Is vegan cheese entering its golden era?
Until recent years, most dairy-free cheese was downright inedible. The flavor profiles aligned more closely with plastic and Play-Doh than bright and buttery, and breakthrough "melting capabilities" became virtually the only selling point. Yet, as Mark Mebus of the bustling all-vegan Blackbird Pizzeria would agree, the scene is undergoing a major revolution.
"Without Daiya changing the game, I probably wouldn't have ever opened a pizza shop," Mebus said of the first plant-based cheese brand to gain widespread popularity. Mebus, who has been vegan for 19 years, had dreamed of the idea for years, but didn't think a menu of cheeseless pizzas would survive.
"The cheese products on the market were terrible, so I would've had to make my own," Mebus said. "I tried but never found the right starch to bind it."
When Daiya came to life in 2009 — a year before Blackbird Pizzeria — Mebus realized that his vegan slice shop idea could, too.
Daiya, credited with creating a major breakthrough in the world of vegan cheese, is made from a base of tapioca starch — one of many starches that are transforming the entire realm of options.
"At the start, people just didn't know what they were doing, and they'd put anything out there as long as it resembled a block of cheese," Mebus said, noting that most products at the time were formed from a soy base. "It felt like companies were basically making tofu, drying it out, and calling it cheese, and it was gross."
Daiya's tapioca-based products, which are creamy when melted and far from repulsive in flavor, set the stage for a new wave of experimentation. Today, numerous brands are popping up on grocery store shelves, showcasing ingredients like pea protein and potato starch, ousting soy milk from the top of the ingredient list.
"Getting the cheese to melt is crucial, and the different starches now being utilized really help with that," said Rachel Klein, owner of Miss Rachel's Pantry, a vegan catering company and prix fixe Friday and Saturday night dinner spot. (Klein is a daughter of Inquirer food writer Michael Klein.) "Coconut oil helps, too — we use a ton of coconut."
From her South Philadelphia kitchen, Klein crafts entire vegan cheese plates, a popular item at weddings and other large events she caters. Klein makes a cashew pub cheese that undergoes a 24-hour fermentation process, a fresh mozzarella made from cashew milk and coconut oil, a tofu feta brined in a miso-based liquid, and an array of other hard and soft "cheese" options.
"I just missed cheese — it was the hardest thing for me to give up," said Klein, who went from vegetarian to vegan a little over a decade ago. "We didn't love what we were finding commercially — although we've come a long way since then — so we started experimenting on our own."
It's not only vegans, though, who are now turning to dairy-free alternatives. Studies show more and more people are beginning to incorporate some plant-based products into their diets for a wide range of reasons.
According to data from Nielsen, U.S. retail sales of plant-based foods and beverages rose 8.1 percent, to just over $3 billion last year. (Conventional cow milk sales declined by 5 percent over the same period). Plant-based dairy alternatives were the fastest-growing category in this area, with a 20 percent increase in sales, topping $700 million.
"As demand increases, better products become available, and then those products gain popularity because they're tastier, and then new products arise, and it creates this cycle of continuous improvement," Klein said. "Now you see these cheeses at places beyond Whole Foods and hippie health food stores, so they're also becoming more readily available and less weird — and at a better price point."
At Blackbird Pizzeria, Mebus has started to tap into the market of new and improved products, recently making a switch from Daiya to Violife, which he saw as a superior option. A Greek manufacturer of nondairy products, Violife offers a wide variety of cheeses, including those designed to resemble smoked provolone, mature cheddar, and blue cheese.
"I had been trying pretty much every vegan cheese I could get my hands on," said Mebus, who had been watching the market evolve. "When Violife became available, I thought it was better across the board than Daiya, and it resonated even better with my customers."
Today, Mebus uses Violife on everything from pizzas loaded with toppings like crispy shiitake mushrooms, garlic butter, and seitan bacon to "chicken" Parm sandwiches to smoked tofu Cubanos and other savory comfort food dishes. He notes that it's the most meltable and convincing plant-based cheese product he has yet discovered, and across a customer base that's estimated to be 70 percent omnivore, it's resonating really well.
Dairy-free cheese is becoming far more common at large-scale, non-vegan restaurants, too. Porta, a 275-seat, Neapolitan pizzeria in Midtown Village that opened at the start of the year, has an entire section of its menu devoted to pies with dairy-free options. Vegan mozzarella, vegan Parmesan, and a homemade cashew ricotta top Porta's thin-crust pies, with ingredients like nutritional yeast and toasted almonds (Parm) and raw cashews and fresh lemon juice (ricotta).
"Our motto is 'the door is always open,' so we try to appeal to as many people as possible," said Mike Iorio, regional chef of Porta. "It started with our marinara pizza, an extremely classic and romantic pizza that just happens to be vegan. The menu naturally expanded as we started playing with other ideas, taking a simplicity approach — simplicity is key for us."
Multibillion-dollar corporations are entering the market, too. In 2016, General Mills led an $18 million round of fund-raising for nut-milk-based cheese-and-yogurt producer Kite Hills; Otsuka, a Japanese pharmaceutical company, bought Daiya for $332 million in July.
Market research firm Bharat Book Bureau estimates the global worth of the vegan cheese market will reach $4 billion by 2024, marking the sector as a promising area for investment.