Why is cheese so often the final hurdle for many in the path to a plant-based diet? Brad Vanstone, the founder of plant-based cheese company Willicroft, certainly found this to be the case.
“There are over 2,000 types of cheese, it’s five or six thousand years old, the history is so rich,” Vanstone explains. “Milk is fairly universal, you’ve got cow’s milk, sheep’s milk, and goats’ milk. You’ve got four or five standard meats. That as a starting point makes cheese different but also the process – so much of cheese is aged.”
When moving to Amsterdam four years ago and he and his partner decided to give a plant-based diet a go, they discovered that there was a paucity of decent cheese alternatives. “We were basically finding that to be the one stumbling block, so I started to experiment from home,” Vanstone recalls. “It was very artisanal for 18 months and the beginning of 2019 was when we saw it as something that could really kick on from there.”
Willicroft is named after Vanstone’s grandfather’s dairy farm in Devon, a perhaps surprising connection to recognise for a plant-based entrepreneur. In a world full of polarising narratives about veganism, how did his dairy farmer grandfather react to his venture into dairy alternatives?
“It felt like a betrayal of everything he’d done. But he was remarkably relaxed about it and the more he found out why, the more interested in it he was,” Vanstone says, who offers a balanced view on animal production for someone working in the plant-based world.
“I don’t envisage a world without a dairy cheese, but more localised, small batch and hopefully an end to factory-produced dairy products,” he says.
“If you look at regenerative farming, animal husbandry is the fourth pillar, we need animals to be part of that ecosystem, but they need to play a much smaller part than they currently do.
“We’re not trying to create an ideology, we’re trying to convince people that you can get delicious cheese that isn’t made in the current way,” Vanstone stresses.
“With dairy cheese, the way it’s made is you’ll start with the milk. With plant-based products, we start building up a different type of milk.”
“With the dairy milk, there are a lot of structural properties in that milk that will set over time. That’s essentially what you have to build up, then you start adding certain fermentation tools. Like dairy cheese, you inject cultures, then you’re looking at certain ingredients that will give the ageing components. Our cheeses are fermented for a week max, depending on the cheese.”
Currently Willicroft uses a cashew-based milk, as is common in the plant-based cheese world, due to their high fat and protein content. But an early carbon emission report shocked Vanstone into changing tack to a bean and pulse base, a transition that will be complete by October.
“We did some initial emissions testing and we found we were only a little bit less than dairy cheeses we were replicating. That’s why we made the switch, and now we are drastically lower with the beans,” he explains.
On a broader level, the move also highlights how plant-based doesn’t always equal lower emissions and why such products deserve the same scrutiny as any food about their environmental impact.
Another issue can be the lack of transparency over plant-based ingredients, which in some areas seems to be moving away from a trend of provenance and prevents consumers make informed choices.
Vanstone says he is keen to strengthen the link between his plant-based cheeses and local regenerative agriculture, although concedes his current supply chain isn’t there yet.
As the price of European beans is considerably higher and rarely organic accredited, he currently sources beans from an organic producer in Turkey, and soybeans from France and Greece.
To create a more local supply, he has launched a ‘transition project’ in the Netherlands as an initiative that helps ex-dairy farms to transition to growing beans on their land for Willicroft. By spring 2022, at least some of the beans used by Willicroft plant-based cheese will be grown by Dutch farmers on ex-dairy land.
“We had conversations with my grandpa’s friends, and they said okay we understand that people want dairy to be smaller. But what is the dairy farmer going to do? This transitional project is to build a bit of confidence to show that other avenues are there for farmers, and if it is successful, they we can really roll it out and up the scale.”
Aside from his own heritage, it's this desire to connect to the farming side of his supply chain that Vanstone sees as the justification for naming his Amsterdam-based business after an English farm.
“For our customers, the memories, values, and lessons learnt from Willicroft Farm are pretty clear,” he says.
“I don't know of any plant-based cheese companies in Europe looking to work with dairy farmers on transitional farming projects, measuring their impact and placing their emissions on their packaging as we will have by the end of this year, that are committed to regenerative farming and who openly talk about the importance of dairy in the most holistic food systems for the future.”
With the global dairy alternative market projected to be worth 40.6 billion dollars by 2026, and plant-based alternatives attracting big business investment, it is hardly surprising that Willicroft is being rolled out in Waitrose only 3 years after conception.
Whether big business investment in plant-based products is a positive sign for the sustainable food movement is a much-debated issue. However, there’s no escaping what Vanstone states: “For the health of our planet, animals need to play a much smaller part than they currently do.”
Vanstone and Willicroft are making all the right noises; it would indeed be a radical full-circle transition to see ex-dairy land growing beans for plant-based cheeses.
Pioneers aside, provenance is a level of detail not often covered by plant-based alternatives, but it is certainly one that would make all the difference to their role in the sustainable food movement.