Belfast’s got the blues
Most producers’ back-stories don’t begin with an existential crisis in the back of a beat-up Hyundai yet Michael Thomson’s path to becoming Northern Ireland’s first raw milk cheesemaker was anything far from conventional. PATRICK McGUIGAN meets the man behind the Stilton-style Young Buck.
Think of Irish cheese and it’s the pungent washed rinds of Cork and the spicy blues made by the Grubb family in Tipperary that inevitably spring to mind. These heavyweights of the dairy world were at the forefront of a cheesemaking renaissance in the Republic of Ireland that started more than 30 years ago.
It’s been a different tale north of the border, however, where a handful of large industrial manufacturers have long dominated the market, churning out milk powder, block cheddar and mozzarella for big pizza chains.
Artisan cheese-making remains in its infancy – you can literally count the number of small producers on one hand. There’s Kearney Cheese Co, whose blue recently won three-star award in this year’s Great Taste, and Dart Mountain, which has also won awards, but it’s Mike’s Fancy Cheese in County Down that has attracted most of the headlines.
Set up by Belfast boy Michael Thomson in 2013 after a crowd-funding campaign, the company produces just one cheese – a creamy, spicy, Stilton-style blue called Young Buck – and it’s Northern Ireland’s only raw milk cheese.
“It’s similar to Stilton but has its own Northern Irish attitude,” explains the 30-year-old. “There were a few eyebrows raised when I started with raw milk, but people forget that, 30 or 40 years ago, Belfast was much more rural than it is now.
There were lots of farms around the city and people used to drink raw milk. There is still that knowledge and memory.”
Thomson’s journey to becoming a flag bearer for Northern Irish cheese is an interesting one. He originally studied social work at university, before dropping out after six months to travel around England and Wales in his granddad’s old car – a clapped out Hyundai Accent, which also doubled as his bed for large parts of the trip. “I was reading a lot of Jean-Paul Sartre and questioning why I needed possessions,” he says, ruefully. “I had a lot of fun, met some great people and spent my entire university bursary. When I came home I had to pay it all back.”
That led to a job working at the well-known Arcadia Deli on the Lisburn Road, which is where he swapped existentialist doubt for a love of cheese. One thing led to another and Thomson ended up with a place on the advanced dairy diploma at the School of Artisan Food in Nottinghamshire alongside other bright young things, including Andy Swinscoe, who now runs The Courtyard Dairy in North Yorkshire, and David Jowett, who makes theaward-winning Rollright washed rind cheese.
Work experience spells with some of Britain’s best cheesemakers were an important part of the year-long course. Thomson spent time at Somerset cheddar-maker Montgomery’s and Caws Cenarth in West Wales. His stint making Red Leicester at Sparkenhoe Farm was so successful that they made him head cheesemaker as soon as he had graduated – a position Thomson held for a year before returning to Belfast.
“No one was making a raw milk cheese in Northern Ireland, so I knew I had to come back and get in there before someone else did,” he says. “The problem was that nobody was willing to invest.”
While crowdfunding is commonplace now, it was just gathering pace back in 2013, but with the help of a slick video and business plan he managed to raise £80k from 98 investors, in return for 40% of the business. A second round of funding in 2014 raised £26k for a 5% stake with investors due to get a dividend after five years.
“I didn’t have any real security or cash to invest, so it was a great way to get the business going,” he says. “It also made me think about things from an investor’s point of view and how I was going to make it work long term.”
The decision to make a Stilton-style cheese was part of this long-term strategy, he adds. “When we first started I knew that we would have to sell to the mainland so we couldn’t do a fresh cheese. Ireland was already famous for washed rind cheese and cheddar took too long to mature, so a blue seemed the obvious choice.”
Today, the company makes around 12 tonnes of Young Buck a year, producing around 35 of the 7kg hand-ladled cheeses a week. These are matured for 12-15 weeks, before being delivered to indie retailers and restaurants in Northern Ireland, plus Sheridans in Dublin, The Courtyard Dairy and Cheese+ in Cambridgeshire.
Larger premises will soon be needed to keep up with demand and Thomson is keen to relocate to a farm one day. “We’re trying to find a progressive next generation farmer, who is willing to work with us,” he says. “A lot of the dairy farms around here had quite a good run with milk prices for a while, but they have dropped massively in the past couple of years so we’re hoping more will be looking to add value to their milk.”
What’s bad news for dairy farmers could be good news for Northern Irish cheese.