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Recently, Cultured Kindness joined the strip of businesses known as the Vegan Mini-Mall in Portland, Oregon. On the vegan cheese shop’s opening day, food lover – and non-vegetarian – A.L. Briles was blown away by the samples on offer. “The flavor was like port wine cheese,” she said of the wine-washed gouda-style she tried. “This stuff chucks my assumptions right out the door. It would fit right in on any cheese board on its own merits.”
Yvonne Fide, owner of vegan-friendly cocoa company Momo Cocoa, agreed. “It doesn’t have that strange aftertaste that some vegan cheeses have,” she says. “And it has a lot more umami flavor.” Fide uses Cultured Kindness cream cheese on bagels for the snacks she offers at her cocoa pop-ups.
For the past four years, Cultured Kindness’s cheese has been available at several Portland restaurants, farmer’s markets, and a selection of grocery stores throughout the Pacific Northwest. Their new shop and production space allows the company to ramp up their output, experiment with new flavors, and wow a new clientele. I spoke to co-owners and husbands Justin Miller and Mike Mendiola as the shop approached its one month anniversary.
Great Cheese Takes Time
Like many vegan cheesemakers before him, Miller got into the business because he couldn’t find a plant based cheese he enjoyed. He finally cracked the code with the help of Miyoko Schinner’s groundbreaking Artisan Vegan Cheese. Culturing cashews enabled him to go fully vegan without sacrificing the zippy flavours he loved.
Over the years, Miller has developed ten core cheeses, his favorite of which is the Nutty Dragon, a complex aged cheese enhanced with dark ale and mustard seeds. Mendiola’s first choice of the main lineup is the extremely creamy, slightly punchy Pepper Brie.
Now that they have their own shop, Miller is ready to experiment further with different cultures, aging times, and ingredients, and aims to offer a rotation of shop-exclusive specialities. Currently aging in their dedicated walk-in cooler are more of the goudas that blew away Briles; a simple, long-aged cashew wheel that boasts the oomph of white cheddar; and cheeses washed with The Abyss, an Imperial Stout made by Portland’s Deschutes Brewery. A pepita-based Sage Derby is on its way for the holidays.
Let Them Eat Cake
Though he mostly handles the business side, Mendiola has developed cheesecakes using his husband’s cream cheese to add to the shop’s offerings. “I wanted something to help show people this can be a one-to-one replacement for dairy cheese,” he said. “And everyone loves cheesecake!”
Mendiola recently made a cheesecake featuring ube, a bright purple yam familiar to him from his Filipino heritage. Cheese isn’t a huge part of Filipino cuisine, so he was happy to highlight his background with this dessert.
“I like to showcase the fact that we’re a BIPOC-owned, LGBTQ company,” he said. The company’s core values include giving back to causes they care about like the Asian American Youth Leadership Conference, Brave Space Resiliency Project, and Portland Guinea Pig Rescue — Miller has a soft spot for small animals and the couple’s family includes six rescued guinea pigs and one chinchilla.
The cheesecake venture also allows the team to partner with more local businesses. Mendiola has incorporated Bloom Caramel into one of his cakes and has a chocolate version in development using Momo Cocoa’s products. Miller also makes a cheese studded with candied jalapenos made by Scoot n’ Pickle, a micro-brand run by a friend who will also be using the new Cultured Kindness production space.
“There’s a sort of scrappiness to the Portland food scene,” Momo Cocoa’s Fide said. “We’re putting together something special, so we want to help each other out. I mean, there’s always competition, but there’s also a lot of, ‘I still want you to be lifted up.’”
When searching for space, Cultured Kindness’s first priority was a production kitchen, while a storefront was a “nice-to-have.” But the company’s Vegan Mini-Mall shop has quickly become a bigger part of the business than the couple initially imagined. While it’s been a learning curve, the team has quickly pivoted to cater to the neighbourhood’s enthusiastic clientele.
“The space we moved into used to be a vegan grocery store, and there’s a little awning out front that says ‘Sandwiches, Snacks, Drinks’ that we had planned to update,” Miller explained. “But at our soft opening people were like, ‘You have sandwiches?’ We probably would have done that down the road, but it was like ‘Okay, let’s go ahead and do that now.’” They quickly rolled out smoky apple, mojo-style jackfruit, and mushroom melt panini options.
While Miller and Mendiola would love to see their main line of cheeses accessible nationwide one day, having their own shop allows them to be part of the Portland vegan scene in a way they value. “I want people to come to Portland as much as possible to see our cheeses,” Mendiola said. “I think Portland is a really good vegan destination, and we want to be part of that.”