The folks who for years have helped North Coast residents brew beer in their barns and make gewurztraminer in their garages say they're gearing up for what could be the next big do-it-yourself food craze - homemade cheeses.
The Beverage People, which has supplied and advised local home brewers and winemakers for more than 25 years, is now helping local artisan food aficionados make their own stove-top Stilton and kitchen-sink ch?re.
"Here in Wine Country, making wine at home is part of the lifestyle, and I think homemade cheese fits right into that lifestyle," said Bob Peak, one of the partners in the company.
The Beverage People's expansion into cheese-making supplies is a natural fit. Just as beer and wine go through fermentation to produce alcohol, the fermentation of milk into lactic acid is central to cheese production, explained Nancy Vineyard, another partner in the company.
"It's not that different from the beer and wine part of the business," she said.
The addition also signals a behind-the-scenes shift under way at the company founded by Byron Burch, 65, who opened the Santa Rosa store in 1980 and is now heading toward retirement.
He's allowed Vineyard, who has managed the Piner Road store since it opened, and Peak, retail sales manager since 2003, to become partners in the business. The plan calls for them to gradually gain full ownership over several years.
Burch and a partner started Great Fermentations in 1978 in Marin County, and expanded to Santa Rosa two years later. In 1988 the two businesses split, and in 1993 the Santa Rosa store changed its name to The Beverage People to avoid confusion.
The business grew rapidly during the home brewing craze of the 1980s and 1990s, which coincided with a nationwide explosion in popularity of microbrewed beers and brew pubs. The enthusiasm for home brewing has tapered off somewhat, but is still the backbone of the business and is growing steadily, Vineyard said. Home winemaking supplies are also a strong segment of the business.
Now their new ownership stakes in the company are allowing Vineyard and Peak, a former chemist at wine industry laboratory Vinquiry in Windsor, to share their mutual passion for homemade cheese with their customers.
Vineyard initially had no idea how simple some kind of fresh cheeses, like ricotta and ch?re, can be to make.
"My first reaction was, 'Oh my God. I had no idea it was this easy,' " she said.
A few hours and a couple of days are all that are needed for several cheeses, she said.
Retired PG&E manager Jack Eitelgeorge has been making his own wine and beer for about six years, and was excited to see the new supplies available at the store, which is tucked away in a nondescript business park.
"It's very similar because you add a starter for the cheese just like you add yeast for the wine, and some kinds of cheese you age, so it's a very similar process," said Eitelgeorge, a 64-year-old resident of Rincon Valley.
After spending less than $30 on supplies, and few dollars on two quarts of pasteurized goat milk, Eitelgeorge whipped up a fresh ch?re right in his kitchen.
"Two days later, I rolled it in cracked pepper and Italian herbs, put it on a cracker, and it was pretty good," Eitelgeorge said.
So why bother going through all that effort when his local specialty grocer has one of the best cheese selections anywhere?
"It's the same thing that excites a cook, when they can say, 'This is something I made,'" Eitelgeorge said. "There's a little bit of ego in it. It's something you can be proud of."
While revenues on the new products so far have been light, interest has been very high since their first newsletter announcing the additions went out this week, Vineyard said.
The company has about 4,500 people on its mailing list nationwide.
While members of the general public may be hesitant to try making their own cheese out of a sanitation concern, most of the company's customers are pretty familiar with proper sanitation procedures and have a greater comfort level with it, Peak said.
When performed correctly, the risks of food poisoning from cheese making are negligible, Peak said.
Ig Vella, owner of the award-winning Vella Cheese in Sonoma, says he's not exactly worried about the competition from home cheese makers. He says he does worry that some people could get sick from homemade cheese if they're not careful, giving artisan cheeses a bad name.
Plenty of professional cheese makers have been put out of business by listeria and other outbreaks, he said. His advice to amateurs: Take it one step at a time.
"Learn the basics first and then you can start experimenting," Vella said.
Vineyard expects home brewing and winemaking supplies will always make up the bulk of the company's business, but adding another niche can't hurt. The company hardly makes any money off its vinegar-and cider-making supplies, either, but every little bit helps.
"Some people may see this as dabbling, and maybe it is, but it's all very natural," she said.