The idea of “milking nuts” to make cheese may be difficult to comprehend. But tasting is believing, and Punk Rawk Labs, one of the country’s first artisan nut cheese producers, is creating fermented nut milk products that are slightly different but just as delicious as their dairy counterparts.
The idea for the company was sparked in 2010 when Alissa Barthel, a microbiologist and raw foods chef, met Julie Wellman, a buyer at the Seward Co-op. Sharing a keen interest in vegan cooking, they became fast friends and soon business partners.
With funds from a successful Kickstarter campaign, they built a state of the art cheese laboratory and wholesale kitchen in south Minneapolis. In 2013 Heidi Oschsner, a registered dietitian who lives in the Seattle area, joined the team. Thanks to attention from the “Today” show and NPR radio, Punk Rawk Labs’ nut milk cheeses quickly found markets in San Francisco, Seattle, Denver and New York, as well as the Twin Cities.
To make the nut milk cheeses, Punk Rawk Labs relies on a process similar to traditional dairy cheese making.
“We use raw cashews to create the milk, then add a culture so that it ferments under controlled conditions, carefully monitoring the temperature and humidity,” Wellman said “This has allowed us to scale up while maintaining the integrity and quality of the cheese.”
These nut milk cheeses are similar in texture and taste to traditional dairy cheeses. Unlike most of the nondairy cheese products that can be rubbery and flavorless, Punk Rawk Labs’ cheeses are smooth and creamy. The flavor of the Original Cashew Cheese is distinct, reminiscent of a mild Brie — tangy and umami, with a slightly nutty finish. Made of three simple ingredients — organic cashews, water, culture and salt — these nut milk cheeses are free of dairy, gluten and soy.
The Punk Rawk Original Cashew Cheese is delicious in a caprese salad or with fruit. Other varieties include Cashew Herbs, Cashew Smoked and Nacho. Plans are underway to release a Cashew of the Woods in the fall, seasoned with black and white truffles and shiitake, cremini and white mushrooms.
Wellman notes that this cheese contains no fillers, such as xanthan gum, miso or the starches used in lower-priced commercial nondairy products. “As we grow the business, we expect to offer more variety at lower price points,” she said.
Punk Rawk cheeses come in 4-ounce, vacuum-sealed pouches packaged in cardboard cartons that retail for about $11. All are available at Twin Cities food co-ops, select grocery stores, farmers markets and specialty shops and online at punkrawklabs.net.