A phone call in September 2016 changed the course of life for friends Anuradha Krishnamoorthy and Namrata Sundaresan. For some months, the duo had been making small batches of artisanal cheese, employing two girls with hearing impairment. While making cheese in a hot place like Chennai had created curiosity among the locals, the cheeses were mostly bought by friends and acquaintances.
Amid this, food writer and restaurant consultant Karen Anand’s team invited Anuradha and Namrata to participate in a farmers’ market that was being organised in Chennai. “We got a call and both of us jumped into it because till then, it had been only about making cheese and giving to friends, and the brand wasn’t too visible. We had already done market research and the product had been liked by buyers,” recalls Anuradha.
While preparing for the event, they realised the need for a logo for their products for the first time. “We knew we would have a captive audience and a footfall of over 2,000 at the event,” she adds
Readying everything within a week, they participated in the farmers’ market. “We won the award for Best Taste at the event and there has been no looking back since then. It took our work to the next level where we started looking at launching a website and creating a brand,” she adds.
The case for Käse
Anuradha and Namrata chose Käse as the name for their venture; käse is the German word for cheese. Today Chennai-based Käse Cheese is everything a responsible business can stand for.
Not surprisingly, Anuradha has a background in social work. “In April 2016, I was looking at ways to train people with disabilities so that they could get employment. While I was thinking of training these girls in baking, Namrata suggested the healthier option of cheese making. She had just completed a vacation in Coonoor where she had learnt the basics of making cheese,” says Anuradha.
The pantry of Anuradha’s husband’s office became their first kitchen. He also provided the seed investment for Käse while Namrata and Anuradha also pooled in their resources. “We bought some basic utensils. We wanted to have access to good quality milk because pasteurized milk isn’t a good starting point for good cheese. We went looking around for local milk vendors who could give us fresh raw milk with full-fat content,” she says.
The operations began with just four people – two girls with hearing impairment and the two co-founders. Today, there are about 12 people at any point in time working with Käse’s Chennai unit.
The team members have picked up Tamil sign language, which is different from the academic sign language.
Regarding training them, Anuradha says cheese making is more like an art. The technical part ends with adding the culture, rennet and cutting curds. “It is more like cooking where you need to have a basic aptitude for the skill. The attitude is what we look for while hiring a person,” she adds.
By default, Käse has evolved into an all-women team except for the staff for security and delivery, she adds.
Sourcing it right
Milk is at the core of cheese making and Namrata has diligently ensured that A2 milk, which is more nutritious than A1 milk, is sourced from the best farmers for making the 40 varieties of cheese at Käse.
“We predominantly work with small farms that are as passionate about their animals as we are about making cheese. Working with us provides them with an assured business,” says Namrata, who has a background in business consulting. A trained cheesemaker, she travels across the world to learn the traditional forms of cheese-making.
Käse has also started working with pastoral communities – Rabadis in Gujarat and Raikas (camel breeders) of Rajasthan, who are keepers of livestock. “Their livelihood has been affected due to urbanisation as they have been pushed away from grazing lands. Their cattle are free grazing and we have started sourcing milk from them as well,” Namrata says.
Käse is also training members of these communities in cheese making so that they can turn into cheese entrepreneurs.
Of Käse’s four cheese-processing units, two are in Tamil Nadu while one each is at Sayla in Gujarat and Bajju in Rajasthan. The Sayla and Bajju units were set up last year.
They don’t add any preservative or stabilizers or other ingredients found in commercially available cheese.
With zero preservatives, they need to ensure that cheese does not come in contact with air. “We wanted eco-friendly packing material but a lot of spoilage was found when we were keeping cheese in glass containers. So we now vacuum-seal the cheese and are also looking at green solutions like beeswax wraps. They are in a very experimental phase right now,” says Anuradha.
The business of cheese making
Käse sells online as well as offline through its 30 plus partners dealing with gourmet artisanal foods. “We have collaboration with Fratelli Wines and make a range of five different kinds of cheese for them. Events are also a source of revenues,” says Namrata.
“We have grown the most during the last two years which pushed us to go online and ship to a lot of places across the country,” she says.
The Indian cheese market was pegged at Rs4,480 crore in 2020 by research firm IMARC. It is dominated by Amul with a market share of 45 percent. But Käse is among the handful of artisanal cheesemakers who are making inroads into the high-end customer segment with their handmade cheeses.
About 70 percent of Kase's online customers are men and a lot of buyers are young mothers starting their toddlers on cheese. The other segments include the well-travelled Indian customers and the expat community. "A big chunk of the buyers are households with one or two kids who know that processed cheese is not healthy," she adds.
Käse began with fresh cheese but given its limited market and shelf life, it soon forayed into aged cheese as well. “We invested in visi coolers where you can control humidity and age cheese,” says Anuradha.
To refine the processes, Namrata went to Vermont and learnt the traditional ways of making cheese. She also travelled to the UK for learning cheddar making from a family that has been doing it for over 100 years.
“We are a brand that has a whole variety of cheese. We have something for blue cheese fans and for those who do not like to experiment much, there is cheddar, mozzarella, feta etc. We do a lot of infusions like cheddar quoted with molagapodi (spicy chutney powder) or cheddar infused with organic rose petals etc.,” Anuradha says.
Namrata explains that cheese making has some key five to six steps which are similar for almost every cheese. What differs is the timing, which is extremely crucial to cheese making. “When the milk comes to our doorstep, we start working on it within a four-hour window. That’s because raw milk has natural flora that we want to harness and that adds to the flavour,” she says.
Milk is warmed up to udder warmth or 32 degree Celsius and then natural culture or microbes are added so that it can set.
The first step is acidification of milk to help it loosen up and then rennet is introduced for coagulation. The rennet is crucial as it brings together the protein in cow’s milk and solidifies it.
“The third step is cutting of the curds where we slice through the solid and it is the first step in separating solid from liquid and depends on what cheese is being made. If it is feta, the milk is warmed again to 32 degrees and we separate the cheese curds into moulds,” says Namrata.
Cream cheese is acidified for longer. “What makes each cheese unique are the differences in the duration of acidification and coagulation and how curds are cut,” she adds.
For now, Namrata and Anuradha are happy with the impact created by Käse. “Our women workers today can take decisions for their families. It is surprising to see them evolve from being timid to being decision-makers,” says Anuradha.
Since Käse is an artisan cheesemaker, the duo doesn’t think of ever moving to a 100-people factory set up. “But we have moved away from the city and are working with farms and are training pastoral communities. So we are looking at satellite cheese-making centres that can empower rural economies as well,” Namrata adds.
(Rashmi Pratap is a Mumbai-based journalist specialising in business, financial and socio-economic reporting)