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Petaluma-based Miyoko’s Creamery hopes to capture growing vegan dairy market with new cheeses

The free grilled cheese sandwiches moved quickly. More than 200 were handed out in roughly 90 minutes on a dreary San Francisco morning recently. They were touted at a pop-up giveaway by the renowned Grilled Cheez Guy as a new recipe using unspecified artisan cheeses.

Later, it was revealed to the unsuspecting crowd the cheddar and pepper jack cheese they were eating had zero milk in it. Instead, the cheese was vegan and made by Petaluma-based Miyoko’s Creamery using oats and legumes.

Most, including Kelly Lo of Fremont, were astonished by how the facsimile cheese melted and the potent flavor packed into each bite.

“It was actually surprisingly good. I really liked it,” Lo said. “I’ve had other types of (replacement) cheeses, but I thought this one was really good in terms of its consistency and taste.”

The leadership at Miyoko’s thinks its upcoming product line has the potential to fundamentally change the dairy alternatives industry. But the advent of these products could also deal another blow to traditional dairies that are struggling to keep pace with the dynamic shifts taking place in the industry as consumers push for food options that are more environmentally conscious.

The growing appeal of alternative dairy manufacturers has steadily taken away shelf space from local dairy farmers, according to the 2018 crop report by the Sonoma County Department of Agriculture. It compounds other challenges like the oversupply created by larger companies switching to organic, driving milk prices down.

While milk products remain the second-largest crop in the region, 11 farms have shuttered in Sonoma County since 2012. Nearly 60 dairies remain from the 800 that once dotted the region, according to the report.

Joe Moreda, Valley Ford Cheese’s vice president and head cheese maker, said that while “a lot of dairy farmers here have had a tough time,” consumers are placing a value in local and artisan products, and that’s allowed nimble operations to stay afloat. He views vegan and animal-based dairy products as “different worlds,” but welcomes the opportunity to push traditional dairies to adapt.

“It’s just another challenge,” Moreda said. “It makes us step up and figure out how can we better portray our products and better sell the benefits. We’re more interested in promoting ourselves rather than tearing down others.”

The U.S. alternative dairy industry is projected to be worth $35 billion by 2024, according to a market forecast by Grand View Research. Miyoko’s, one the fastest-growing players, is gaining a larger share after doubling its production and sales each of the last two years, said Neil Cohen, the company’s vice president of marketing.

The vegan dairy manufacturer, known for its more upscale products like cheese wheels and spreads, is introducing block, sliced and shredded cheeses for mass consumption made with plant sources founder and CEO Miyoko Schinner said have never been used before.

For Schinner, the goal is to create a new food economy in which consumers can maintain their eating habits with products that are better for the environment and don’t sacrifice flavor.

“It’d be fine to just tell everyone to just go eat vegetables and beans, but they’re not going to do that,” she said. “We have to find solutions that are viable, that people can continue to eat the same way they’ve been eating in terms of taste profile, functionality, etc. But can we do it in a healthier, more sustainable manner by using plants. That’s where the innovation comes in.”

The new cheeses are the latest products to emerge from the Miyoko’s research and development pipeline, created by a six-person staff of mostly food scientists that spent more than a year working through hundreds of different versions of the upcoming products, said team director Dan Rauch.

Many vegan manufacturers re-create cheeses at a cellular level, but Rauch said Miyoko’s ferments “whole foods” with specific bacteria and enzymes to create a cheese base they then cook and cool until it hardens into a final format.

The flavor is derived from the different combinations of bacteria used.

If Miyoko’s can deliver those products without sacrificing flavor, “people will really start eating more plants,” Rauch said. “I mean, when has your doctor ever told you to eat less plants?”

Miyoko’s has traditionally used cashews to create its cheeses and butters, and the new line helps bring in customers that avoided it because of nut allergies, Schinner said. It is also cheaper to produce.

In addition to the cheeses, Miyoko’s is releasing spreadable garlic parmesan and sea salt flavored butters, both created using oat milk. The new products, priced at $5.99 each, are expected to reach stores in April.

“This is so exciting because this is going to reach the masses,” Schinner said. “Our premium cheeses were great for people who could afford it, but that wasn’t going to change the world. We are with this.

”You can reach Staff Writer Yousef Baig at 707-521-5390 or yousef.baig@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @YousefBaig.

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