Crisis fires up cheesemaker

Aug 29th, 2011 | By | Category: Latest News, Media reports - fire, On Fire
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Meyer Gouda, a small family-owned Dutch cheese business, lost $200,000 worth of stock in the 2008 Icepak fire at Tamahere.

Losing 46% of their annual production was a crisis for the family business but one it has overcome in style three years on.

Meanwhile, the inquest into the death of fireman Derek Lovell in the Icepak explosion is set to begin next Monday (September 5).

Cheesemaker Miel Meyer recalled the events of April 5, 2008 in a feature in the Waikato Times.

Driving in a car with his wife and two friends Meyer say the smoke plume rising from the coolstores where a season’s worth of Gouda cheese was stored.

“At the time it didn’t occur to me that we would lose all our stock, and at the end of the day, it pales in comparison to the fact a firefighter lost his life and so many others were badly injured. It was truly distressing for so many,” he told the paper.

Meyer, 27, was faced with the crisis in just his second season running the family business. But he believes the fire and subsequent loss of stock was “a necessary but steep learning curve.”

“I knew that how we responded to that crisis would shape our future – dealing with the insurance side of things, going through accounts, working out the value of milk and the value of cheese which fluctuates in price through the aging process,” he said.

The tight-knit Waikato cheese-making community rallied around. Offers from Matatoke, Mahoe, Mercer and Karikaas Cheese flooded in while local orchardists and growers offered their coolstores.

Meyer’s fortunes were completely turned around this year, however, when in March he won the NZ Cheese School Champion Cheesemaker of the Year award at the 2011 Cuisine NZ Champions of Cheese Awards. He is the youngest cheese-maker in the history of the awards.

Meyer credited his success to his parents Ben and Fieke Meyer – Dutch immigrants who brought their cheesemaking traditions to New Zealand in the 1980s. Meyer Gouda Cheese is now run by Miel who is proudly continuing to produce the Dutch cheeses his parents perfected, it was reported in an awards media release in March.

“I’m completely blown away,” Miel says. “I didn’t expect this at all. My goal over the past year was to focus on the quality of the cheese we’ve been making so this is unbelievable. It’s still sinking in.”

Master Judge Russell Smith selected Miel from all other cheesemakers in New Zealand because he achieved an incredible score of 99 on two of his 2011 entries. This is confirmation of his masterful cheesemaking and consistent high quality.

Miel attributes the outstanding quality of his cheese to the milk his brother-in-law’s cows supply to their cheese factory.

“The consistency of the milk ensures consistent quality of our cheese,” adds Miel. “By having the same milk from the same cows we know what to expect year on year. If we don’t know the source, the milk changes as each farmer has different breeds of cow and different milking habits. We’re lucky enough to source milk that is generally the same allowing me to know how I should make my cheese each day.”

Miel, who has a BSc from the University of Waikato majoring in Microbiology and Biochemistry and a Masters in Forensic Science from the University of Auckland, took over as General Manager of Meyer Gouda Cheese in 2007.

For eight years Meyer Cheese founders Ben and Fieke made cheese on a farm in Holland (near the Dutch/Belgian border). This proximity to Belgium gave them access to the centuries of cheesemaking expertise by nearby self-sufficient Belgian monks. They moved to New Zealand from Holland when Miel was just nine months old. After 25 years making cheese in New Zealand, Ben and Fieke felt it was time to retire, handing over the reins to their son in 2007.

“My father, Ben, is a keystone in terms of the business,” says Miel. “I can always call on him for help at any time of any day. Both of them are there whenever I need them; they live nearby and can be at the factory in minutes. They’re both extremely supportive and it’s wonderful to have their expertise on hand when I need it.”

Miel first made cheese as a toddler ‘in a bathtub’ and was involved in the family business as soon as he was strong enough to turn the cheese. Miel now involves his two sons (4 years and 18 months) in the cheesemaking maturing process.

“The boys sometimes join me in the maturing room to help me turn the cheese. They love it, they love hanging around with Dad and they love cheese. My son has already told me he wants to work in the cheese factory when he grows up – but he doesn’t understand how it all works just yet.”

Meyer Gouda Cheese focuses solely on producing world-class Gouda, performing consistently at the Cuisine NZ Champions of Cheese Awards. This year Meyer Gouda Cheese once again won the AsureQuality Champion Flavoured Cheese Award for their Meyer Gouda Fenugreek alongside four gold medals, one silver and one bronze.

“Next year I’ll be focusing more on the business side of Meyer Gouda Cheese,” he says. “I made cheese this year to ensure the quality of the cheese was the best it can be. The knowledge I’ve picked up will help me for subsequent years – especially when it comes to training my staff. By sharing what I know from my time in the makery, I can help my staff achieve the same standards.

“The Cuisine NZ Champions of Cheese Awards are invaluable for small operators – we could never generate the coverage we do without the help of the Awards. It’s great having the support of the New Zealand Specialist Cheesemakers Association who help raise the profile of small cheesemakers who generally have limited budgets”

While Meyer Gouda Cheese specialise in hard cheeses, they’ve been approached to branch into soft cheese.

“We make a sheep cheese and also a Maasdam but they’re both hard cheeses. Going forward, I’m going to focus on obtaining greater share of the specialty cheese market as we have the capacity to ramp up production if we need to. But we’re happy doing what we do at the moment. Lifestyle is important to us.”

Gouda, the cheese Meyer specialise in, takes its name from a medieval city in Holland where this unique style was first developed. Gouda is a hard, brine-salted and rinded cheese and often has flavours such as cumin, chive, garlic, clove and pepper added to it, a tradition that finds its roots in the Dutch trade with Indonesia as early as 1787.

Meyer Gouda Cheese makes around 60 tonnes of Gouda annually and employees three full time staff year round and one part time employer in season.

For more information visit Meyer Gouda Cheese.

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