When Betsy Nelson decided to go vegan three years ago, she only missed one thing – cheese.
Sure, the grocery stores sell vegan cheeses. They come in slices or shreds and look like processed dairy-based cheeses, but the similarities tend to end there.
“A lot of people say to me, ‘I would go vegan, but I can’t give up cheese,’” said Nelson, 31, who lives on Munjoy Hill in Portland. “That was the thing I missed, too.”
To satisfy her taste for cheese, Nelson began making small-batch, artisanal cheeses from fermented nut milks. Her soft cheeses can be served on bread or crackers and pair well with fruit and wine. They are totally dairy free.
“I primarily use cashews, and I’ve done some with almonds and macadamia nuts,” Nelson said. “Recently I’ve been experimenting with sunflower seeds.”
Nelson begins by creating a fermentation starter using sprouted grains of Maine-grown hard winter wheat and water. She then adds this soup of beneficial bacteria (known as rejuvelac in the fermentation world) to homemade nut milk, and the bacteria cause the milk to separate into curds and whey. By spooning out the curds, Nelson forms her dairy-free cheeses.
She began making these fermented nut cheeses for herself, but soon friends and family raved about her creations and encouraged her to explore whether or not there was a market for a raw, vegan cheese in Maine.
In recent years, vegan restaurants and small startups from Brooklyn to Los Angeles have begun selling fermented vegan cheeses to local customers. One of the larger companies is Kite Hill, whose fermented nut cheeses can be found side-by-side artisanal dairy cheeses in the cheese section of many Whole Foods stores in California.
Encouraged by the positive reviews from friends, Nelson has decided to find out if Mainers are ready for artisanal vegan cheese.
In September, Nelson hosted a taste test at the Portland Farmers Market in Monument Square, where she solicited feedback on her dairy-free cheeses. Her spread included three vegan cheeses. Two of them – one that was similar to goat cheese and one that was similar to brie – were Nelson’s creations, and the third was a store-bought cheese she used as a sort of control.
“People were really excited,” Nelson said of the taste test results. “Some people had tried vegan cheese before and some had not. Of course, the vegans were really excited. But I did get a lot of omnivores who said it tasted really good.”
Some of the taste testers said the texture was a little off in the goat cheese, and Nelson used that feedback to tweak the recipe. She intends to hold more taste tests before launching her products.
“People kept telling me that if you have a vegan in your life and you’re having a party you have the vegetable platter and hummus and nothing else (that’s vegan),” Nelson said. “This cheese would fill that void.”
Her working title for the cheese line is Culture.
More recently, a group of MBA students at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management selected Nelson’s vegan cheese company idea and will use the concept to develop a comprehensive business plan for her. Part of an annual event at Boston College, the program pairs teams of second year MBA students with local entrepreneurs.
Gregory Stoller, a lecturer at the business school, has run the program for the past 10 years. He finds entrepreneurs to present their business ideas to the students, who then bid to be part of the team working on one of the ideas. This year there were 35 presentations and 18 were selected by the students for their projects.
Stoller said a former student referred Nelson to him.
“What I liked about her idea is that it’s just so unique compared to the sorts of food ideas I see coming to the program,” Stoller said.
The students obviously agreed.
“Betsy not only did great in her presentation, but she also brought samples of her cheese for the students to taste,” Stoller said. “And it actually tasted really good.”
At the end of the semester, the student teams present their plans to a panel of business and legal experts and winners are chosen.
But Nelson’s isn’t worried if her team doesn’t produce the winning plan. For her, the ability to get a well-researched plan crafted with input from Boston College business professors and law students is a windfall.
“It’s really exciting because I don’t know how to write a business plan,” said Nelson, whose professional experience is in the worlds of food and wellness. “The reward is the great base of knowledge these students and their professors are bringing to the table.”
She’s been meeting with the students and providing them with her vision, but they’re doing all the heavy lifting – including taking some of her products to conduct their own taste tests.
Nelson is currently enrolled at Southern Maine Community College with plans to eventually transfer to the University of Southern Maine to study holistic wellness. To pay the bills, Nelson holds two part-time jobs: prepping food for the Bite into Maine food truck and manning the front desk at the Body Architect health club in Portland.
By next summer, Nelson wants to begin distributing her cheeses in the Portland area, with hopes of eventually distributing her product throughout the northeast.
“I want to start with two strong products and then have a full line of artisanal cheese,” Nelson said.
Her initial products would be the brie- and goat-style cheeses she has been testing with friends and family and at the farmers market. But to get her products to market by next summer, Nelson needs to check off a number of items on her to-do list.
This includes having her cheeses analyzed for safety, shelf life and nutritional content at the University of Maine’s food testing lab.
“The product is small batch and it’s a fermented so it needs to be monitored in the same way as if you’re brewing beer or wine,” Nelson said.
She’s also searching for a licensed commercial kitchen and needs to think about packaging. Of course the biggest item on her list is coming up with the necessary start-up cash. She’s thinking of applying for small business loans and launching a Kickstarter campaign to tap into the robust crowdsource funding market.
Nelson sees this venture as a way to bring together her interests in food and wellness.
“I think food is a great way to deal with all kinds of health issues,” Nelson said. “And there’s nothing I enjoy more than being in the kitchen and cooking.”
Avery Yale Kamila is a freelance writer who lives in Portland, where she hopes to one day purchase a locally made fermented nut cheese. She can be reached at: