Willicroft: Plant-based cheese for dairy lovers
On Thursday March 5th at 19:00, Willicroft will host Net Impact Amsterdam members for a natural wine and plant-based cheese tasting. Ahead of the event, Net Impact Member, Cathy Sorbara, sat down with Willicroft Founder, Brad Vanstone to learn more about the company, what he’s learned along the way and, the most obvious question, what cheese would he choose to eat if he was trapped on a desert island?
On a cold and rainy afternoon in Amsterdam, I was relieved to walk into Willicroft’s cozy store on Spiegelgracht. I was immediately taken aback by the wonderful aroma of the plant-based cheese. My previous experiences with plant-based cheese have sent loved ones running from the kitchen. I tried to focus on the interview as my eyes wandered around the room at the wide selection of plant-based cheese. I made a mental note to make sure I didn’t leave the store without purchasing one for myself.
Cathy: Can you tell me about Willicroft and why you’re so passionate about it?
Brad: We make plant-based cheese for dairy cheese lovers. The name originates from my grandparent’s dairy farm in Devon. In 1957, they moved to Devon and opened a little farm, but it did not have a name. It was bad land to farm, so they had the chance to call it whatever they wanted. And the signature piece of the farm was a moor called Willicroft Moor. My grandpa loved it out there because it was very wild. It was large enough for hunting, quite wild and overgrown, so he called the farm Willicroft. I am not using the name for the same purpose, but it is still in relation to farming. I couldn’t imagine calling it anything else. This is why I’m passionate about it.
It stems from my family and I just don’t feel that enough people are doing a good job of making any plant-based products. I think most people that make plant-based products just make the product without really looking at where things are coming from or the bigger picture. And the reality is no one’s really paying what they should for anything that is produced. Stuff is coming from so far away when it can be growing locally. We make short term decisions when it comes to things like packaging. I want to change a lot those ideals with what we’re doing.
Cathy: There other plant-based cheeses on the market. What sets yours apart from what else is out there?
Brad: We make a food product. So hopefully the taste first and foremost, because that’s the most important thing — that we have a really, good taste. I think our environmental integrity is second to none with plant-based cheese. We are a young company and we’re just getting going, but the path we are building is unchartered in terms of how much we’re holding ourselves to account and how deeply we’re looking at the supply chain. We are by no stretch of the imagination perfect or anywhere near where we want to go. But we are heading in the right direction. I think the back story is nice as well, the farming roots. And we’re looking to continue that now by connecting with some farmers here to grow some of our ingredients on what was dairy land. So that’s an evolving narrative.
Cathy: People who are vegan will clearly be drawn to what you do, but what has the reaction been from non-vegans?
Brad: That is really our goal – to get to the non-vegans. Vegans are very passionate and there’s not enough options out there for the amount of people that are choosing that diet. They are seeking it out, so we almost don’t need to try to communicate with them because they’re running out to find us. But, it gives us a lot of heart when we do see someone who is either being dragged along by their partner or has actively chosen to come here through curiosity. And the responses we get are super.
I think the only thing we can really work on right now is texture. Texture is the mecca of plant-based cheese making. It’s probably the hardest thing to recreate. We’ve done it with a few cheeses, but then I would be the first to admit that a couple of them still need a tiny bit of work in terms of texture. Our whole philosophy is to make plant-based cheese for dairy cheese lovers. I don’t like the notion of having to give something up when you eat a plant-based diet. It should be just as rich in flavor and nourishing as a dairy product. So that’s the benchmark we set ourselves to: would someone who loves dairy cheese, enjoy this?
Cathy: How do you develop the cheeses? Do you have a research lab? Do you employ food scientists that you work with?
Brad: I don’t do the recipe creation anymore. I got the cheeses to around 70-80% of where we needed to be from the initial ones that we started but there was one major fault with all of them: the shelf life was too short, or the structure wasn’t there. Now have a recipe creator, Sam. He works on all the new products and any adjustments that need to be made to the existing ones. The way in which we go about our recipe creation is we look at the dairy cheese we’re trying to recreate and tear it to pieces in terms of looking at every component of it to find what makes it unique. Then we try to replicate the process including nutrients and ingredients that are plant-based that are doing a similar thing. This doesn’t get you the whole way, but it at least gives you a good base. We have created quite a few cheeses now so we now have a good repertoire of ingredients we can call upon.
Most of our cheeses are cashew based. Cashews come from a long way away, obviously. We get ours from West Africa and they are regeneratively farmed. We try to be as responsible as we can be, but the next step is to swap cashew out with something more local. We’re looking at things like beans, oats and soy. Ingredients that we can grow here in Europe and have already been growing here. This is cheaper for the customer and drastically reduces our carbon footprint. We have a hot list of 30 ingredients with all these different criteria. In the next six months, we’re going to test them all and see which ones stick.
Cathy: What has been your biggest aha moment when you look back on this journey?
Brad: A lot in terms of where ingredients are sourced from. You try and do something good and then you find out that most cashews are produced in one location and then shelled in another. For example, a lot of African cashews are sent to India, where they are shelled or Vietnam, where they are shelled. The carbon footprint goes beyond simply shipping them here but also the processing that happens continents away.
I’m also hearing stories about nuts, like walnuts. where people are breaking the shells with their hands, which then emits this poisonous substance that burns people’s skin. Stories like this are not unique to one industry, it covers the whole food industry. People just try and find the cheapest way of doing something without caring about the human or environmental costs.
Cathy: If you were stranded on a desert island and could only bring one book and one plant-based cheese, which would you choose?
Brad: The book is easy. Patagonia’s founder [Yvon Chouinard] wrote a book called ‘Let My People Go Surfing’. If I could bring the whole series, I would. Then for the cheese … presumably it’s a hot desert island. Therefore, I would bring the parmesan because that can be kept ambient, has a very long shelf life and goes with everything.
Cathy: Where would you like to see the company in five years’ time and what would you like to see for plant-based cheeses in five years’ time.
Brad: I hope in the future there are the same variety of alternatives for cheese that are now available for meat and milk. I hope we become the Patagonia for cheese. I am not fussed about the volume – it is more about the impact. We would like to pave the way for others and to set standards that will hopefully transgress across industries. There’s a hell of a lot we need to do to fix this food system. We would be foolish to think that we are going to do it all on our own. Absolutely not.
I hope we can show that plant-based and dairy doesn’t need to go head-to-head and can work together to put the food system on the right track. Now, we’re heading in opposite directions but there will always be farmers, and we need farmers for the ingredients for all products. We need to provide an outlet for them to change rather than telling them what to do or that what they are doing is wrong.
Brad’s recommendation of parmesan cheese sold me, so I purchased a container of pre-grated This Is Not Parmesan following the interview and brought it home to try. The texture, scent and flavor are uncannily like dairy parmesan cheese. It was dry, fruity and nutty in taste. It was the perfect pasta topping. I even won over a plant-based cheese skeptic at home. You can find out more about Willicroft including where to buy their cheeses throughout the Netherlands here.