Big news just broke in the tiny world of California cheese. Swiss giant Emmi has just purchased Cowgirl Creamery. This, just months after they acquired Redwood Hill Farms, and a few years after the cheese world’s shocking purchase of Mary Keehn’s beloved Cypress Grove Chevre, makers of Humboldt Fog.
It’s not just small dairy producers, either. Specialty meat supplier Niman Ranch is now owned by Purdue of all companies, and Lagunitas Brewing is now owned by Heineken.
I have mixed feelings about all of this, which would lead to a much larger discussion about the pros and cons of artisan companies being taken over by huge conglomerates. I will focus on the Cowgirls, with whom I am much more familiar, and a little on Mary Keehn, who I also know in passing. Peggy and Sue are very nice people who care deeply about what they do and have built up a very successful local business that has expanded steadily over the past 20 years. They and Mary are largely responsible for putting the face of California cheese in the American marketplace as a whole. Mary’s story is a great one in which as a single mother, she decided to raise goats to produce more easily digestible milk for her children. She then started producing homemade cheeses from the excess milk, and built a cheesy empire from these humble beginnings. Most of you may be familiar with my opinions on the products made by these two companies. I think Humboldt Fog is a very good cheese. Great? Nope. Very good? Sure. We sell it proudly here in the shop. I think it’s a beautiful look to add to any cheese board; I think the flavors are consistently good; I love Mary’s story and she is a warm, kind person. I also believe that her Humboldt Fog is arguably the most important cheese produced in this country. Humboldt Fog sent a message to the Europhiles that we can also make stunning cheeses in this country. Now, some of the world’s greatest cheeses are made here in the USA (Pleasant Ridge Reserve, Winnimere, Rush Creek Reserve) and I’m not so sure that our artisan cheese movement would be where it is now without her pioneering efforts. When her company was bought by Emmi in 2010, my reaction was “Good for her!” It must have been like winning the lottery for her and it couldn’t have happened to a nicer person. I certainly noticed a drop off in quality after the change of ownership, but in Emmi’s defense, this was rectified very quickly and the quality is right back to where it always was.
Peggy and Sue (the Cowgirls) were very concerned about a dip in quality but after speaking with Mary, their feelings were put at ease. She assured them that nothing about production has changed. As for Emmi, they certainly have experience and they seem to know what to interfere with and what not to. They also agreed to keep Peggy and Sue on as President and Vice President of Cowgirl operations. The transition should be a smooth one. Now that Peggy and Sue are nearing retirement age, (good for them too) they also deserve this. I am less concerned about the direction of Cowgirl Creamery’s products for another reason though. I am not known as one to pull punches with my opinions. You may be aware that I do not sell anything produced by Cowgirl Creamery at Andrew’s Cheese Shop. I have nothing against them;
in fact, I quite like them and I think they run an outstanding operation. I find their products to be fun, but uninteresting and lacking in depth of flavor and complexity. They look pretty and with most of them being enriched products (triple-cremes), they have nice curb appeal and are tasty in the way that decent butter is tasty. I think the Cowgirs are great and make an excellent product for their demographic, I’m just not in their demographic, and I look for something else to sell in this shop. They make very good, beautiful cheeses that appeal to huge numbers of people who like the idea of a local product that is a huge crowd pleaser. If I were them, I would probably do the same. So, I’m not too concerned about a dip in quality for them, they know what they’re doing, they have a formula that works, and I can’t possibly imagine Emmi being so irresponsible as to make any significant changes.
Remember, Emmi was founded as a cooperative movement of farmers in Switzerland that was able to grow their resources by pooling together. They’re not corporate monsters and they produce some excellent products. Like almost everything, we have to look at things on an individual basis. It’s not intellectually fair to make sweeping claims before giving these companies a chance to show what they can do. Maybe they will run these companies into the ground in an effort to cut corners and slowly but consistently lower the quality of their products. I see no reason to believe that this is the case. I’m very happy that these passionate women seem to have had a bit of a financial windfall at this stage in their lives; they deserve that. Everyone in the American cheese industry owes them a debt. I’m glad they have been able to cash in.
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