October 23, 2013

Natural Foodie: Here's to locally made artisanal vegan cheese

Betsy Nelson makes her own dairy-free cheese with fermented nut milks.

By Avery Yale Kamila

When Betsy Nelson decided to go vegan three years ago, she only missed one thing – cheese.

click image to enlarge

Betsy Nelson offers a taste test of her vegan fermented nut cheeses during a recent farmers market in Portland. She is working with students of Boston College’s Carroll School of Management to create a business plan to market her cheeses.

Avery Yale Kamila photo


Visit the website of Boston College lecturer Gregory Stoller at bclob.weebly.com/blog.html. Here he posts updates on the fledgling companies his students are working with, including Betsy Nelson’s nut cheese business.

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.

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