O Cheese Pioneers

I painted the picture for Tom: Imagine how satisfying it will be to provide delicious, gourmet cheese to the people of Colorado, made from Colorado milk, by Colorado cheesemakers. We will invite people to the cheesery so they can see how cheese is made. If they see how their food is made at this small, human scale, they will connect with us and we will connect with them. We will forge bonds with dairy farmers and chefs. Our whole community will be richer for having a local cheese company. Our families will love it and we’ll leave a wonderful legacy for our children. We will belong to this place that we love.

I had shown him proof that American-made gourmet cheese was becoming popular nationwide – that the heavy lifting by the early cheesemaking pioneers was paying off. I based my thesis on the word of one stranger.

I first encountered the stranger several months before my visit to Maytag Dairy, when I pulled a red-rimmed paperback from the shelf at the Fort Collins library. On the cover was a photo of the author, a young man with a charming grin and his arms folded across his chest. He was wearing a tidy apron and his curly brown hair peeked out from under a small white cap, giving him a boyish, I-dare-you aura; just enough attitude to make me wonder what he was up to. I studied that picture and chose him as my leader: Steven Jenkins, author of The Cheese Primer. I read the library’s copy cover-to-cover, then ordered my own from the downtown bookstore.

Steven led me into a universe where art, science, and business melded with community, family, and nourishment. He had all the answers. And, he had lots of friends – friends who were just as enthusiastic about this miraculous universe as he was, and some who were here, in the United States. I read and re-read his descriptions of the American cheesemakers, their cheeses, and their farms, and imagined them as my friends, too. In the corner of one page, there was a small picture of two happy women, Ricki Carroll, the owner of a Massachusetts cheesemaking supply company, and Judy Schad, the owner of Capriole, a goat dairy in Indiana. I stared at that black and white photo, wondering who the women were and how fun it would be to meet them. On another page was a picture of Paula Lambert, owner of The Mozzarella Company in Dallas, Texas. With her was a large group of women with smiles on their faces. I wanted to be part of that group. Paula’s picture was significant for another reason: the caption told me that she didn’t have a farm; she bought milk from a dairy farmer and made cheese in a downtown factory. She was successful doing business this way. Since I didn’t know anything about farms or farm animals, Paula provided a key piece of encouragement.

Most importantly, Steven predicted that the American cheese industry would take the path of the American wine industry; American cheese was entering an exciting time of innovation and growth. Having watched the American beer industry flourish over the past ten years – literally down the street from our house – I believed him.

I was sure that it was only a matter of time until Colorado embraced local, gourmet cheese. As additional proof, I pointed to the only successful gourmet cheesemaker in Colorado: Haystack Mountain Goat Cheese in Boulder. The owner, Jim Schott, had shown me around his farm. I watched his silly goats and toured his tiny cheesemaking room. He told me that he sold most of his cheese at farmer’s markets, but that he also delivered to specialty shops in Boulder, Denver, and the ski resorts. After that visit, another jolt of excitement sent me back to Tom, back to pressing my case. There are no cows’ milk gourmet cheesemakers in Colorado, I told him. We’d be the first.

I had convinced Tom that the opportunity was real, but he was hesitating. He was gun-shy. Between the two of us, we had already started three businesses – a video production company, the river restoration project, and my law firm – and closed two of them. We were familiar with the ways a business could fail: undercapitalization, lack of industry experience, not enough time in the day to take care of details like bookkeeping, sabotage by powerful organizations, and plain old bad timing. Primarily, he didn’t want to make cheese; he’d prefer to play music and write novels.

I imagined he was thinking that I wasn’t a solid business partner. I had already quit my corporate job, and he knew how hard it was for me to concentrate on my law practice. At the most basic level, I was terrible at sitting still. I relied on gimmicks to make myself focus, including taping motivational quotations to the refrigerator. The most recent was from Thomas Edison: Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work. But, this time, I was sure that we could be successful in a cheese business if we did it together.

At the top of Bingham Hill, with the spring wind swirling dust into our shoes, I hounded him for what may have been the hundredth time. “We should start a microcheesery.”

This time, Tom played along. “Sure, let’s do it.”

“Great. It’s decided then.” We sat in silence, trying it on. I worried that once we said those words out loud, doubts would surface and panic would set in. But there were no emotional alarms. The decision felt great. We were at the right place at the right time.


Categories: Food & Wine, Non-fiction, Uncategorized

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