Thursday, February 14, 2008

Natural Selection

It is important to know what we’re putting into our bodies. Important for us, important for the future, and important if you believe in the power of small business. Buying fresh, buying local, and buying smart keeps people who you probably relate most closely to in your tastes and ideals in business. Producers of fine artisan goods take pride in their craft and go to cost and labor lengths that bigger businesses won’t to make sure you have a great product.

Meet Beecher’s Handmade Cheeses. These guys are really cool.

Located in a busy Seattle market, Beecher’s makes a variety of artisan cheeses with milk from cows that are not fed growth hormones and that only eat high quality feed. This allows Beecher’s to make high quality cheese from the highest quality local milk available.

At their retail location in Pike Place Market, Beecher’s makes their cheese on premises while operating a café and cheese counter that offers their “World’s Best" Mac and Cheese alongside of Beecher’s and other local cheeses. Beecher’s is also the brains behind the Pure Foods Kids Workshop, which works to teach the youth about how foods effect your body, how to understand Nutritional Facts, and how to understand the marketing that is aimed at them.

Kurt Dammeier is the founder and owner of Beecher’s and his commitment to keeping it local and keeping it smart is a true testament to a form of consumerism that makes a difference and is easily achieved by us all. Kurt also owns 20% of the Pyramid Breweries business and is a member on their board. For the interview, click to

GB: For people unfamiliar (like me all the way over here on the East Coast) how would you describe Pike Place Market and how would you say that has helped expose Beecher’s to customers?

Kurt Dammeier: The market is the soul of the city. It has been operating continuously since the turn of the last century. It is a source of pride in a very new city that the center is still very old.

Did you open as just a cheese producer and shop or was the café in operation from the get go?

The store/cheesemaking was opened four years ago exactly as is. We are making more cheese now but the cheese sales, café and cheesemaking were there from the start.

Do you remember what cheese really opened your eyes and made you get serious about what you were eating? I understand you were pretty passionate about it from a young age.

Hard to imagine, but back in the early seventies when I was about 10 Tillamook was the artisan cheese of the time. I noticed a BIG difference between it and the commodity cheddar. Of course it was still made in open vats by people at the time.

What led you to Brad Sinko? What is the working relationship like between the two of you? Do you find yourself pitching him cheese suggestions or does he have free reign?

We found Brad through a recruiter. My role is basically creative director, We make to my idea and my palette.

How much have the cheese classes you hold at Beecher’s gotten you in touch with your customers and how much have they taught you about your own business?

An old saying is that to learn, teach. And yes, teaching these classes has forced me to learn much more.

I am not exaggerating when I say I have had your website open all day long at work. Every time I come back to it I find more and more useful information. What made you want to have such a complete source for providing customers with information about caring for and pairing cheese and the importance of buying fresh, local, undisturbed products?

I am a big believer in building the category with consumers, not just trying to sell our cheese. The old rising tide floats all boats theory That is why we sell a broad variety of local artisan cheeses and why our website seeks to educate.

How important is it to get milk from animals that aren’t pumped full of chemicals? And as more and more people move into an educated form of consumerism, how much more common do you see natural, fair, and whole foods being in the marketplace?

Michael Pollan’s new book has a saying. You are what you eat eats. It is important for flavor and for health.

How did the Pure Food Kids Workshop come about? It’s an amazing idea, how has it been going so far?

We started out with the idea that we would donate our 1% of sales to existing programs that were doing this. Then we found there weren’t any so we started one ourselves.

So you are a board member with the Pyramid Breweries, how did you get involved with them?

It seemed an interesting investment and I knew it would be a good place for me to learn about premium products. I bought about 20% of the company in the public markets and then was asked to join the board.

One of the things that i really admire about Pyramid is that they combine a far reach on the market with a sort of non-assuming approach. The beers really speak for themselves. I mean, your roster is anchored by three Weizens. That’s really cool.

In the world of Craft Beer is there a line between a solid offering list and keeping up with the trends?

It may be really two different types of craft brewers. For those in package in a big way across multiple markets you really have to focus on a single core style that is the driver of your business. When you are small you can experiment a lot.

What has the reception been like for the Imperial Hefe?

Very good in the press and with influencers. In terms of barrelage it is pretty small.

Thinking similarly to your strong feelings on local and sustainable culture, what can breweries, who have a lot of sources to consider for their raw materials, do to tie in this way of thinking?

Interestingly, not many have done this with any success. I have been urging PMID to do something along these lines, so far with no success.

One thing that a lot of brewers are talking about right now is perseverance through the challenging times that are looming over the beer industry. With an operation that was around way before the first micro/craft boom, it seems like Pyramid might be one of the best suited breweries to persevere through some potentially rough waters. What is Pyramid doing to prepare for the hop drought and malt hike?

Battening down the hatches. We all know it will be rough, but that prices will rise to cover costs eventually. You just have to be able to hang around.

Now for the obvious question: You get one Pyramid beer to pair with one Beecher’s cheese. What do you do?

I have to go with Flagship Reserve and Hefe…

What Craft Beers are you really into right now?

Mont Blanc Brewing, Blanche. Mostly, I just like to drink what is local*. I don’t take it too seriously.

*Joel's note: Mr. Dammeier was in France at the time of this interview. He REALLY keeps it local.

1 comment:

A Stout Yeoman said...

This guy is my new hero.

That Kurt guy is pretty interesting too.