MouCo Cheese slowly ferments growth

Fort Collins – After more than a decade in business, artisan cheese producer MouCo Cheese is becoming a full-blown player in the growing market for select gourmet products.

MouCo’s sales nearly doubled in 2011 to $486,000 after co-owners Robert Poland and Birgit Halbreiter ramped up distribution nationwide. That was good enough to put MouCo in the top spot on this year’s Mercury 100 among companies with revenues of $1.39 million or less.

MouCo specializes in soft, ripened cheeses, including brie, camembert and trufello, a camembert with black and white truffles in it.

The couple started the company in 1999, after Poland and Halbreiter left New Belgium Brewing Co. in Fort Collins, makers of Fat Tire and other beers, and moved into producing cheese, a realm where they felt there was more potential for a startup.

Reflecting the realities of a smaller business, Poland credits the company’s sales growth over the past year in part to the fact that their youngest child started school. That gave Halbreiter more time to devote to marketing. The couple also hired another employee to help with sales.

“We’re doing more product demos, especially with breweries, and one of our distributors picked up the Whole Foods business in the Rocky Mountain region,” he said.

Poland and Halbreiter met in 1992 at a conference on beer brewing while Halbreiter was working for Molson Breweries in Canada. Poland, a Boulder native, was working at New Belgium at the time.

Brewing and cheese-making are apparently similar, in the sense that both are produced through fermentation.

“What we do is completely biological in nature, using cultures and organisms to create aroma, texture and flavor,” Poland said. “Malt sugar is fermented into beer and into cheese by the same process.

“It’s an art form that’s been passed down from generation to generation.”

The generational angle played a part in the company’s founding. Halbreiter’s father was an artisan cheese maker in Germany and came to Fort Collins to advise the couple as the business evolved.

“Over the years, he would come out to help for a few months at a time.” Poland said. “Over that time my German and cheese-making got better.”

The milk used to produce its cheese comes from a single dairy eight miles from the MouCo plant.

“We primarily use just one dairy for consistency,” Poland said. “The milk is good and they treat the animals nice.”

The couple bought their own refrigerated milk truck – they call it “Chuck the Truck” – and haul the milk from the dairy to the plant themselves.

Even more challenging than making the cheese was setting up a distribution network.

The couple discovered they sold a lot more cheese through small gourmet shops than they did through larger grocery stores. The shops were better able to explain the advantages, such as taste and freshness, of their more-expensive product.

MouCo’s cheese is wrapped in a special paper made in France that allows air to come in contact with the cheese, softening it gradually as it sits in the refrigerator.

MouCo sells about 70 percent of its cheese to restaurants and resorts.

“A lot of the soft cheeses have been styled to get a lot of shelf life. The (big) producers vacuum-pack them and they lose some of the subtle complexity,” Poland said. “Restaurants and resorts want the exclusive products that we produce.”

Packaging, of course, also helps set apart their product.

“You can see our packages from across the room because of the kind of foil we use,” Poland said. “It’s a ‘wow product,’ something that people can fall in love with.”

MouCo apparently has distinguished itself in one other way.

The company uses special reusable containers to ship its cheese via FedEx that customers then ship back to MouCo.

The environmentally friendly containers caught the attention of Rachel Cohn, of Tomales Bay Foods of Petaluma, Calif., which distributes MouCo cheese in the Northern California market.

“Shipping boxes and shipping materials are really expensive,” she said. “Unless a box has seen a lot of damage, these boxes have much more life in them and Robert has been an innovator in developing and promoting their reuse.”

Cohn said most of the MouCo cheese she sells goes to restaurants, a growth business in the wine-growing areas of Napa and Sonoma counties.

“His cheeses are small with a lot of rind which are really perfect for cheese plates,” she said. “We don’t get that much cheese from Colorado and the Rocky Mountain region, so it’s lovely to have something from there.”

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