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About this episode
In this episode of The meez Podcast, Josh sits down with Mateo Kehler, CEO and co-founder of Jasper Hill Farm, a world-renowned cheese maker, to discuss meaningful work and combating the commoditization of cheese making by reinvesting capital into rural communities.
Jasper Hill Farm is an award-winning cheese-making enterprise that has helped to redefine artisanal cheese production in the United States. The farm, which is based in Greensboro, Vermont, was founded in 1998 by two brothers, Andy and Mateo Kehler. The Kehler brothers were both carpenters concerned about the disappearance of working landscapes in their area due to the rise in real estate values. They decided to buy a rundown 200-acre farm with the goal of creating meaningful work.
Initially, Mateo had no idea what they wanted to do with the land. However, after some contemplation, they decided to start a dairy farm and make cheese. Mateo believed that they could demonstrate that it was possible to make a good living milking 50 cows on a rocky hillside farm, afford health insurance, put their kids through college, and save for retirement. They hoped that their success would inspire others to hop on the farmstead cheese bandwagon.
Today, there are about 85 people in the Jasper Hill family of businesses. The growth and evolution of the enterprise is a testament to the power of people.
Mateo's vision of creating meaningful work in a place they loved and with people they loved has been a resounding success. In 2006, the farm won the Best in Show award at the American Cheese Society for its Cabot Clothbound, made in partnership with Cabot Creamery. This success led to the farm's decision to build a massive underground cellar to age their cheese, with Cabot as their main customer. Today, Jasper Hill Farm works with over 25 cheesemakers, primarily in Vermont, and has become a leader in the American cheese industry, producing some of the most highly awarded cheeses in the country.
The farm has also helped to preserve the working landscapes of Vermont and inspire others to pursue their own dreams of sustainable agriculture.
This conversation with Mateo is both inspiring and educational. Jasper Hill Farm is a shining example of how a deep vision and a commitment to meaningful work can create a lasting legacy. And his story is a reminder that success is not just about making great cheese or running a profitable business. It is about creating something that gives back to the local community and that it can inspire others.
Where to find Mateo Kehler:
Where to find host Josh Sharkey:
What We Cover
(2:47) Finding meaningful work with Jasper Hill
(7:02) Financing a cheese facility
(8:54) Jasper Hill’s dedication to quality
(14:16) Cabot creamery partnership
(22:30) Cheese is a form of capital
(23:08) Supporting local dairy farms
(29:14) Reversing the flow of capital
(31:04) How Mateo reiterates Jasper Hill’s mission
(33:57) Doubling down on quality during the pandemic
(36:54) Why diversity is always good with cheese
(39:43) Experimenting with microbiology
(42:38) Does the quest for quality ever end?
(46:08) Jasper Hill wash collaborations with chefs
(50:28) Mateo’s biggest influence in life
Josh Sharkey [00:00:00]:
Welcome to the meez Podcast. I'm your host, Josh Sharkey, the founder and CEO of meez, the culinary operating system for food professionals. On the show, I'll be interviewing world class entrepreneurs in the food space that are shifting the paradigm of how we innovate and operate in our industry. Thanks for listening, and I hope you enjoy the show.
My guest today is the world renowned cheese maker, CEO and co-founder of Jasper Hill Farm, Mateo Kehler. Mateo has not only won every national and international cheese award imaginable, he's more importantly spreading his mission of meaningful work, leading the revolution against the commoditization of the craft of cheese making, and in his own words, reversing the globe capital back into rural communities.
This is one of the most inspiring and educational conversations I've had in a long time. We discussed creating a culture of high standards through actions, the importance of diversity by people and a clear vision matter most in any endeavor and so much. And yes, of course we talk about cheese. I hope you enjoy it.
This podcast is brought to you by meez, the culinary operating system for food professionals. As a chef and restaurant owner for the past 20 years, I was frustrated that the only technology that we had in the kitchen was financial or inventory software. Those are important, but they don't address the actual process of cooking, training, collaboration, and consistent execution.
So I decided if it didn't exist, I'd do my best to get it built. So the current and next generation of culinary pros have a digital tool dedicated to their craft. If you're a chef, mixologist operator, or generally if you manage recipes intended for professional kitchens, meez is built just for you.
Organize, share, prep, and scale your recipes like never before, and get laser accurate food costs and nutrition analysis faster than you could imagine. Learn more at www.getmeez.com.
Mateo, welcome to the pod.
Mateo Kehler [00:02:14]:
So awesome to be here with you, Josh.
Josh Sharkey [00:02:16]:
I'm stoked, man. I've been really excited about this conversation. I know we got connected by our mutual friend Sergio, who works at meez as well. I've known about Jasper Hill for many years, but the way he tells the story is just so illuminating.
And the minute I decided “Let's do a podcast”, we were like, we’ve got to get Mateo on. So thank you for being here.
Mateo Kehler [00:02:36]:
Absolutely. And you know, Sergio was there at the birth. He was working for a provisions international distributor in White River and watched us grow up. And in many ways, we grew up together.
Josh Sharkey [00:02:47]:
Well, for the audience that might not know as much, I think there's a lot of chefs and restaurants and things like that. Maybe you could just tell a little bit about your background, how you got to where you are, and why Jasper Hill exists.
Mateo Kehler [00:03:00]:
My brother Andy and I have a long connection to Greensboro and were both carpenters in a previous life. We were building houses, mostly second homes, and watching the fragmentation of the working landscape here. And the dot com bubble was just blowing up real estate values where we were. And we saw ourselves contributing to the extinction of this place that we loved.
So fundamentally, that's like a foundational experience for us. And you know, my family's been summering on Caspian Lake in Greensboro for five generations. We're about to celebrate our hundredth summer on the lake. And Greensboro's a happy place for our family, childhood, and we were basically getting priced out of paradise.
So this piece of land came on the market. It was 200 acres. It was up off the lake, outside of town. And we basically made this emotional, like irrational decision and pulled our life savings and bought this 200 acre, rundown and abandoned farm. No idea what we're gonna do with it. It was really a quest to satisfy three intrinsic needs: meaningful work, in a place that we love, with people that we love.
At its roots, Jasper Hill is our attempt to satisfy those three needs.
Josh Sharkey [00:04:25]:
So when you bought the land, was cheese something in your mind?
Mateo Kehler [00:04:32]:
We had no idea what we were going to do. We just knew that if we didn't do something, we were never going to be able to afford to live here. And so that was 1998. We took a step back to try and really kind of see what it would be. The meaningful work part really kind of rose to the surface. And when we looked at what was happening in our local economy and what was happening to the landscape and kind of the character of our town, we made the decision that we would like to try and start a business that would compete with development as the highest and best use of the land.
And the footprint of the dairy farmer on the landscape here is what's defined the pastoral beauty of Vermont and especially the northeastern part of the state where it's just this patchwork of farm fields and like forests, working lands really, that make this place so beautiful.
You know, dairy farming was in a steep decline. We very naively thought that if we could demonstrate that you could make a good living milking 50 cows on a rocky hillside farm, afford health insurance, put your kids through college, and save for retirement, that that would just be like a game changer. And all our friends and neighbors here would just hop on this farmstead cheese bandwagon and it would be a movement.
And uh, we had no idea how much work it was going to be. And it's really more work than I can describe. It's never done.
Josh Sharkey [00:06:20]:
I'm sure I'll talk about that. But, it's so interesting that you didn't know that cheese wasn't really like the first thing you thought of.I think with any business, the ones that are like evergreen, that last the longest, have to have some sort of deeper vision than just, “I want to make great cheese.” And I think that's probably much harder than what we do in the restaurants. And that's really hard. Because it's so hard, if you don't have that really, really deep vision of what you're trying to change in the world, it makes it not even worth it.
So that's really cool. I didn't know that. How long did it take from, let's buy this really rundown piece of land to, okay, now we have a cheese facility?
Mateo Kehler [00:07:02]:
So it took us five years to understand what we wanted to do and to go out into the world. I went to Europe a few times and worked with cheesemakers in Britain and visited cheesemakers all over Italy, France and Spain.
I had to write a business plan and actually get it financed. It was a real stretch. As my brother Andy likes to say, we didn't know a teat from a telephone pole. So like convincing a banker to lend us money to start a dairy farm, and then cheese on top of it, was a real stretch.
We had denial of service repeatedly for a couple of years.
Josh Sharkey [00:07:44]:
So is debt financing that you got, not any sort of equity.
Mateo Kehler [00:07:47]:
Yep. We started this business with $80,000 in cash and a $230,000 loan. We are debt financed and there's a couple of different chapters here. The growth and evolution of Jasper Hill as an organization is really like a family of businesses.
We have partners in some businesses. But it's really a conglomeration of businesses that are inhabited by people. And as it turns out, people are the main ingredient. And we learned that early on. There's about 85 of us in the family of businesses at this point.
And it is so complicated what we do that it's almost like an organism really. And without fully committed people that are invested in the vision and in the mission of the business, we would never be able to both achieve the quality, which is like the key to succeeding in the mission.
Josh Sharkey [00:08:54]:
I think we definitely want to dig into what you built with the cooperative and things like that. But what I sort of, you know, gleaned from first chatting with you and also just of course, from eating your cheese so often, is that it's so blatantly obvious that you have this maniacal kind of devotion to really, really high quality products no matter what.
And it's something, you know, of course as a chef, especially coming from the fine dining world, I can really relate to. But having this sort of fully verbally integrated business and all these disparate sorts of, you know, types of people working within your organization, how do you create that culture of quality with so much complexity and so many different people doing different things and still maintain this bar that you have?
Mateo Kehler [00:09:37]:
I think being the best in class, or like best in the world, or best at anything, creates a sense of pride and ownership, participation, and community. The work is bigger than any one individual and it takes everybody in the whole chain to demonstrate a commitment to a cause in order to really succeed.
We started with a mission statement, which was to be the standard bearers for quality and innovation in artisan cheese. And that's the driver for the second part, which is to develop the economic mechanisms for the conservation of the working landscape and our soil and water resources.
So we have an environmental mission. And a quality of life mission and a community based philosophy that creates an immense amount of buy-in from the people that live and work here, right? Because we can see the direct impact of our work around us. You know? Farmers earning a living wage for their work, our general store gets a new paint job and like an upgrade.
Our local general store is like the beating heart of our community, their kids in our school. There are restaurants and bars, where before it was like there was nothing. Right? And so there's culture and there's life and a community that was in decline and grain, and brain drain and the flight of young people away from us has slowed down. We're a little island in this region where Vermont is experiencing a lot of brain drain.
The pandemic kind of shook that up a little bit because a lot of people moved here from New York and Boston and all over the place. Climate refugees are coming now. So that's changing to some extent. You know, the meaningful work part is really about building this livable community.
And you know, that meaningful work in the place that we love with people that we love is a thread that has enabled us to attract people from all over the country to move to, like the middle of the northeast kingdom. I call it the geographical center of the middle of nowhere, there's more people in every direction from where we are.
It takes like really participating in the production of something that's authentic, primordial and real. And that's what we do. We're like milking cows and milking goats and managing like grass and connecting consumers to something that is primordial and real.
Josh Sharkey [00:12:32]:
It seems so novel. I'm sure it's intentional, but your commitment to excellence and having that really clear vision of how to effectively change and create meaning is actually what seems to have galvanized all the people and all the indoor workings of your business to actually be able to work the way it works. I'm sure it wouldn't work without that really clear vision that everybody is really clear on.
Mateo Kehler [00:13:03]:
Well, I crave meaning and purpose. I can't get out of bed without it. And there are lots of days where I see my role as kind of chief meaning officer because the actual work of milking cows and making cheese is like this endless drudgery and grind. If you can do that work and understand what the impact and meaning is, you have a totally different experience than just showing up and scrubbing.
Two brick layers side by side doing the same work. One guy is laying bricks, the other builds a cathedral, and they're doing the same work, but they have totally different experiences.
Josh Sharkey [00:13:43]:
It reminds me of, and not a direct comparison by any means, but I don’t know if you’ve read the book by Viktor Frankl, “Man's Search for Meeting.” Incredible book. But the premise of finding meaning in suffering, is one of the only ways humans can actually find real meaning. We're going to always suffer and some of the best things are found through that.
Mateo Kehler [00:14:12]:
We suffer a lot. There's a lot of suffering in the production of a world class cheese.
Josh Sharkey [00:14:16]:
Well, why don't we talk about that a little bit? So, I, I think most of the country knows about a lot of your cheeses. My wife and I alone have eaten a ton of it. You have this cooperative and you have all these other folks that you're working with. But can you talk a little bit about the cooperative that you built, sort of what happened when you started partnering with Cabot? And just generally kind of dig a little bit more into how it works.
Mateo Kehler [00:14:50]:
So we never intended to do anything other than milk cows and make cheese and have a life on the land with our families. And then Cabot Creamery knocked on our door and asked if we would make for them a private label, like English style bandaged cheddar, which was a ridiculous idea. This is like 2003, the year that we started making cheese.
And we hadn't sold a scrap of our own cheese yet and we were milking 15 heifers. We're barely making enough milk to hit the agitator paddle on our cheese vat. Instead of dismissing them, because we weren't their first stop, I think we were their eighth or ninth stop, I asked them to entertain the idea of actually making the cheese and we would ripen it.
We would do the affinage because we had this cellar that we had built under our creamery and there wasn't any cheese in it because we were in startup mode. We worked with them, charged them a per pound, per month aging fee. The cheese was incredible. After 18 months of R&D, they came and picked up about 10,000 pounds of cheese and took it back to a warehouse in Williston, Vermont and tried to sell it.
And you know, this cheese is covered with mold, right? In a nutshell, that's our business model. Growing mold on cheese. So it couldn't go to their cut and wrap plant and couldn't ride on their trucks. It couldn't use their distribution system, because from their perspective, it was tainted.
If you go to Walmart and buy a chunk of Cabot cheese and there's a little spot of blue mold, you freak out. Yep. And so they tried to sell this cheese. It turned out their customers didn't understand this cheese and their sales team didn't really get this cheese. And our customers at the time were a bunch of snobs that wouldn't buy cheese from Cabot.
And so, after four or five months, I called them up to see how it was going, whether this relationship was going anywhere and they had sold five wheels of cheese and I asked them if they would like help moving this product. Our customers trusted us and I was able to place 10,000 pounds of Cabot clothbound in about 10 days.
But the part that was really transformative was that we were a FedEx based business with a dial up internet connection, at that point. And we built our first pallet and put Cabot clothbound on the bottom. We put Bayley Hazen Blue on top of the clothbound and the Constant Bliss on top of the Bayley Hazen Blue.
And then we called all our friends and neighbors. San Francisco started aggregating, which was great for local cheesemakers, but it was a real service for our customers who now with one phone call could get ahold of 14 different cheeses, where before it was 14 different phone calls, which if you've ever tried to get ahold of a farmstead cheesemaker, these are busy people that don't generally answer the phone.
We saw suddenly that there was this opportunity, and that's really where the idea for the cellars at Jasper Hill was born. And we took this best in show, which Cabot Bound won in 2006 at the American Cheese Society. And we took that win and the contract we had with Cabot to the bank literally.
And that contract with Cabot was really interesting because it paid us these aging fees, right? It was like a line of credit that was tied to volume. They paid us to ripen the cheese and then it was like a consignment deal. So, you know, we sold the cheese to our customers and Cabot billed us 45 days after we invoiced the customer.
We paid them back the aging fees and we paid them back the cost of the green. And in that way we were able to scale up well. We built this crazy piece of infrastructure. It's like 22,000 square feet underground, seven vaulted tunnels. And you know, as our Cabot clothbound inventory grew, our monthly cash flow grew as well.
And we went from 25 wheels of availability per month. In September of 2008, we went to a hundred wheels of availability per month. And in December of 2008, we were like 400 wheels every month. And then, you know what happened? In the fall of 2008 and early 2009, the economy just went down the toilet right as we were starting up.
In January 2009, we sold 32 Cabot clothbound and we had another 400 wheels, you know, coming ripe. In February 2009m we sold 17 and the whole enterprise was teetering at the edge of collapse. We had cash flow because we had all these aging fees from Cabot, but without sales, we're hitting the wall.
And so I went and visited every single one of our customers across the country. And in June, we sold a thousand wheels. And what I learned really was that our customers are really partners and co-creators of the future that we're building for our community here and invested in our success. Particularly at that moment, if the cellars at Jasper Hill had failed it, it would've been a terrible thing for American Cheese, right?
Our customers knew it and they went along with us to help us figure out how to stabilize this thing that we had built in this giant risk that we had taken to survive. And you know, there are deep loyalties and a lot of deep appreciation that we feel for every customer that have supported us along the way, because ultimately we wouldn't be here without them. The participation of these market actors in our world - they're all in with us.
Josh Sharkey [00:21:17]:
And when you say customers, is that a mix of cheese shops and restaurants or distributors?
Mateo Kehler [00:21:19]:
Cheese shops, restaurants, distributors. Everybody went all in, even though nobody was in a position. I mean the market had just stopped. There's nothing moving. Right. And so, you know, we had distributors that cut huge POs. And cheese shops and restaurants that like doubled down. And we're here because of the commitment of a lot of people, both locally, but also out there in the world to hold us up and help us elevate cheese in the United States.
Josh Sharkey [00:21:59]:
I can vividly remember 2008, 2009, it was right before I opened my first restaurant in New York. It was hard to find a restaurant that didn't have, at the very least, the Cabot Clothbound and the Bailey Hazen on the menu. It was pretty much everywhere. I mean, it's still in a ton of them, but it was almost ubiquitous.
Josh Sharkey [00:22:17]:
You've won more awards than anyone could imagine. When it comes to like Best Cheese, Best In Show internationally, nationally, you likely the first one ever that has collateralized Cheese. That's pretty cool.
Mateo Kehler [00:22:30]:
Well, cheese is a form of capital and a store of value.There's still banks in Reggio Emilia, where you can take your wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano and make a deposit and they'll front you 80% of the cash value like on the spot. So cheese is a form of capital. Yeah, that’s like a foundational idea for us.
Josh Sharkey [00:22:55]:
So you started, you know, producing for Cabot or at least aging for them. You built this massive, 20,000 square foot underground cellar. How did you start, you know, bringing in other cheesemakers or other farmers? What was sort of the next step there?
Mateo Kehler [00:23:08]:
Well, initially it was a “build it and they will come” kind of approach. And we built it and they came and they came with all their problems, their microbiological problems and their texture problems and their attitudinal disorders. And I think in the early days we peaked at like 13 cheese producers. And the problem was that they didn't have the same commitment to quality that we had
They didn't have the resources to really address some of their infrastructure, like the source of their quality problems. And you know, it turns out there isn't like a market for second quality artisan cheese. There isn't. In order to command the kind of premium price that is required to sustain a small artisan cheese business, you have to be able to deliver quality and consistently at a very high level and it’s not as easy as it seems.
I mean, there's all the microbiology. The foundational microbial ecology of raw milk cheese is really the sum of the practices on a farm and how you feed your cows, how you bed your cows, your water quality, your facility design, your milking protocol.
And that's before you even get to the cheese making part. There's so much that has to go right in order for a cheese to be delicious and great, I guess is my point. You know, for years, you know, we had kind of a stable of four farmstead cheese makers from our area, and they've since retired except for the Von Trapp farmstead who produce Oma, and we ripen about half of their cheese production annually and introduce them to the market, and they make a few other cheeses that they distribute directly.
Where like over time our focus has shifted to really supporting dairy farmers in our community. You know, there's this apocalypse that's happening in the dairy industry. It's been a trend that's been going on for probably decades at this point where growth on scale efficiency is driven by this kind of race for cheap food.
And the reality is that 50 cow hundred cow dairies on rocky hillside farms in Vermont can't compete with 90,000 cow operations in Kansas or these 40,000 cow dairies in the Central Valley of California. And milk is everywhere. You know, they're pulling the water out of it and trucking it across the country and then putting the water back into it on the other side of the country.
It's a crazy market out there, and our intention really is to funnel. One of the ways we think about our business is that we're building a pipeline. To places in the country where there's disposable income, we're putting high value products into that pipeline, and we're sucking cash out of communities that have disposable income and redistributing it in ways that commodity markets don't.
And our focus is really a 15 mile radius of Greensboro. It's our natural community. It's four towns. I guess it's seven or eight years ago, we went through this visioning process as a business. Everybody in the company wrote a vision of greatness, and that was one of the things that came out of that exercise.
And every year, my brother Andy sorts all our expenses by zip code and we make decisions about how to steer like the flows of capital that come into our business and then out. In a way that can maximize the impact within that 15 mile radius. And we spend a lot of money. You know, we're not a wildly profitable business.
But you know, economic sustainability and profitability is fundamental to being able to achieve our mission. Profit is not the purpose. Profit serves the purpose. And in that sense, you know, we're really looking at spending as much money, depositing as much money within our community and building as much wealth here as we can. And cheese is just the way we do that. It's the lever that we're yanking.
Josh Sharkey [00:27:57]:
It's almost like you're a warrior against commoditized industrialization. Cheese is the medium. But it seems to me that you're fighting the fight against what is happening in our country. I mean, I'm sure across the world with just commoditizing everything.
Mateo Kehler [00:28:14]:
Yeah and the homogenization of life as we know it. That's one of the things about raw milk cheese. It is a real reflection of a land, of farm practices of people, you know, the natural expression or the expression of a natural economy ultimately.
We live inside a capitalist system. We're harnessing the market that exists out there in a way that reverses the flows of capital, which for generations have flowed from rural communities and been concentrated in urban and suburban communities. That's how you get Donald Trump, by the way. It’s too many years of just this extractive economic agricultural policy that lays waste to rural America.
Our intention is really to reverse the flow of capital so that we have capital flowing from urban and suburban communities to this rural community that you know is otherwise challenged by the same global forces that every rural community around the world, across the world is facing. Cheese is powerful. It's just this incredibly dense value packed product.
Josh Sharkey [00:29:38]:
And that’s what's so inspiring about it is to accomplish that, you clearly have to have this commitment to excellence because if you had a mediocre product and you were trying to do that, it just wouldn't work.
Mateo Kehler [00:29:58]:
It would not work. No. I tell my team, you know, it's like we have to get up every morning and reach for the gold ring. You know, if you don't reach for perfection, you never achieve excellence and you never achieve perfection either. But without reaching for it, you never achieve excellence.
Quality is our only comparative and competitive advantage. Cause there's no competing on cost. We're a rounding error out there in the dairy industry. If we're going to succeed as a business, nevermind, as like a transformative agent of change in Greensboro, Vermont, the cheese just needs to be next level.
It needs to be outstanding. And we've taken to saying that we make outrageously delicious cheese in order to conserve our working landscape. And it needs to be outrageously delicious. And, you know, that's the goal.
Josh Sharkey [00:31:04]:
How do you like to reiterate this mission, this vision to your team? Like throughout the day, week, month? You know, obviously the process itself is doing some of that, but how else are you sort of like getting your team sort of energized and reminding them constantly of this as I'm sure it's something that has to be part of the culture.
Mateo Kehler [00:31:25]:
You know, we've been able to attract a critical mass of folks that are crazy about cheese. You know, we have the best team. We have the best like educators. Cheese education is fundamental to our marketing efforts. We have a lot of thought leadership in our industry because we make ridiculous investments and quality. We have a microbiology lab and a doctor of microbiology with tools that enable us to do full genome sequencing and measure quality in all kinds of different ways.
We have a sensory program that represents a huge amount of cost. But it's like the combination and the feedback loops, the systematic production of real data that enable cheese makers to really understand the trajectory of the cheese that they're making each and every day and across the seasons and across the years.
That's one way, but the other part of it is populating the business with cheese fanatics, right? And that becomes infectious because about half of our team is local and have no exposure to fine dining and the world that our cheeses inhabit once they leave us. And the other half of our team is chefs, front of the house, sommeliers.
They're like beer geeks, they're cheesemongers that are making career moves to move out here into the middle of nowhere to participate in this thing called Jasper Hill. So like it feeds on itself.
Josh Sharkey [00:33:21]:
What's so compelling about that is you hear it like building culture in a company and what it sounds like you do that by the actions that you take and the decisions that you make, and that helps you to then acquire the people that are fanatics because if you didn't make those decisions and you weren't clear on why you exist and you didn't have microbiologists on staff and you didn't decide to treat the hay the way that you treated that those things, they see them every day and that's what keeps reminding them every day and gets more people involved.
I think it's a great lesson for running a business if you can put every poster up you want and you can have every meeting you want about what we believe in, but nothing does that better than just doing it at all costs. I love that man.
Mateo Kehler [00:33:57]:
I was just going to say, you know, like the pandemic was terrible for us. We lost 40% of our sales overnight when the food service industry just shut down. And Andy and I spent some time thinking about how to respond, and we did two things. We dispersed the cows at our home farm, which was one of the hardest things we've ever done to our neighbors.
So we could continue to support our neighbors in a really meaningful way, and we kept our people. And the second thing we did was doubled down on our investment in the tools and equipment and the facilities to make a real deal, like raw milk cheese and to take the quality of our cheese up two or three notches, right?
So it was nerve wracking. Because on the one hand our sales were going down the toilet. On the other hand, we decided to spend almost $5 million on an expansion and investment in cheese making equipment to really take cheese quality up a notch. And it was, this raw milk cheese, right? So it was like we're putting a steak in the ground big time on raw milk cheese quality.
We built this amazing facility and we have the capacity to make just the most beautiful cheese that really captures, you know, the character of milk, where before like our process was kind of cobbled together with like cast-off equipment that we had brought from here and there and our cheese had all these technical defects and we didn't have great process for control.
Now we have process control and it becomes all about the. And it enables us to get into this whole other stage of our business where we can really focus on the milk and the farming side. The land side of the business in a way that enhances the quality of the cheese because from just a processing cheese making perspective, we have the right tools.
So you got hit by a pandemic, lost 40% of your business, and then decided to invest $5 million on making it better. That's incredible. So you have a microbiologist on staff. We have a whole facility on staff. And you know, it's clear, you want to deeply understand the cellular level, what's happening with the cheese. While all this is going on with the milk, with everything, how are you using microbiology to innovate?
Mateo Kehler [00:36:31]:
You know, microbes are the source of deliciousness. Like fundamentally cheese without microbes is not cheese. But this is an incredible time to be in fermented foods because for millennia, humans have been making cheese, but understanding what's happening has been almost invisible.
I used to say that being a cheesemaker is like playing God, except you're blind and dumb because you unleash these universes of life and then you wipe them out, you know, and then you see, oh, does this taste good or not? Now with things like next generation, DNA sequencing, cheeses for instance, you can see what's happening and who's there and what the biomechanics are and how these communities assemble.
And it's given us a really ecological perspective on cheese. And the holy grail really is like understanding what the relationship between microbiology and sensory attributes are. Because once you kinda crack the code there.
Josh Sharkey [00:37:18]:
You mean like texture?
Mateo Kehler [00:37:47]:
Texture and flavor and aroma, yeah. The reality is that microbes have been studied at infinity in isolation, but they don't exist in isolation. They exist as parts of a community. And so the way that we farm is really intended to create this microbial diversity. And what we've learned is that diversity is always good, you know?
Diversity in as a human organization, diversity in terms of microbiology, ecology, and nature. Diversity always brings strength, resilience, and in the case of cheese, like complexity of flavor, and there's like a linear correlation between microbial diversity and complexity of flavor. The lab has enabled us to really start peeling that diversity and learning how when you change a practice on the farm, it results in a change in the microbial ecology in the community. Making raw milk cheese brings some risks, but we are bringing pathogens specifically, you know, most cheese is pasteurized milk.
And when you pasteurize milk, you sever its connection to the practices in the place. And we're really working on building these cheeses and markets for these cheeses that have like next level texture and complexity of flavor. And we do that by really dialing in our farming system. And the quality of our soil and the diversity of grass species and, you know, the practices on our farms in order to maximize flavor potential. And that's our angle right there.
Josh Sharkey [00:39:43]:
So freaking cool, man. What's like one thing that you learned and maybe changed in the process through doing all these experiments and utilizing microbiology that has changed the way that you make cheese or something that, you know, some of the farming practices or any example of that that you've now sort of like implemented into the cheesemaking process that you didn't do before?
Mateo Kehler [00:40:05]:
Historically, you know, some of the farms that we work with, fed silage, fermented feed, right? And we learned that the ecology on those farms that feed fermented feed is different from the farms that feed dry hay, for instance. And we've been able to essentially eliminate like listeria and clostridium blowing and some of these like defects with big economic consequences by changing how we feed our cows.
You know, the other thing we've learned through all of this is. How to manage sanitation in a way that doesn't devastate the ecology, like some of our environments in the cellars, right? Because, you know, the environment contaminates in the best sense of that word, you know, the surface of the cheese, and it becomes like a feedback loop where if you clean too much, you don't want things to be dirty.
For instance, we don't use any chlorine anymore in our creamery or on the farm either. It basically denatures protein and even just a little residual chlorine is going to change the fundamentals of cheese chemistry. So things need to be clean. They do not want to be sterile.
Josh Sharkey [00:41:33]:
It reminds me of a wine, you probably know called manzanilla, which is a sherry, and it's in this little town called Sanlúcar de Barrameda off the Coast of Spain and there's this yeast that comes off the coast, flow water is what they call it.
And it inoculates the wine that they're making and you can only get it there. And, um, you know, if they were trying to remove things in the environment, they would lose that. And I think now, because we know so much more and science can be deployed so much more deeply to the things that we make, like, it's just incredible that what can happen now with wine, cheese, all these kinds of fermented products.
I definitely want to dig into what you see sort of coming next. So you're doing all these experiments and obviously your cheese is everywhere, but what's sort of the next new innovation you're thinking about with cheese and just to sort of make sure there's no box there, just even could be just discovering something new about something that you already do to improve it.
Mateo Kehler [00:42:38]:
I think the quest for quality is never ending. Cheese making is an endless series of problems that require solving because you know, your raw material changes on a daily basis. Like winemakers have vintages and they're annual. We have a vintage every day, and that gives us the opportunity to really master and explore the technology of the frequency.
The microbiology of winemaking and the control you have in winemaking is so much greater. I mean, the microbiology is much simpler. The process has more control. So the opportunities for improving on the cheese and cheese making and the execution of this process day in and day out is steering the affinage and taking the cheese in different directions.
The possibilities are kind of endless. And the opportunity for lifelong learning is one of the things that I love so much about cheese. It's so complicated. You know, when I take a step back and look at where we are in relation to what's happening in the rest of the world, you know, I really see this consolidating force.
Like capitalism is mature right now. Amazon has bought Whole Foods, right? Kroger owns Murray's cheese. There's a thousand Murray's counters across the country. Our colleagues have all been purchased by multinational corporations. We're the last independent artisan cheesemaker at our scale in the United States.
And those are the things that really occupy my mind. What comes next Is really working on plotting a course for the business. You know, using some of the fundamental principles that we've talked about to ensure that, you know, cheese and like Jasper Hill and cheese making in general is like installed in a generational way within our community.
I've been doing this for 20 years at Jasper Hill. You know, I've been making cheese for almost 30 years. I have teenage kids who know what they're thinking about, and I have this incredible crew of young, ambitious people around me. And I'm starting to really like, focus on what comes next and try to thread the needle in a way that doesn't strip the business of its values.
Josh Sharkey [00:45:31]:
I think that is what the business is more than a cream. The business is the values that you've instilled and that you're promulgating to the world.
Mateo Kehler [00:45:37]
We call it a value added product.
Josh Sharkey [00:45:39]
You're selling a mission with a side of cheese. Well that's awesome. And I know we're coming close to time. I wanted to dig for a minute if we can just sort of diverging a bit, because, you know, I'm a chef. We live in the world of chefs and restaurants, and you work with a lot of chefs and the cheese is used in a ton of restaurants as well.
You're collaborating with some chefs on different types of cheese. You mentioned Dan Barber. Maybe if you wanna talk a bit about the kind of projects that you're working on with chefs as it relates to cheese, and then any other interesting things that you've seen of how chefs are serving your cheese?
Mateo Kehler [00:46:21]:
You know, it's always a blast to show up at a restaurant and watch how creative chefs can be with these cheeses that we know so intimately. And I always get a real charge out of that. Like, the first time I saw a tableside Flambe of a Harbison
Josh Sharkey [00:46:46]:
Craig Baxtrum, right? The fondue? Yeah. It's a delicious one.
Yeah, it’s a full on like next level reinterpretation. So there's that part which is like, you know, chefs taking our cheese and pairing our cheese in new and interesting ways, and the amount of creativity and innovation that's happening out there generally is just like endless. But we have a long history of collaborations with chefs, whether it's taking fig leaves that are picked off the fig tree in the front yard at the French Laundry and macerating them and wrapping cheese for their menu.
Or you know, the project we're working on presently with Blue Hill and Chef Dan Barber, it's Bone Char. They're taking all the bones from their butchery. They have a whole animal butchery and they make charcoal out of them, grind them up and send us the charcoal, and they're simultaneously making a garam from beef.
And that comes to us and we're washing the cheese, it's called bone char with garam. And then ashing it with the bone char and it's phenomenal. You get that deep umami, character from the garam. It comes right through. It sounds so freaking good and it's beautiful. It's this little black ingot with a little fuzz of white mold on it.
No, we've done all kinds of special washes. We call them special wash collaborations where chefs will either choose a beverage or liquor of their choosing and we will wash our cheeses with them. It's a way for us to really kind of get close and inspired by innovators out there on the front lines of the food industry that are coming up with ideas, like the bone char is like a real kind of circle closing. It completes a circle in a really kind of interesting way.
Josh Sharkey [00:48:55]:
It sounds so good, man. Let me ask you, I always think about this for my business and tend to ask everybody this anyways.If time and money were not a barrier at all, what would you do next with Jasper Hill or with any of the projects you're doing? Assuming that, like infinite time could happen quickly and capital was not a constraint, what would you do?
Mateo Kehler [00:49:14]:
I would really kind of double down on the waste streams that we produce. In a way that would kind of enable us to capture any value that's currently trickling away. For instance, I think we'd probably build a distillery to take our way and turn it into something awesome.
I think we would revisit a whey fed pork and charcuterie program, which we had started and you know, we really lost the plot during COVID. We lost all our kill slots, so we probably would build a slaughterhouse and a vertically integrated meat business that would be nested within the waste streams that we're producing on the farm, that sort of thing.
Josh Sharkey [00:50:08]:
Is there other waste that happens in the farming process?
Mateo Kehler [00:50:10]:
Well, not all cheese is delicious. And we only sell delicious cheese. And the first advice I ever give anybody that's starting out is go buy some pigs.
Josh Sharkey [00:50:10]:
So it's doing something with the X percent of cheese that you have to assume is just a loss.
Mateo Kehler [00:50:27]:
Yeah. And we have tasting wheels
Josh Sharkey [00:50:28]:
That's awesome. Who's your biggest influence in life?
Mateo Kehler [00:50:30]:
I was thinking about who that might be and the first thing that came to mind would be my parents, who are both really inspirational people in different ways. I think we get like our ethical and moral compass from Mom. And Dad is like a serial entrepreneurial man who never met a risk he didn't want to take.
And it's a combination of both our parents that have enabled us to really kind of take the leap in a really thoughtful and clear considered way. Then, that was a cop out with Mom and Dad. So then I'd probably say Noam Chomsky, who I read endlessly and has really kind of fixed my worldview in terms of the political economy of the world that we live in and how to nest our work within the context of what's happening in the world at large.
Josh Sharkey [00:51:47]:
Yeah, he's a brilliant, brilliant thinker. Love that. Any favorite books that you go back to or recommend often?
Mateo Kehler [00:51:51]:
The Botany of Desire, Michael Poll. It's his first book. It's the natural history of like four plants. It really influenced me early on. And changed the way I think about agriculture. He's written a lot of books since then, but yeah. That's a great book.
Josh Sharkey [00:52:17]:
Omnivore’s Dilemma is also an incredible one.
Mateo Kehler [00:52:19]:
Amazing. Yeah. In Omnivore's Dilemma, he takes like the foundational work he did in Botany of Desire and really bumps it up.
Josh Sharkey [00:52:22]:
Yeah. I just finished Changing Your Mind as well. Well, this was even better than I could have thought. So thanks so much for taking some time.
Mateo Kehler [00:52:37]:
Awesome. And I can't wait to watch meez just blossom out there in the world and look forward to keeping up with you and collaborating if we can.
Josh Sharkey [00:52:54]:
Yeah, absolutely. I appreciate it. Any, any last words you wanna say to friends, colleagues, you know, anywhere out in the world?
Mateo Kehler [00:52:59]:
Standardization is the enemy In the sense that the whole world is being standardized. We're hoping that people can really start to explore quality in a way that is not dependent on standardization. Right? So, you know, our cheese is variable. We have a certain bandwidth of quality. Look for those producers out there who like real products because the small washing, the artisan washing, the greenwashing, it's hard to really penetrate the world of marketing in a way that reveals truly authentic products that are produced by real people in real places.
Josh Sharkey [00:53:49]:
That is an awesome way to end this. Standardization is the enemy. I love that. Well, thank you again. Hey, appreciate it. Be well. Cheers.
Josh Sharkey [00:54:04]:
Thanks for tuning into The meez Podcast. Your music from the show is a remix of the song Art Mirror by an old friend, hip hop artist, Fresh Daily.
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Keep innovating. Don't settle. Make today a little better than yesterday. And remember, it's impossible for us to learn what we think we already know. See you next time.