposite approach. Artisan cheese makers use milk from
a single farm (using different breeds of cows for different styles of cheese),
make the cheese by hand in an open vat and age it longer.

Not only does the use of local milk help support local dairy
farmers, it can be a way to insulate farmers from a commodity-driven business.
John Appel of Appel Farms uses his own 250-head herd to create his products,
some of which are sold nationwide.

Mt. Townsend Creamery co-owner Matt Day says supporting a
local dairy is a win-win situation. “It is nice to give the dairyman some price
stability, and from our angle, we want to be able to tout that relationship and
the quality of the milk that we are working with,” he explains.

Blair Thompson, a spokesman for the Washington State Dairy
Products Commission
, says that with 30 to 40 percent of the state’s annual 5.2 billion
pounds of milk being used for cheese making, the artisinal products don’t
account for major volume, but help plenty with marketing the industry. “We see
artisan cheese makers broadening the palate” in the state, he says, thus
creating a larger market. “Any dairy food consumption helps.”

When Beecher’s opened in 2003 with its popular Flagship
cheese, Dammeier brought a different model to the artisan movement—he took
non-mass-produced cheese to the masses. Instead of starting production in a
low-cost area, he opened in the heart of Pike Place and put cheese making
behind glass walls for all to see. That marketing strategy helps drive consumer
interest in quality cheese. Plus, the free samples at retail stores don’t hurt.

Beecher’s expansion to New York aims to build on what
Beecher’s already has, just in a much larger market. “Right now we are a big
fish in a small pond and it would be fun to be in a big pond,” Dammeier says.
He believes it will be equal parts work and fun to be operating in the heart of
Manhattan.

While Dammeier doesn’t anticipate as much foot traffic at
his proposed Manhattan store—to be located in the Flatiron District at 900
Broadway and East 20th Street
—as he gets at Pike Place Market, he is banking on
“as many buyers and less lookers” in a plant twice the size of the one in
Seattle that will produce 50 percent more cheese.

Whether in Seattle, Ferndale or New York, artisan makers
need wholesale distribution for large-scale success. Roughly 80 percent of
Beecher’s cheese is sold wholesale and distributed in grocery stores and
restaurants. The other 20 percent is sold at its store. Appel Farms sells 90
percent of its product wholesale, while Mt. Townsend has a 60-40
wholesale-retail split.

Appel, who also opens up his cheese making process to the
public, says that the state’s affluent population has started to understand
that the world has much to offer beyond cheddar. “The U.S. population as a
whole has become more and more interested in trying different flavors and
textures,” he says. “There are a lot of differences, even in milk. There is
variety out there instead of just a commodity like cheddar.”

The fact that restaurants have gotten on board helps too.
“We are catching up with Europe [in cheese sophistication] and cheese makers
are capitalizing on that,” Appel says. “And it is driven by the fact that [the]
milk [market] is a rollercoaster. If you want value added, find something
unique that Tillamook [County Creamery Association] isn’t doing,” he adds,
referencing the Oregon-based 110-dairy cooperative.

To keep up with demand, the nearly five-year-old Mt.
Townsend Creamery is planning a new facility that will increase production
fivefold. “People who otherwise wouldn’t purchase [specialty] cheese would be
more inclined to purchase or taste it if it is from a local cheese maker,” Day
says. “There is a market out there for good cheese and less conventional
products that are different from other locally made cheeses.”

Along with a developing understanding of different flavors,
the public is starting to understand that where food comes from is important,
too. “We are making it right in front of them,” Dammeier says. “It is pure food
with no additives. If they understand how their food is made, then they will
change the way they spend money.”

And, in the end, consumers spending money is
what keeps artisan cheese makers thriving and growing. All the way to New York
City.

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