- Ellie Phoebe Brown of Kinda Co. talks about being a vegan cheesemaker
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Being a vegan cheesemaker is not the career I ever imagined I would have, nor is it an easy one to explain to new people when, inevitably, they ask what it is that I do. People’s reactions all tend to follow similar patterns of surprise and questioning. The initial response is overwhelmingly that a dairy-free cheese can’t possibly taste very good. Not only is this the reaction of omnivores, but vegans too are often similarly unconvinced. I understand their hesitation. The reason I first began making vegan cheese myself was due to a total inability to find one that I liked when I stopped eating dairy three years ago. I can see how many other consumers will have been left disappointed in the past by promises of a delicious cheese substitute, only to be left with something bland and rubbery.
I’m happy to say that the world of vegan cheese has moved on significantly since I began, and there is now a far greater range of great tasting dairy-free cheeses available; I think this trend for more choice is having an overall positive impact on consumer awareness. Put simply, if a customer has previously tried a good vegan cheese, they will be far more likely to take a risk on trying another one. However, this growth of choice has not been a unanimously positive change for the dairy-free cheese aisle. The last few years have seen many of the large supermarkets responding to the increased demand for vegan alternatives by launching their own ranges of vegan cheese. Sainsbury’s famously exceeded their estimated sales targets by 300% when they launched their vegan cheese line a few years ago. However, the feedback we constantly hear from customers is that very few of the supermarket cheese replacements deliver on taste, even if they are more appealing for their lower price.
As an artisan brand our price point does tend to be higher, and there are various reasons for this, sadly none of which involve me driving a Porsche. As a small producer not only are we unable to commit to the huge scales of production that supermarkets are able to utilise, but our base ingredients and manufacturing processes are extremely different. Although you can make dairy-free cheese using a variety of different ingredients, we use nuts as the base for all the Kinda Co. cheeses – currently a mixture of cashews and almonds. Their high fat content makes them an ideal substitution for dairy, while their mild taste acts a blank canvas on which a variety of flavours can be added. In order to achieve the authentic cheesy taste we use traditional cheesemaking methods to culture and ferment our base blend, which is the key to recreating the familiar taste missing from many mass-produced vegan cheeses.
Vegan cheese is such a new area of food discovery and developments are happening at a fast rate. To put it into perspective, there is evidence of humans making dairy cheese as early as 5,500 BCE, while vegan cheese has only been made since the 1970s. However despite this short production history, some impressively innovative products are already available on the shelves of specialist shops. Vegan cheese companies are now making authentic mould-ripened Camemberts, and many of the vegan cheese brands in the US are further ahead than the UK when it comes to mimicking an authentic cheesy flavour in mass-produced products. With the field of vegan cheese constantly evolving and growing, I for one will be watching with fascination where it will take us next.
Originally published in Nov/Dec 18 issue.