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The Next Big Thing in Food? Artisanal Vegan Cheese

The healthful and sustainable artisanal vegan cheese industry is just beginning to bloom.

The healthful and sustainable artisanal vegan cheese industry is just beginning to bloom. As acclaimed vegan chef Tal Ronnen recently told me, cheese is "the last hurdle" for would-be vegans and the growing number of people looking to make the switch to plant-based diets.

In fact, the nascent artisanal vegan cheese industry is poised to become an integral part of an expanding specialty market: analysts have found that the number of vegans in the U.S. has doubled since 2009 and more than one-third of Americans are now looking for plant-based, vegetarian, and vegan alternatives to animal products such as cow-milk cheese and more healthful options than the highly processed vegan cheese products now available. Everyone from Gwyneth Paltrow to Mike Tyson now advocate for a whole food, plant-based diet with only minimal (or no) meat and animal products. Even the formerly Big Mac-munching Bill Clinton turned to veganism two years ago.

Yet even with veganism en vogue, our collective love of cheese was holding a lot of people back; American consumption of cheese has increased three-fold over the past generation. At the same time, processed cheese sales are declining, so together with the growing demand for vegan foods, a specialty vegan cheese at "cheese board standards"—as some industry-insiders call gourmet or high-quality cheeses—may be the Rosetta Stone to the vegan food industry.

It’s for these reasons that Ronnen recently co-founded an artisanal vegan cheese company called Kite Hill, whose products are featured on vegan menus at high profile restaurants like those at the Wynn Resort in Las Vegas and, in the coming months, at Whole Foods stores across the nation. Kite Hill cheeses are already available in select stores in California—they’re the only non-dairy products in the gourmet cheese department at Whole Foods.

Unlike other so-called vegan “cheese” products available commercially—which are essentially frankenfoods made to taste like cheese using highly processed methods and un-cheese like additives like potato maltodextrin or tapioca flour, as well a host of other chemicals—Kite Hill is one of the first companies to make their own nut-milk from locally-sourced almonds and macadamias, while also using traditional European cheese-making techniques to create an actual curd and whey from plant-derived cultures. One of Kite Hill’s co-founders, the acclaimed Stanford biochemist Dr. Patrick Brown, serves as the company’s microbiologist—he’s perhaps best known for being one of the first scientists to map human DNA. Their product is one that carnivores and treehuggers might choose. Cathy Strange, the Global Cheese Buyer for Whole Foods Inc. indicated to me that they cannot keep Kite Hill’s products in stock and “demand is high” for alternative, plant-based items such as this new generation of vegan cheese. For Ronnen, the response has been so great that he’s even fielding requests from Italy and France—traditionally not the kinds of countries open to non-dairy cheeses—to market his products in Europe.

For now, the United States—and specifically the Bay Area—is definitely the hotbed of the growing artisanal vegan cheese-making industry. Miyoko Schinner, the leading vegan cheese-making instructor in the country, says she has never experienced demand quite like this. The San Anselmo-based chef sells out her vegan cheese-making courses (at $65 for a three-hour class, or a week-long broader course for $800) and regularly leads seminars across the country on the topic. Her bestselling cookbook and primer on the topic, Artisan Vegan Cheese (Book Publishing), is already in its fifth printing since coming out less than a year ago, and it consistently ranks in the top five cheese-making books sold on Amazon (there are several). Schinner is also planning to launch her own line of artisanal vegan cheeses soon.

Silicon Valley is taking notice of this growing trend, too, and, in the case of Kite Hill, spearheading the investment. Owing to Kite Hill’s small-scale approach and embedded sustainability—nut-milk products reduce our reliance on animal farming and thereby have the potential to dramatically lessen carbon offsets created by factory farming—the San Jose-based Khosla Ventures is one of the primary investors in Kite Hill. The firm that has recently backed several green startups and innovative food companies (Beyond Eggs, Unreal Candy), and some have already experienced tremendous growth (perhaps not incidentally, the multi-billion-dollar tech phenom-turned-venture capitalist Vinod Khosla got his start by launching a soy milk company to service the many Indians who did not have refrigerators).

It’s too early to say how big the artisanal vegan cheese industry could grow, but from the looks of it, nut-milk specialty products may be the best thing to happen to vegan cheese since, well, the arrival of sliced bread.

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