As often as four times a week, a tanker transport vehicle known as “Chuck the Truck” heads north from Fort Collins to Wellington so early in the morning that it’s back at the MouCo cheesery by 7 a.m., depositing a load of antibiotic-free milk from La Luna Dairy. Less than three hours out of the cow, the creamy white liquid is on its way to becoming one of the four kinds of soft ripened cheeses that are making the name MouCo synonymous with downright delicious across the country.
Every year for the last 10, MouCo has experienced a phenomenal 20 percent growth rate and so far this year has been more than doubling that. Yet it remains a family business, owned and operated by founders Birgit Halbreiter, “in charge of what’s next,” and Robert R. Poland, “co-owner, vice president,” their companion business cards say.
You can find the pair, and the five cheesemakers who work with them, tucked away in unit #300 at 1401 Duff Drive off Link Lane in Fort Collins. It’s the spot where they moved in 2001 when their business moved out of their home kitchen and formally launched. But Halbreiter and Poland were no amateurs. They knew exactly what they were doing and they possessed the technical expertise, business savvy and common sense to make it fly.
They met when Halbreiter was quality assurance manager and member of the board of directors at New Belgium Brewery in Fort Collins and Poland was fermentation manager there. Poland enjoyed his work but after nine years found himself ready to “refresh and redefine” himself. “We both had good jobs,” he said, “Why not quit and explore a passion?”
They did it wisely. Halbreiter stayed on at New Belgium for several years, juggling her job and a new baby while Poland helped with day care and began experimenting with cheese-making. Poland credits Halbreiter’s father, Franz, a master cheese-maker in Germany, for being his resource and go-to guy. When the couple felt comfortable with the process and the quality of their product, they took the plunge, rented space, bought equipment, obtained the necessary permits and licenses and pronounced themselves in business.
Poland marketed the hard way, visiting grocery stores and contacting restaurants. For the first three years they were in business, MouCo produced only camembert, a mild, tried and true soft cheese. Today they have branched out and offer ColoRouge, Truffello, Ashley and Pepbert, all soft-ripened cheeses with distinctively different flavors.
Before long restaurants across the country and several local grocery stores were carrying MouCo cheeses. Beaver’s Market in Fort Collins was the first store to carry MouCo but today it can be found at Whole Foods, Fort Collins Food Coop, and King Soopers. The Brown Palace in Denver, resorts in Summit County, the Ritz Carlton in New York, Canyon Chop House in Fort Collins, The Tender in Las Vegas and Chimney Park in Windsor are customers.
“It’s really fun to make a product that so many people enjoy,” Poland said. “The people who represent us at farmers’ markets tell us how much people love our cheese. About 70 percent of our business is with restaurants and resorts.”
He enjoys the contacts he’s made. “It’s pretty special getting to know chefs from all over the country.”
Halbreiter, who has a degree in dairy microbiology and is certified in quality assurance, makes use of her technical knowledge daily to assure the quality of the cheese, managing timing and bacteria growth. The process begins with pasteurizing the raw milk to Colorado state standards, letting it “go quiet” for a day and then heating it again with rennet added to give acidity and texture. Soon the addition of an enzyme causes the milk to become a solid mass known as curd.
At just the right time, the curds are cut into small cubes and stirred to allow the water (whey) that has accumulated to drain away. Remember Miss Muffet? The product is now “curds and whey.”
Forming follows, inserting the cheese into 5-ounce round plastic molds. (A single batch makes 2,000 cheeses.) Then the cheeses are dipped in salt water to help stop the chemical process and to aid in balancing the flavor before they are placed on racks and delivered to the “cheese cave” to begin the aging process. Temperature and humidity are monitored carefully as a white mold grows on the outside, contributing to the creamy texture and appearance.
Finally the cheese is wrapped in a special paper imported from France which allows mellow aging to continue through the shelf life of the cheese.
MouCo cheeses are shipped using special containers and gel packs to keep the cheese at the proper temperature. The company has initiated a recycling program which allows the containers to return to them for re-use.
Poland still gets onto floor and makes cheese, but more often these days, his time is spent managing the business end of things and making plans for a building of their own.
Their boys, now 15, 13 and 11 have grown up eating cheese and are happy to promote the family business with MouCo T-shirts and jackets. “They’re foodies,” Poland says, “but who knows whether the cheese business is in their future.” For now, Max, the oldest, is passionate about soccer and planning his sophomore year in Germany, living with and learning from a relative who coaches a championship soccer team.
Mom and dad approve. They know all about following your passion.