The last time I ate dairy-free cheese, I was in college and experimenting with a vegan diet. At the cafeteria salad bar, there was a giant tub of Tofutti, ready for slathering over bagels and 9-grain toast. It wasn’t exactly delicious, but it was dairy-free.
Today, times have changed. An abundance of non-dairy products have emerged that make use of far more flavorful ingredients like cashews, coconuts and almonds. Two pioneering non-dairy cheese companies are headquartered in the Bay Area, one of which, Kite Hill, is in Hayward. (The other is the Fairfax-based Miyoko’s Kitchen.)
Kite Hill is currently producing a line of six cheeses, all made from almond milk. There’s a ricotta, two flavors of cream cheese (plain and chive), and three “artisanal” cheeses: two chèvre-like Soft Fresh cheeses (plain and truffle-dill-chive) and one Soft Ripened cheese with a soft bloomy rind, a la Brie or Camembert.
Nosh took a tour of Kite Hill’s creamery to learn more about what distinguishes its product, and, of course, to have a taste of the cheese itself.
The Kite Hill offices and production facilities are located in a nondescript office park less than a mile from the Bay. The building still has a start-up feel; there’s plenty of office space and not many employees, and the creamery has room to grow. But the company is poised for rapid expansion.
Today, Kite is selling its individual cheeses nationally through an exclusive contract with Whole Foods and is providing non-dairy cheese to the grocer’s deli counter.
But just a few years ago, Kite Hill was a pipe dream in a bio lab.
Los Angeles chef Tal Ronnen, who has cooked for the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres, had long been preparing plant-based meals. However he was unable to find any non-dairy cheese that he enjoyed eating. So he teamed up with Patrick Brown, a biochemist at Stanford, and Monte Casino, then a cheese-making instructor at Le Cordon Bleu in Boston, to rethink non-dairy cheese from the ground up.
The trio knew that they wanted to make cheese from nut milk just as it is made from dairy milk — this idea is a departure from most of the plant-based cheeses on the market today, which are made from nut paste. “It is a subtle distinction, but it is the most important part of what we do,” said CEO Matthew Sade. “Our process follows a totally different perspective.”
But in order to successfully separate nut milk into curds and whey, the team needed to figure out the right types of cultures and enzymes to use. In addition, the balance of proteins, sugars, and fats in the milk needed to be just right in order to set.
Brown headed up the biochemistry side of the project, while Casino fiddled with the cheese-making. In the end, the team tested over 20 varieties of almonds and developed its own proprietary cultures and enzymes. The cultures are similar to those used in traditional cheese-making, but they are grown on a 100% vegetable-based medium.
Once Brown and Casino had figured out the basics, they hired Jean Prevot, formerly of Laura Chenel Chèvre. Prevot designed Kite Hill’s cheese-making facilities and brought the operations to scale. Kite Hill launched in 2013 with a line of three cheeses — the Soft Fresh and Soft Ripened that are still on the shelf, as well as a semi-firm Havarti-like cheese that is no longer available. Originally, Kite Hill made its cheeses from a blend of almond and macadamia nut milks, but have since shed the Hawaiian nut from the ingredient list.
Each Kite Hill cheese is made using traditional techniques. As Prevot told us on our tour, the only room in the factory that you wouldn’t see in a traditional creamery is the almond-milk room. There, the team grinds up the almonds and mixes the milk to exact specifications. It is then pasteurized and later inoculated with Brown’s cultures and enzymes
After the milk sets overnight, it is transformed into a thick block of curd. From there, it either takes a quick trip through a strainer to become cream cheese or ricotta, or it moves into molds to become one of the three artisanal cheeses. (The cream cheese also gets blended until smooth.)
The artisanal cheese-making rooms are where things really get interesting. Prevot designed two sets of three aging chambers for the cheeses. One set is used for both Soft Fresh cheeses, which only age for a few days, and the other is for the Soft Ripened cheese.
This cheese, the Brie-like one, is made by covering the cheese with penicillium fungi. Each round of cheese is first dried in one room to create the optimum penicillium environment, and then moved to a second room where the fungi are added. There the cheese sits for 10 to 15 days, gradually growing a fluffy white coat. According to Prevot, the aging timeline is different with every batch. He has to “adapt the process to the cheese itself,” just like he did when he was at Laura Chenel. Once the cheese has grown a suitable rind, it is transferred to a third room, where it is gradually cooled to storage temperature and then wrapped and packaged by hand.
Soft Ripened is Prevot’s favorite cheese. “It is our best product and the most challenging to make,” he said. It is a point of pride for him that he developed all of the steps and recipes himself, and wouldn’t have had it any other way. “It’s very exciting to be a part of a movement that’s creating something that’s never been made before,” he said. “I wouldn’t have come here to do a poor imitation of cheese.”
After the tour, Casino treated us to a lunch made with Kite Hill cheeses. We noshed on canapés with the cream cheese and seasonal vegetables; a cheese plate of the artisanal trio; a kale salad dressed with a Caesar-like blend of the truffled soft cheese, red wine vinegar, and garlic; and dumplings filled with ricotta and mushrooms served in a warm broth with mushrooms and spring onions. Besides the stand-alone cheeses, which do have a distinct texture and almond flavor, it was hard to tell that anything else was vegan.
That’s the idea, said Sade. In his view, Kite Hill should function as a first step towards a plant-filled, non-dairy diet for everyone — not just vegans. He hopes that the Kite Hill offerings will expand to include more “everyday” items like the cream cheese, at an accessible price point for consumers. “We have about 25 new items in the pipeline,” he said. “We’re overflowing with opportunity.”
As Kite Hill continues to grow, Sade hopes to wants to develop cheeses based on other nuts and perhaps other plants as well. This flexibility will likely be needed as California’s almond economy has come under scrutiny as a result of the drought. As Sade said, “We want to be a nut company, not an almond company.”
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