Vegan cheeses: how artisan producers are shaking up the category

Food Spark speaks to five founders about their NPD, challenges with this type of cheesemaking and where dairy alternatives are headed next.

11 April 2019

For Lue Cuttiford, the founder of devilish-sounding Black Arts Vegan, it has never been a more exciting time to be playing in the vegan cheese field.

“I feel there is a handful of artisanal producers that are making really big waves and we are starting to develop and push out products that resemble cheese more than they have done before,” she tells Food Spark. “A lot of commercial brands, you look at the ingredients listed on the packaging and there isn’t any actual food in it. On the whole, we haven’t seen anything that is really creative except from small producers, so it’s a nice market to be a part of it. We are all trying to get to place where we can give vegan cheese a good name again.”

Cuttiford has been vegan for the past eight years, but unlike many other artisanal producers she tends to eschew using nuts as an ingredient, preferring to rely on soy.

“I realised after the fact that there wasn’t anyone else doing it and it frightened me as I thought no one was going to buy it – maybe people only want nut-based cheese,” she comments. “It’s difficult to get sexy melty cheese shots too, but I feel like people do want it.”

Her focus is vegan cheeses that can be used in cooking. There’s the White Witch, a soy milk, coconut oil and tapioca flour combo that is said to be delicious on pizza; Smoke on the Water, her take on red cheddar, which comes with a hit of hickory smoke; the basil-based Green Goddess, designed for sandwiches, wraps and burgers; and the Red Queen, a semi-mild cheese with notes of mustard and spicy smoked paprika.

There are two soft cheeses in the Black Arts Vegan range too: a tofu-based cheese called Cupid, which has a pop of apricot and sweet notes of citrus and cardamom, and Aphrodite, a Mediterranean-influenced, ricotta-style cheese that includes mint and is like a Cypriot anari.

“When experimenting there is never any enormous disasters, it’s just a learning process,” says Cuttiford. “Interestingly, the Aphrodite, that was me trying to make halloumi. I couldn’t get the correct texture developed, but this flavour I liked. This isn’t halloumi, but it’s delicious – it’s now one of my bestsellers.”

The next big dairy alternative growth area?

Ellie Brown envisages a future where there are as many vegan cheeses as there are alternative milks, and she hopes to be a part of that through her company, Kinda Co.

“There are 50 different brands of plant-based milk, yet cheese is quoted as a barrier for people wanting to give up dairy,” she says. “There are so many people doing exciting things and I think it’s going to explode as there’s clearly a demand for it.”

Brown set up her company in October 2017 after struggling to find a satisfactory cheese alternative – although she had to change the original company name before she even sold a block after “threatening letters from Dairy UK” asked her to stop using the term ‘cheese.’

“I think there is space enough for everyone,” she comments. “We don’t go around saying: ‘You shouldn’t eat dairy, it’s evil.’ We just want to create a great-tasting alternative for people who do want to make a great choice. The size of the dairy industry is worth billions and we are taking up a small amount of space.”

There are six products in Kinda Co rotation, with cashew nuts a dominate ingredient, although Brown also likes to use almonds. She says nuts are a useful ingredient as their high protein and fat content helps to mimic the richness of dairy.

“The thing that is tricky is that it’s very hard to mimic the same structure and texture as normal cheese, as the protein structures in nut is different to dairy. You can’t completely transfer the ingredient as it doesn’t react in the same way or coagulate the same way,” she explains.

“We have to use other tips and tricks to mimic the texture and mouthfeel. Normal dairy cheese has a structure that allows it to be solid at room temperature, so with nut cheese you can add seaweed extracts as they are similar in their behaviour and return to solid. We use a lot of things like that to mimic the stretchy-melty qualities of cheese.”

Brown aims to create a cheese for every occasion. So far, she has a feta alternative for Greek salad, a nacho cheese analogue for her Mexican nights and creamy spreads for bagels and toast.

The brand also experiments with limited-edition vegan cheeses, from a chilli-flavoured option to one that incorporates blue spirulina algae to give it a great marbling effect.

Crazy vegan cheeses

Bold flavours are the name of the game for I Am Nut OK, the artisan cheese company created by couple Angela Chou and Nivi Jasa.

image credit: Instagram @iamnutok

The pair don’t aim to mimic existing cheese types, believing that dairy-free imitations only disappoint people. Instead, their focus is on the look and taste of brand-new vegan varieties.

“For example, we have a chipotle and goji berry one and a turmeric and black truffle one,” says Chou. “All the flavours are strong. A lot of people come and say: ‘Do you have a more mild cheese?’ We don’t think that vegan cheese should be mild, especially artisan vegan cheeses, because you can get a lot of plain cheeses from other brands. We think that there is room for some bold flavours and crazy-looking cheeses.”

New textures are the current focus for I Am Nut OK, which is working on making hard and melting cheeses as well as ones that can be easily shredded.

“It’s very scientific, you need the right combination of the ratio of fat, acid and heat, and that’s challenging to make consistent on a small scale as we make everything by hand,” explains Chou. “It’s harder if you don’t have a large machine to control the temperatures.”

She predicts the vegan cheese market will start evolving very fast. “It’s going to be very similar to what the dairy cheese market is like, so lots of different brands from all ranges, like low, medium and luxury,” she explains.

“Also, I think that the supermarket brands are just going to get better and better. There are cheeses that could be produced in a factory but there is still going to be a place for artisan cheeses, as that can never really be replicated from machines, seeing as it requires so much time and labour.”

Chou hopes the dairy industry will come around to accepting vegan producers using the term ‘cheese’ as well, although she understands the concerns about causing confusion among consumers.

“We have had a really hard time to describe the product without using the word ‘cheese,’” she says. “People like to have something to relate, and if you just say, ‘it’s a blended nut block,’ it’s not really appealing, it doesn’t really get the point across of what it should be or could be.”

Growing up in Ethiopia, Afghanistan and India inspired Ami Deane, founder of Tyne Chease, to incorporate daring flavours into some of her offerings, like the Ethiopian spice berbere, pink peppercorn, za’atar and rosemary. Deane is also one of the few producers to experiment with using macadamia nuts to create some of her cheeses.

Demand has been so high that the company has just moved into bigger premises, where Deane is hoping to develop nut-free cheeses, as well as a Camembert-style cheese and proper smoked variants.

“We do a lot of testing and tasting,” she explains. “There have been a few failures – walnut and Brazil nuts are completely out of question, unless we find a new way to do it, but they don’t have a nice texture at all. We have tried pineapple cheese but it hasn’t worked out.”

Christmas and Veganuary were so busy Deane ended up running out of supplies – and she doesn’t see this demand stopping.

“Veganism is so mainstream now. Supermarkets and restaurants are coming out with vegan cheese, along with different vegan products, and at some point it may take over or be equal to dairy cheese,” she muses. “In the last three to six months, I have been contacted by loads of companies that sell dairy cheese who have requested vegan cheese. A few started stocking the vegan cheese alongside dairy cheese, so I think everyone across the board is getting the flavour for vegan cheese.”

New ingredients to bash down cost barriers

Former dairy cheesemaker Sumear Safdar-Robins entered the vegan arena with cashew nut cheeses. He claims that he’s achieved greater popularity with his plant-based range than he ever did with his previous creations. Like Black Arts Vegan, he specialises in hard cheese alternatives.

“The difference between mine and the supermarkets is I use cultures and develop it in a cheesemaking fashion, where the ones in the supermarket are flavoured with starch and fats,” he explains. “I age them to get the flavours naturally. When I first started making cheese, I didn’t want to use pre-made prebiotics, so I made cultures from plant matter.”

There are five cheeses in the stable for his company, Good Food by Sumear, including an original plain cheese that is aged for a minimum of 20 days, a black peppercorn variety, a chilli-infused option, Maplewood smoked cheese and a feta-style cheese.

Safdar-Robins, who uses humidifiers to help the cheesemaking process, is trialling sunflower seeds as a cheaper base ingredient that could also appeal to a broader audience.

“You still get a lot of people who are allergic to nuts,” he points out. “Also, cashew nuts are very expensive and there is a lot of air miles – mine are sourced from Vietnam – so that is quite a long way to get here and that adds to emissions costs. The more we can use local ingredients the better, although sunflower seeds aren’t the exact answer.

“One issue that is holding people back from buying vegan cheese is the cost, but as things progress and people know how to make it more on a mass scale, it will be more available to everyone.”

Vegan-friendly casein

What will be the next big breakthrough for vegan cheeses? According to Cuttiford, who has a background in biological sciences, it will come from food technology.

“My hope is that eventually we will make a vegan-friendly casein and we will be able to create casein from plant-based products, as casein is the key to all cheeses,” she explains. “It gives all the cheese that smoothness, meltiness and mouthfeel, but there are no vegan caseins at the moment, so we are trying to recreate those with other ingredients. There is a lot of space for growth and technology to come in.”

For now, Cuttiford is playing around with some aged cheeses to broaden the spectrum of her product line and is toying with the idea of creating a nut-based cheese. She still wants to nail down that vegan halloumi too, which has eluded her so far.

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