By Jamie Siebrase | Feb 05, 2016
Fort Collins, Colorado
Fort Collins, Colorado
Employees: 5 full-time production employees, plus event and seasonal staff
"After a few years in the brewing industry, you get these free publications on your desk," Poland starts. He and his wife had "hit the upper ends of management" at New Belgium Brewing Company when, Poland says, he read a publication that waxed on about the increasing popularity of cheese. The couple had stopped homebrewing. Why not try their hands at cheesemaking?
It wasn't a huge stretch. Halbreiter's father is a master cheesemaker in Germany. "He started when he was fifteen, and Birgit grew up with it," Poland explains. He himself had cut his teeth in the food industry at a French bakery in Boulder; from the baguettes, Poland was familiar with the process of yeast fermentation long before he ran New Belgium's fermentation department.
The difference between fermenting beer or wine and cheese is fairly straightforward; with the latter, "It's a physical product instead of just a liquid, and there's a learning curve," Poland admits.
"With cheese, it's about getting cultures and organisms to feed on the sugars," he continues, likening the process to crafting beer, wine -- even bread. Here's all that laypeople really need to know: "When the culture in the cheese feeds on the sugars in the milk, that's what creates the flavors and aromas during the cheesemaking process."
The founders' hobby quickly grew into a business when the couple rented a one-unit building, and began producing a Camembert they'd sell at local farmers markets. It was a smart addition to the American cheese repertoire.
"The big difference between the cheese we do and, say, a cheddar, is that our cheeses are all biologically-based. Cheddar and mozzarella get a lot of their characteristics from physical handling, like stirring or stretching or heating," Poland says. MouCo's cheesemakers, by contrast, never stray (far) from cheesemaking tradition, which requires careful handling.
The result is a more flavorful cheese. "We don't have the extremely long shelf life of some cheeses because ours are changing over time," Poland says. "The exchange for that is we have a lot of subtle complexities."
The MouCo catalog now includes five soft-ripened varieties, including its bestseller, ColoRouge, a nod to the company's thick local roots.
Initially, MouCo ran one batch of cheese every four weeks. "Now we do four to six batches weekly; we're at about 10,000 rounds per week," Poland says. MouCo grew 50 percent last year. "The year before that was 30. We've had about 14 years of double-digit growth," Poland says.
About 70 percent MouCo's clientele is corporate; the brand's popular with resorts, higher-end restaurants, hotels and private airlines, including Luftansa and British Airways. "We sell to the United Nations and to Disney," Poland adds. In Colorado, MouCo has a solid retail presence, being stocked in King Soopers and Whole Foods Markets.
But MouCo competes with cheesemakers in Europe and elsewhere. "Because we're 4,000 miles closer, we can have a more complex cheese that's still quite approachable," Poland says, admitting, "That doesn't make us better cheesemakers necessarily -- it just makes us 4,000 miles closer."
The supply chain is likewise much closer. "Just about everything is local," Poland says, pointing to Colorado-made packaging and milk from La Luna Dairy, all of 5.6 miles away.
Challenges: Managing growth correctly. "In the past five years we've almost tripled in size," Poland says. MouCo has changed its equipment dramatically to keep up. "Getting the right equipment and then re-training people -- that's a challenge," says Poland.
Opportunities: Because MouCo cheese varieties aren't "overly well known in the U.S.," as Poland puts it, the company has "an opportunity to educate the consumer."
"We've barely even tapped into the Colorado market," he adds. "We're not everywhere we could be." Expanding into ski territory might be the company's next big move, locally.
Needs: "Right now, with the unemployment rate being so low, there are less people looking for jobs," Poland says, noting that he needs more employees. "We're not specifically looking for somebody who makes cheese, so much as an employee with processing or fermentation knowledge, and an aptitude for the machines."