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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Spreading Flavor: Wilmington’s vegan cheese company, Kind Cultures, grows its artisanal brand

Kind Cultures’ spicy pimento spread is one of its top-sellers. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver) Click the photo to scroll the gallery.

Globally, vegan cheese is making an impact on the food scene. 

The $1 billion market grew by $140 million from 2019-2020, and annual growth nearing 13% is forecast through 2027, according to Grand View Research.

Locally, that’s good news for Kind Cultures, a Wilmington artisanal vegan cheese company owned and operated by Ashley John. John started the brand a few years ago after she and her husband, Justin, and their two children, committed to a plant-based lifestyle. 

“We went from just eating everything to taking out dairy and wanting to feel healthier,” John said. “And the more we dove into being dairy-free, we came across a lot of vegan information. And, you know, the ethical standpoint really resonated with us and we just never looked back.”

As part of their new food regimen, John began making a lot of items from scratch after not finding a similar product to her liking. She specifically wanted a good sour cream — something her family “literally eats on everything.”

“That is the first fermented culture thing I made before I even started with cheese,” she said.

John makes vegan sour cream out of cashews, water, a dash of salt and live cultures. Various culture combinations — which are basically bacteria— and temperatures help it achieve appropriate thickness.

“When you add cultures to a medium, whether it’s a milk or yogurt or cheese, whatever you’re planning to make, they’re going to eat up the sugar in your mixture and produce a lactic acid,” John explained. “So it’s like a lactic-acid fermentation — and that gives you that nice authentic tanginess that you find in all of Kind Cultures’ dairy counterparts.”

After John perfected her sour cream, she moved on to cheese — something that, oddly enough, she never had a passion for before going vegan. She wasn’t someone who nerded out on the best Roquefort or Camembert.

Ashley John uses a Vitamix to blend cashews to begin the cheese-making process for Kind Cultures products. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

“I don’t even know what gave me the idea — what sparked that in me,” she said, “but I decided I wanted to experiment with making cheese wheels.”

She purchased a small wine fridge so she could store the varieties at different temperatures and humidity. Then she began researching — blogs, vegan cheese books, videos. John learned to make softer cheeses by varying the water content and thicker cheeses by allowing them to ferment longer. Textures adjust according to how long the cheese is aged. It’s been a trial-by-error learning process, John said, playing around to tailor the perfect cheese.

“And it’s continued to evolve since that first batch I made at home,” she said. “I really like experiences when it comes to food, and I feel like cheese is one of those things that you put a lot of work into and it’s really rewarding when it’s ready.”

To start, John made a couple of cheese wheels — mainly brie — and spreads, like an herb or cream cheese. She’s evolved into doing a variety of flavors: smoked paprika, aged white cheddar, jalapeño cheddar, mozzarella, spicy pimento cheese, roasted garlic and sesame chèvre, applewood smoked caper, cranberry-pecan log, dill log, and the list goes on.

“There’s just an unlimited amount of things we could try from the foundation we started with,” John said, “but our most popular and bestseller is the spicy pimento spread.”

Her personal hobby evolved when a friend reached out and said a local vegan restaurant would be interested in carrying John’s cheese. That restaurant was Panacea, which at the time was opening a new kitchen on Oleander Drive.

“So I was like, ‘Wow, this is an opportunity to actually start a business,’” John recalled. “And it just ended up being a very organic process, starting and growing — it’s continued from there.”

John was able to hire her first employee, Liz Wright, in October. The small wine refrigerator she used during her early days has been replaced with a double-door, stainless steel fridge; she also has a cooler to hold smaller batches. 

“We are looking for a spot where we can grow a little more,” John said. “As we’ve grown up, that’s been my main goal: having the space to age more cheese because we produce a product that’s so artisanal and time-intensive.”

Kind Cultures has numerous varieties of cashew-made cheese like brie, served with baguette and berries. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

She and Wright work out of Panacea’s old kitchen near Wrightsville Beach to fulfill orders for a growing client list. Locally, Kind Cultures serves Sealevel City Diner, Mess Hall, The Cheeseboard, as well as Tidal Creek, Bodega Market and occasionally Luna Caffe. The company also delivers its product to out-of-town retail outlets and restaurants.

RELATED: Bodega Market opens, owners look to revitalize other properties in South Front District

In 2021, John said she and Wright aim to create more products to reach farmers markets and catering events. She also would love to advance her craft into making pungent, stinky cheeses that sometimes can be more sensitive and, in a cheesemaker’s world, invasive. 

“We really love just challenging ourselves,” John said. 

She attempted to make a blue cheese once, but learned the hard way it needs an entirely separate area to work its magic, else it will ruin other batches.

“It’s a very corrosive mold,” John explained. “So you can’t age it anywhere where other cheeses are; it has to have its own space or the other cheeses would have blue mold spores. It’s a very special little personality. I learned at home that it not only infected all of the other cheeses I was aging, but it got in my refrigerator and in a different refrigerator.”

In the long-term, John would like to have multiple facilities to safely test various molds. For now, she is just adjusting to keep up with the growing demand of what she already has. She makes 150 units a week, each weighing 5 to 8 ounces.

“I’d say we go through around 100 pounds of cashews weekly,” she said. 

Currently, John only works with cashews to churn out Kind Cultures’ cheese and sour cream but wants to evolve. Soy and almonds are on her list, mainly because they curdle better.

“In the future, when we have more space, I’ll introduce more things and different processes of creating them as well,” she said. “But cashews are a little miracle.”

Aged white cheddar-style cheese pair well with Granny Smith apples and grapes. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)
A smoked paprika cheese wheel complements sweet gherkins. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)
Spicy chipotle chile vegan cheese pops with Spanish Queen olives. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)
Ashley John and Liz Wright churn out 150 units of cheese weekly through John’s artisanal vegan cheese company, Kind Cultures. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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