An Interview With Artisan Cheese Pioneer:
Volume 139, No. 42, April 10, 2015
To continue my first person interviews with small creative uncorporate pioneers in artisan and specialty cheese, recorded and transcribed as they said it, we are talking with Neville McNaughton. Most people don’t know that Neville was one of the pioneers in the rebirth of artisan cheesemaking even before he came to United States from his native New Zealand. For a while now, he has been a person behind the scenes in the incredible growth of quality and American artisan cheese.
Neville: I have a Diploma in Dairy Technology from Massey University, recognized in the top 3 percent of all universities in the world, and the credential I have has proven to be first-class. I worked in plants there (New Zealand). I saw the end of an era, which was rinded Cheddar. I saw the end of raw milk cheeses in New Zealand. I saw milk become pasteurized, and I saw the industry turn to 40-pound blocks. And, that was at the end of the 60s.
I began my own cheese plant in 1983. My partner was Ross McCallum. We built it from the ground up. It was on a model farm complex. We started making, pasteurized of course, cheeses that were not readily available in New Zealand. Basically, replacing imports, so: Camembert, Brie, smear ripened cheeses, Edams and Goudas. Very diverse. Things like crème fraîche were relatively unheard of.
Dan: from what I understand, the cheeses were very well accepted. It was a very good little artisan cheese business.
Neville: Yeah, we started off with 6000 square feet which included 600 square feet of retail. We filled the parking lot full of BMWs and Mercedes, and Volvos; and that was exactly the customers we needed because we couldn’t manufacture those cheeses for anything near supermarket prices. And then we came up with a very high–end ice cream that the kids could eat while mom and dad were buying cheese. They could leave with ice cream, and fresh cheese curds, while the parents left with cheese. It was all very retro. We were rediscovering all these lost arts and sciences.
The irony is, I was struggling with and trying to figure out things about the humidity and aging rooms that I only really began to figure out at the beginning of this century. We still see folks up here (the United States) struggling with the same things I was struggling with 30 years ago. And, they don’t really have these things made clear and easy. You would think that this many years of struggle would’ve produced something more than just one more person struggling, one more time, to build an aging room.
“That to me is a staggering deficiency in the way we accumulate
knowledge, it’s strange to me. I guess the message is: it doesn’t have to be that way.
Dan: in New Zealand, did you use local farmers?
Neville: Yes, but we were purchasing milk from a co-op. We didn’t work with an individual farmer.
Dan: So how does it work in New Zealand, are you only able to buy milk from a co-op, or are there individual farmers?
Neville: It’s different now. Because Fonterra is recognized as a monopoly, there is legislation in place that forces them to make milk available at a price that is always in dispute, to competitors. The government has instituted these rules because it is a supply monopoly. They have 90 percent of the milk, right? But all that happened after I left. While I was there, we bought from the co-op. We were happy with the relationship, but it was not enough to really create innovation.
Dan: If you can remember back, was there any difference between using the milk in New Zealand and the milk of the United States?
Neville: The milk in New Zealand compared to milk in the US is spectacular. I had tanker loads of milk arriving at our cheese plant with a casein of 3.3 percent. In the US, if you hit a protein of 3.3 percent overall, you think that’s good. The focus on breeding for protein and solids and milk has produced quality, especially for cheesemaking. The value of that is tremendous; the cows that produce that high solids milk eat less food, produce more solids, reduce your processing cost, your labor costs, and overhead. It was wonderful.
Dan: It sounds like they’re looking at a dairy as a food supply system, not just as a short-term financial investment. In the US, the idea was, and remains, for the most part, drive volume per cow of liquid milk. However, New Zealand has the lowest cost of production for milk in the world, despite decades of our fixating on low cost, high volume production.
Neville: Clearly the way we communicate between the processor and the farmer isn’t correct because it produces a very different result than has been produced in New Zealand.
Dan: As far as marketing, you sold direct, what were your other outlets for sales?
Neville: Once we had the milk we could sell to anyone inside New Zealand that we wanted. We pioneered self-distribution. It’s a small country but a difficult country. The distribution systems were limiting to us, so we did a tremendous amount of courier type distribution. We used these small van companies that would call to the plant three or four times a day, and we would say, “hey we got another package pickup,” and the van would swing in. We’d send it all over the country this way. New Zealand is not a hot country and is quite conducive to shipping packages of food with minimal protection. A lot of the days were 50 to 60°, so for this reason you can do that. You could never do that in the US for most of the year.
We sold to restaurants, retail at our store, and through distributors. Pretty normal, but I think the key was my partner, Ross McCallum. He was exceptional in the area of sales and marketing. The relationships he created with the chefs is what really moved that company forward. It’s allowing someone like Ross to become famous if that’s the appropriate word, but he was certainly a well-known figure, and we came up with innovative products, and we did well. The cheese that became the bestseller was a blue cheese called Kikorangi. (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kapiti_Fine_Foods).
It became the single largest volume item that we would make and sell. That’s astonishing to think that we would make a 70% FDB Blue cheese, and it would become this dominant. From the first day that we started the business we told ourselves, “let’s make Cheddar and Gouda cheese in rinded formats and stand behind the counter and sell a kilo here, a kilo there.” Only a few years later we were hardly making any. We were making Camembert and Brie and diving off into this Blue cheese that turned out to be a huge success. Many regard Kikorangi Blues the best in New Zealand to this day.
Dan: What was your favorite to make?
Neville: It didn’t matter to me. It’s like having children if you’re making half a dozen different cheeses; you love them all just the same. There was no question certain cheeses were harder than others. I think that Blue cheese generated as much satisfaction as any other single item.
Dan: And how many years were you involved in the creamery?
Neville: For the first three years I made the cheese. Then I took a position that led to my coming to US. On and off, for about seven years, I would go back to New Zealand on a fairly regular basis.
As a member of the Board of directors, once the company freed me of my obligation, taking the lien and mortgage off my house, I was more than happy to let Ross and the crew there run things. They were perfectly able. There is a period that goes by where your strategic value goes down if you’re not there every day. And so, it was time to let it go. After about seven years, I was simply a shareholder.
Dan: so you went to the United States, you went to California first?
Neville: I had a minor prior relationship with the US. When I came over it was 1986, and I was in Santa Rosa California, working with New Zealand Milk Products. Previously I had a trip to the USA in 1979 to go to the Miles Marschall biennial international cheese exposition, in the Dane County Memorial Center in Madison. That was a spectacular introduction to the US for me. This boy from a small town, flying first class to America, with the CEO of our company in New Zealand, and it was a huge eye-opener for me.
I never forgot that. It seeded a lot of my desire to return to the US as a salesperson and technician for the New Zealand Dairy Board. I was eager. I cannot tell you, Dan, what it was like to be at that exhibition; they had Liederkranz piled high in those little boxes. People were eating them, and they were giving them away; it was an amazing to be there.
So I came back in ‘86, and I worked with New Zealand milk products for about eight and a half years.
Dan: I know it one point because we bumped into each other through Ig Vella. I had you talk at a conference, on his advice, that I was putting together for the California Milk Advisory Board to try and encourage farmers there to start making specialty and artisan cheese. We needed someone technical. Somewhere during that time, in my obscure memory, it seems you also had a big hand over at Marin French Cheese Company, during a period of crisis for them.
Neville: That was in February 1994 when I started, I went over there, took a position as the head of that company, and I only stayed for six months. It was a company in dire straits financially, they had no money, they had cheese quality problems, they had air quality problems, and they hadn’t kept up, and they owed money.
I found out, at that time, if a distributor brings a product on board and is unable to sell it, it’s pulled from the shelves, and they bill you for their lost margin. And that’s the position Marin French was in. And, they weren’t going to work their way out of that for a long time because they had fallen out of favor with those distributors in key markets.
We went in there, made a few changes, introduced them to quark, a triple cream Camembert. We revised some of the formulas, put in a nice clean air system. It was a big upgrade for them. I realized at the time, if I left, the company could tread water and make some money. Their cheese maker, whom I trained, was Howard Bunce. He would work part-time and would take care of them as needed. But, it wasn’t until Jim Boyce came along with some money, that he was able to dig that company out of the hole they were in and become a viable entity again.
Then I took a job with Imperial Biotechnology, which brought me to St. Louis. That position was profound in my life because it taught me something about cheese that I never fully understood before. When I left them in 1999, I felt I was a much better cheese maker. We’ve been very successful since then making good cheese because technology is key, knowledge is the key, and I learned things at IBT, that I would never have understood otherwise.
Dan: When you say biotech, you don’t mean Franken germs, you mean technology and understanding the biology of cheese?
Neville: Yes. In fact, I just caught up with my latest copy of the magazine, the (Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research’s) Pipeline, in which there is an article by Mark Johnson about what causes tyrosine and calcium lactate crystals in cheese. That is the understanding of the biochemistry of a piece of cheese needed. The cultures play a significant role in that, and I had learned more about cultures, and the origin of flavor and the pathways to flavor than I hadn’t fully appreciated before. I had to learn that from a non-cheese company, which is very interesting.
Dan: That is when you set up your business to help American artisan cheesemakers?
Neville: Dan, I looked around, and in 2000 when I was now a freelancer I had no official job. What I realized was that, all these small companies as opposed to the very big companies who had lots of capable technicians, they would never have access to the technology to enable them to be truly successful. And so, I said, I have some of these answers, call me and let’s see what we can get done. And we did. We feel we have helped a lot of people along the way.
Dan: Neville, let me ask you, not the names, but just a rough idea of how many people you’ve helped win awards at the American Cheese Society annual competition?
Neville: It’s always hard to put numbers, Dan, but we have sat down after the American Cheese Society contest numerous times, and we look at those awards. We often take about 10 percent of the awards. So, our customers, which we’ve assisted with their cheeses are taking approximately 10 percent of those awards. Put into perspective, there are about 300 awards, and our customers are taking about 30 of them a year, which we think is pretty good. If you look at what we’ve done over a period of over 10 or 15 years, we have touched the lives of cheese makers; it’s probably in excess of 100.
Dan: I’ve noticed in talking to you over the years, in New Zealand, in the training you got, there seems to be much more of a focus on process and process control, in the sense of stable processes. In the rebirth of artisan cheese, people seemed more concerned with what kind of rind they had, and whether their aging room looked cool and weren’t as concerned with “process.” There was a lot of variability in the output of product. Is that a fair assumption from your point of view?
Neville: I think it’s very fair, I think that when I look as a New Zealander coming to the US, I see that the New Zealand cheese makers will more like European cheese makers than American cheese makers. We focus much more on things like moisture in the nonfat substance, and salt and moisture, and we use derivative values, which are much more important than the absolute values in cheese.
I also think that for quite different reasons, the New Zealanders needed to focus on those things because they would produce cheeses that were more stable. They sold to the Europeans and would produce better flavor because they were aged cheeses. But, the American cheese industry had gone full bore down a path to low-cost. And the biggest single benefit to an American cheese maker was yield; if you increase your yield you are more profitable. For New Zealand cheese maker, that was only partly true because we didn’t want to ship water from New Zealand, so we weren’t so focused on yield alone. What drives you is interesting in how you get to a certain place.
Dan: I wanted to ask you about your famous cheese vat, the one which can stop the problem of dead spots. You originally came up with a very small version, though I’m sure you’re doing much larger versions now, in particular, about the control that gives a cheese maker.
Neville: I had the normal cheese vats in New Zealand in two different cheese plants including the one I owned, and they never really worked properly. And, I think about things too much, but I realized, that if we push the agitators together, all of a sudden, we got an exchange of curd from one circle to another that passes from one agitator to the other all the time. The curd would go halfway around this circle, and then some would go into the second circle, etc., and it makes the snaking journey up and down the cheese vat. It uses the corner to create little turbulence, so we do not have the problem of curd settling in the corner.
Neville:try to imagine that most of what you need to know starting a cheese business in the US doesn’t necessarily reside in the USA. We are great at making large-scale Mozzarella, and large-scale Cheddar, but, were not always great at making small-scale, different varieties of cheese, that cover all sorts of different technology disciplines. And, be open-minded about where you source your information because it may not be indigenous to the US.
With artisan cheese, we are going down a path like the Europeans. If you take a trip to Europe, you will see things that you don’t always understand. That has led to 30 years of misinterpretation of processes and equipment. As an example, I mentioned that it took me 40 years just to understand how to control vapor pressure in an aging space. I think there are many other little things like that in our industry; we can get along with some success without a proper understanding, but when you have the understanding life looks different, and that’s the best part.
Dan Strongin runs a training and consulting company focused on delivering affordable online solutions to everyday business problems, including his udemy course: Understand Your Business, Earn More Money. Dan can be reached via email at email@example.com or by phone at (408) 512-1086, or you can visit and blog or get discounts on his courses on his site: http://www.managenaturally.com.
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