How much Avalanche Cheese can people eat?
June 16, 2011
BASALT – How did Darren Ryan, a food distributor in San Francisco, manage to get Avalanche Cheese in his line of products? According to Wendy Mitchell, the owner/cheese-maker of Basalt-based Avalanche, it was a combination of luck and perseverance. “He called me up and wouldn’t stop calling. Finally, he got me on a good day,” Mitchell said.Ryan, who places Avalanche Cheese in cheese shops and specialty grocers in the San Francisco area, is the one dealer outside of Colorado who gets his hands on Avalanche products. Even in most of Colorado, the goat cheeses – bleu; cheddar; cabra blanca; fresh chevre; the soft, Robiola-style named Lamborn Bloomers; and two varieties of cheese spread – are a rarity; Avalanche recently got picked up by Whole Foods, but availability is limited to five stores on the Front Range.On the Avalanche Farm & Dairy in Paonia, though, Mitchell has 135 milkers – females, or does, actively giving milk – which translates to a lot of milk, and a lot of cheese. It’s enough for Mitchell – who has seven full-time employees on the farm, another three at the creamery in Basalt, plus part-timers in high season – to exclaim, “I’m shocked at the volume we do.”So where is all that cheese going? Nowhere. Or more precisely, not very far. As shocked as Mitchell is about the amount of cheese she is making, she is awed by how much of it is being consumed locally. Between Aspen and Glenwood Springs, Avalanche has nearly 40 accounts, including most of the top-tier restaurants, including Cache Cache, Pacifica, Rustique and the Pitkin County Steakhouse, which offers the cheese on their salad bar. Montagna creates an all-Avalanche cheese plate. (“Sometimes I eat that and go, I can’t believe this is my cheese. They make it look so special,” Mitchell said.)”I thought when we got to a certain volume, we’d have to be shipping all over the country to get rid of it all and take on a distributor. But the majority of our clients are in the Roaring Fork Valley and a lot of little shops in Paonia,” Mitchell, who works a booth at the Aspen Saturday Market, said. “Sometimes you think, How much cheese can people eat? Sometimes I worry it’ll be like a song on the radio – you hear it so much, you’re sick of it: ‘Oh, not that song again.'”While creating the business, Mitchell has also given herself an education in cheese-making. And goat-farming. And unexpected sidelights like animal husbandry and irrigation. Mitchell had some experience in the restaurant business in her native Texas when she launched Avalanche just over two years ago. She says it was an ideal time to begin a niche-food business with a small geographic reach.”I think it’s the great storm of a lot of things at once,” she said. “The local movement has grown in the last few years, right as I started. We’re in a town where we love food, and where people can pay for an artisan product. There’s that mentality here – people will pay for a product where they know where it comes from, they know it’s fresh, they know the animals are treated humanely.”Mitchell was inspired to try her hand at cheese during an extended trip to Scotland, where she spent her time visiting cheese-makers – usually old ladies who were happy to pass on their knowledge so the methods wouldn’t die out. Back in Colorado, the least of her worries was making a fine-tasting product.”We knew, because we have total control over the goats, the pasture,” she said. “The cheese is good because the milk is good. The milk is fresh.”Now that everyone in the valley seems to know, too, about the quality of the cheese, Mitchell is focused on how best to expand the business (slowly and carefully) and market the products. She is no longer seeking new clients – “We’re just keeping up,” she said – but has added a goat-and-pork sausage to her product line, as a way to make use of the older goats; moving the production of fresh chevre to the Paonia farm, to free up space at the creamery; and getting into social media as a marketing tool. And she’s cooking up ideas for another cheese – a gouda that will age a year to 18 months.”Maybe in the fall, when things slow down. If things slow down,” she said.Mitchell is also thinking about growing the goat herd up to 200 milkers. But the idea gives her pause.”That might be too many,” she firstname.lastname@example.org