I love cheese more than most things. So it was with some skepticism that I sat down for a three-course meal filled with nut milk cheese from Kite Hill, a Bay Area startup that sells non-dairy cheese concocted by chefs and a Stanford University biochemist. Not every cheese tasted exactly like the real thing, but some did. The dairy-free ricotta tasted exactly like regular ricotta, and it was all good enough that I cleaned my plate after every course.
There is a reason for this: Kite Hill, like other Silicon Valley-backed food startups (Kite Hill is backed by Khosla Ventures), takes a distinctly high-tech, ultra-precise approach to its products. As I toured around Kite Hill's facility, it became clear that the company's unique approach to cheese-making will be key to its success.
In the growing world of high-tech synthetic meat, eggs, and dairy products, some products are an easier sell than others. Hampton Creek's eggless eggs, for example, can be baked or cooked into products so that no one knows they're even present. Beyond Meat's fake chicken strips are a logical purchase for Tofurkey-loving vegetarians (and perhaps even meat-eaters trying to cut down on their consumption).
But dairy-free cheese is tough. Some 5% of people in the U.S. consider themselves to be vegetarian. Only 2% are vegan, according to a 2012 Gallup poll. And many vegetarians love their cheese.
The challenge for a company like Kite Hill, then, is to somehow appeal to a larger market--maybe people who are going on a dairy-free cleanse, perhaps a sprinkling of shoppers who are simply looking for something different--and not be relegated the vegan fridge in the grocery store.
Kite Hill, which is backed by Khosla Ventures, has a unique advantage then: It's stocked in the Whole Foods cheese department, making it the only non-dairy cheese to score a space in the mouth-watering mountain of cheeses. As a result, it's exposed to all sorts of people who normally skip over vegan foods.
When I arrive at Kite Hill headquarters in Hayward, California, I'm immediately greeted by Jean Prevot, the company's chief operating officer. Before joining Kite Hill, Prevot led operations at Laura Chenel Chèvre, a popular goat cheese maker. "This place used to be Shutterfly printing," says Prevot, who has a strong French accent. "We had to change everything. It took us three months. "By December 2012, Kite Hill had its first batch of almond and macadamia milk. By March 2013, the factory began churning out cheese.
"In a dairy factory, milk comes by the truckload. Here, we have to make it ourselves," Prevot explains as we put on white lab coats, hair caps, and shoe covers before entering the factory portion of headquarters.
In the nut processing room, there is a series of steel tubes and machines that tower over us, where Kite Hill converts nuts into nut milk. "That's the different between us and other nut cheese. We go through the milkmaking process," says Prevot. Kite Hill also pasteurizes its milk, he explains: "The competition is in two big families: industrial products mimicking cheese and homestyle ground and pressed nuts, which are usually raw. We take the pasteurization step seriously."
In the cheesemaking room, the nut milk is poured into giant tubs and mixed with Kite Hill's own cultures and plant-based enzymes. It coagulates and curdles just like dairy milk. "You'd make cow or goat cheese milk the same way," says Prevot. Eventually, the cheeses are shaped in custom-made molds (I was forbidden from photographing these). By the time the cheeses end up in the molds, they have a texture similar to pancake batter, but the enzymes are still continuing to make them look and feel more cheese-like.
To avoid cross-contamination, Kite Hill has separate sections of its factory for aged and fresh cheeses. The aged cheeses obviously take longer to produce. First they're dried, then taken to a temperature and humidity-controlled aging room for about two weeks, and finally they're cooled down (this prevents the cheese from "sweating" in its packaging).
Unlike some other companies in the Silicon Valley food tech scene, Kite Hill seems to have no pretensions about changing the way the world consumes food (at least, not yet). When I meet Monte Casino, Kite Hill's cofounder and product developer, he makes it clear that the company sells artisan products. They're sold only in Whole Foods, and there are no plans to expand to other stores.
Casino, a wiry, energetic guy who used to be an instructor at Le Cordon Bleu in Boston (he taught artisan cheesemaking, among other things), co-founded Kite Hill along with chef Tal Ronnen--the creator of vegan Los Angeles restaurant Crossroads Kitchen--and Ronnen's friend Dr. Patrick Brown, a biochemist at Stanford University who also co-founded the nonprofit publisher the Public Library of Science. Ronnen had spent years hunting for an amazing vegan cheese when the team finally came up with the perfect recipe (culture and a special enzyme found by Brown plus nut milk and salt).
Upon exiting the factory portion of Kite Hill, Casino gave me a run-through of the cheese demo he offers to Whole Foods customers. There's Cassucio, a soft, fresh cheese that tastes somewhat bland by itself but pairs well with crackers and bread. Next, I try the Truffle Dill & Chive Cassucio--also soft (softer than most cow and goat cheeses) but incredibly flavorful. Finally, I try the White Alder, a brie-like soft ripened cheese paired with fig jam made by Prevot's wife.
The cheeses are so soft because of a lack of artificial ingredients, says Casino. "Within one day, we could have a hard cheese with carrageenan."
Casino estimates that up to 60% of Kite Hill buyers aren't lactose intolerant or vegan. Many people, he says, are just looking for a break from dairy cheese. Casino wants to get the message across to customers that vegan cheese doesn't just have to be hippie food--it can be upscale and tasty, even for palettes normally accustomed to dairy cheese (nonetheless, Casino does use the word "spiritual" multiple times when describing his cheeses).
"I've had people you wouldn't even imagine love our cheese," he says. "A big part of the company is demoing correctly." Casino is undeniably an engaging demo-er, and so he pounds the pavement himself, hitting up Whole Foods stores across North America with his demos. The only problem, however, is that Casino is also the person who researches new cheese products. When he's gone, innovation stalls.
Still, Kite Hill is already thinking about new cheeses. Casino is working on a blue-vein cheese (that will require a different factory to prevent contamination) as well as the the semi-soft Costanoa cheese, which was taken off the production line for retooling. He's also interested in expanding the company's reach for its ricotta food service product, which is used by Ronnen in his L.A. restaurant. "We could work with big companies," he imagines.
While the softness of all the cheeses was noticeable during my tasting (and provided a reminder that I wasn't eating dairy cheese), it faded into the background during the Kite Hill cheese-laden meal I ate before finishing my tour. Casino prepared all the courses, including a kale salad with Cassucio, ricotta-stuffed shells, and ricotta cheesecake.
Could Kite Hill one day grow to be as big as dairy-free cheese giant Daiya? "I never imagined myself in a plant, doing factory work. But if it reaches more people, sure," says Monte. But, he adds, "We have to earn our stripes."