Food By Sumear specializes in firm vegan cheeses that offer textures similar to their dairy counterparts. The products contain no artificial flavors or preservatives and are free from soy, miso, and nutritional yeast. Most interesting though, is the fact that Sumear was previously a dairy cheesemaker, who later converted to veganism.
We spoke to Sumear about the benefits of using the science of dairy cheesemaking to create an authentic, non-dairy cheese that has converted vegetarians and cheesemakers to his cashew-based products.
Please introduce Food by Sumear to our readers and describe its history and mission.
My name is Sumear, and I run an artisan premium-based vegan cheese business. Specialising in hard cultured cheeses, the aim is to deliver authentic dairy-like flavors by utilising custom-developed microbes and the science & art of dairy cheesemaking.
The knowledge and skill to achieve this has come from my work developing dairy cheese in a past life. My current range includes firm young/sharp cheeses, wood-smoked cheeses, and blue cheeses. There are plans for harder long-aged cheeses from 3 to 12 months of maturity.
You are an ex-dairy cheesemaker. Please share with our readers what motivated you to make the transition to a vegan lifestyle and to producing vegan cheese.
The initial switch to veganism was based on my health, where mental and physical health problems were rampant that can be vaguely described as an eating disorder.
The journey to veganism was not a direct change at first; however, I was more likely to eat properly on a plant-based diet (versus eating nothing at all).
Dairy started having a negative impact on my life as well, causing minor reactions. I looked at my options and made a switch to being vegan overnight. “Veganism for the animals,” came months later due to the need to focus on my recovery first.
For cheesemaking, I took the pragmatic and experimental approach. The microbes in cheesemaking play the most significant role in the flavors we adore. By understanding the science, fermentation, cheesemaking, and using dairy-methods for most of my processes, the switch from producing dairy cheese to vegan cheese was pretty easy.
Small tweaks have been made since day one of this journey to what we see now, however, the underlying rule is that it is the bacteria in the cultures, the microbes in the environment, and the dairy methods, that play the pivotal role in the cheeses we love — not the dairy (though it does impact cheesemaking in other ways).
Your cheeses are known for their hard texture and authentic taste. How do you accomplish this where so many other vegan cheesemakers fail?
Making dairy cheese beforehand made the biggest difference as it not only shows the role of different bacteria but the importance of the methods in cultivating and the importance of salt, brining, ageing, and more.
Many artisan vegan cheeses fall into the trap that nooch (nutritional yeast) and spices will fix everything and give everything a “cheesy” flavor. Cheesy is not often used to describe dairy cheeses, and there is more to this than just “tangy.” They end up tasting flat, whereas proper dairy cheese has a depth of complexity in its profile.
I developed my strain of cultures that gets better with age as it is a “generational starter” or a Mother Culture. It is similar to a Mother sourdough starter or Kombucha’s “SCOOBY.” These microbes help get that initial boost of flavor and action in the cultivation stage.
After this, the dairy methods and safety techniques come in. Affineur (maturing) is an essential step to the process that allows microbes in the cheese, cultures, and the environment to work together. Compared to others, my vegan cheese is pushed further by maturing for longer, which needs to be done safely and in the correct environment.
Due to the success of this past year, I managed to reinvest over £7,000 (approximately $9,000) back into the business to build a custom faux cheese cave. A cheese cave is a climate-controlled room that has a low temperature and high humidity that mimics a cave-like environment. This room houses a community of cheese friendly microbes, allows them to thrive, and help develop tasty cheeses.
Please explain how you minimise the environmental impact of sourcing, packaging, and shipping your cheese.
Trying to be as environmentally conscious as possible has been important to me, even in my dairy days.
All my current retail packed versions of cheeses are sold in HOME-compostable packaging that is specially developed for the cheese to ensure they are kept safe and avoid food waste. What’s great about this film is there are no toxins, no microplastics, and even if it hits ocean life, it has a 90% minimum degradation.
Everything purchased is in bulk, and from local suppliers where possible. The only points that pain me, which I fall short on, are the impact that cashews have in shipping, and the use of plastic in the chilled shipping packaging. Hopefully, in time, I can correct these.
Your goal is to create a 100% British ingredient vegan cheese. What stage are you in accomplishing this goal?
I set this goal for myself as though vegan cheese made with cashews can be argued to having a lower footprint compared to locally made dairy cheese. Cashews still leave an unnecessarily negative footprint on the environment.
Using ingredients that are grown locally, in theory, will vastly reduce the carbon footprint of the final products, and support the local economy.
However, finding the right ingredients has been tough. I regularly run many experiments to find what works, but I have lost count on the number of failures so far. It stems from the quality of the fat needed in cheese when paired with a high protein plant food. I have an idea to use something grown in the EU, but I am still looking for something affordable in the UK.
The result is still way off; however, 2020 sees me running a lot of experiments to get there sooner!
Where are your cheeses available for purchase?
The cheese is available in many shops within the UK, including La Fauxmagerie (UK’s first plant-based cheesemonger).
Link to stockists: https://foodbysumear.co.uk/pages/stockists. I also sell on foodbysumear.co.uk with occasional monthly cheese box deals. I appear in a few local markets and events in the Southwest of England. However, my plans in 2020 see me reducing my events to work closer with independent food shops around the UK.
Please share your eating disorder recovery with our readers. Is practicing a plant-based lifestyle helping you to overcome it?
Starting a plant-based diet, and then going onto a vegan lifestyle has helped me a lot in recovering from an eating disorder. It was not the only contributing factor; however, it was a major one.
My journey started with myself being very obese, then very underweight. As underweight, I still saw myself as an obese person and reacted by eating very little. Wanting to get better but fearing a lot of foods, eating loads of plant foods was the easiest option, and I genuinely had more fun cooking from scratch with plants.
Honestly speaking, though, I am not out of the woods yet. I am at a heavier, healthier, and stable weight, but I still struggle on the mentality side of it, where I don’t like what I see in the mirror. However, it is a journey, and I am no longer alone. Through the vegan and local events, I have made many great connections with other vegan business owners where we genuinely care for one another.
What is important to say, though – veganism does not cause eating disorders. Nor will it cure one. For me, I used it as a crutch to ensure I ate food rather than starve. Understanding veganism and staying for the animals came after I ended up in a safer place mentally to stop fearing foods, loving myself more, and enjoying life.
I also converted a few vegetarians with my cheese as well as shocked a lot of dairy cheesemakers with what can be done when vegan cheese is made the right way. I was interviewed by the Guild Fine Food, where a World Cheese Awards event is held annually. A French cheesemonger and British cheesemaker interviewed me and tried my range. All were experts in dairy cheese and enjoyed my product for what it was, cheese. The link to listen to the podcast is on my website.