Best of Both Worlds
The husband and wife team behind MouCo Cheese Company in Fort Collins, Colorado, are uniquely positioned to speak about just how far the artisan cheese and beer movements have come. You see, Robert Poland and Birgit Halbreiter both worked for New Belgium Brewing Company, a Fort Collins–based craft brewery, before building their revered cheesery, which today turns out award-winning cheeses. Love of both beer and cheese is common; careers in both beer and cheese are not.
Halbreiter, the daughter of a master Bavarian cheesemaker, spent a good deal of her childhood around milk. “I would go with my father to work on Sunday morning and culture some milk for the next day. I didn’t know at the time what we were doing, but now I do,” Halbreiter says. “At the end he would take me to the laboratory and do magic by doing titrations [tests for acidity] that would change colors and stuff like that. That was the beginning of it all.” That magical time spent in her father’s lab would lead Halbreiter to a career in quality control and analysis for both cheesemakers and brewers and would eventually take her to Molson brewery in Canada.
Meanwhile, her soon-to-be partner, Poland, was working amidst the barrels and tanks at the up-and-coming New Belgium brewery. He’d caught the fermentation bug while making sourdough baguettes for a French bakery, and soon he was managing the fermentation cellars at New Belgium—responsible for ensuring that another type of yeast was doing its job correctly. “Fermentation is one of those art forms where you can have all the education in the world, but when you come in and the temperature is too low, you need to know how to steer,” Poland says. “It’s your ability to steer more than your ability to follow a recipe—fermentation always wants to do its own thing.”
The two crossed paths for the first time while attending a brewing convention, and with that connection Halbreiter made her way to Colorado to join the New Belgium team as a quality control manager. “I think it was huge [for New Belgium] for Birgit to come along from a big brewery, because they were beginning to grow exponentially, but they had no lab,” Poland says. “She designed the entire lab and sensory program for the brewery, and when you’re doing things like that, it affords you lots of education.”
During their roughly seven years at New Belgium, Poland and Halbreiter witnessed the burgeoning of artisan beer and made a mark on the growing company. She helped institute a sensory analysis program that enlisted the taste buds of brewery employees. “We’d find specialists who were good at tasting bitter or this and that. It made all the employees feel proud, and I’m sure they loved coming down and tasting beer every day.”
In the late 1990s the couple’s combined experience sparked an entrepreneurial venture that became MouCo.
“We had good-paying jobs at the brewery, so it wasn’t a matter of looking for a monetary achievement or anything like that,” Poland says. “It was us wanting to do something we were passionate about. Set trends more than follow them. Do things a little differently.”
While craft beer had certainly taken hold in the Colorado market, there seemed to be plenty of room to expand the state’s focus on artisan cheese. “We weren’t sitting in Wisconsin or Vermont,” Poland says. It seemed like a perfect situation, with his background in fermentation, Halbreiter’s laboratory know-how, and her father’s willingness to travel from Germany to lend a helping hand. By 2000 MouCo was incorporated, and a year later they’d begun selling a Camembert-style cheese to Fort Collins shops and restaurants. That Camembert was later followed by two other soft-ripened cheeses: ColoRouge and Truffello.
Halbreiter’s father—now mostly retired from cheesemaking at the age of 71—was an invaluable asset during their start-up phase, the couple says.
He helped shift Poland’s fermentation mind-set from liquids to solids and showed how cheese can be both more forgiving and more fragile when compared to beer.
Today Poland continues working with the cheesemaking team—between four and six people, depending on the day—to monitor quality and technique. When Halbreiter is done dropping off their three sons—ages 7, 9, and 11—at school, you’ll often find her working with MouCo’s distributors to help put a face on the small company.
As MouCo grows, the challenges Poland and Halbreiter face continue to mirror the ones they experienced firsthand at New Belgium—distribution, for starters. “Distributors weren’t ready to deal with a beer that had less than a year’s shelf life, because everything they were selling was pasteurized,” Poland says of the early days of craft beer. “Distributors are just now learning how to deal with artisan cheeses because they are more fragile. Recipes haven’t been formulated for six months of shelf life; they’ve been formulated for exquisite flavor characteristics.”
Ingredient sourcing brings with it another set of both challenges and opportunities that take Poland and Halbreiter back to their brewing days. “Whether it’s sourcing barley or milk or rennet, the quality of ingredients greatly affects the end product,” Poland says. “We have an advantage, since we were afforded the opportunity to develop quality control systems at New Belgium.” That meant creating a rubric that would grade ingredient vendors based on everything from environmental footprint to overall quality. The couple now uses similar systems when determining which local dairies to source their milk from.
To this day Poland and Halbreiter maintain strong connections to New Belgium—and to the Fort Collins craft beer scene in general. MouCo cheeses are featured in seasonal gift baskets that the brewery gives to friends and customers every year. And New Belgium employees will often stop by the cheesery to swap beer for disks of MouCo’s soft-ripened offerings. With the couple’s transition into cheesemaking and business ownership now complete, it seems certain the move was the right one.
Written by Andy Jenkins
Photography by Alan Hill