Curd in the Kenyan Highlands: Brown's Cheese Meets Four Cornell Students
I recently earned my PhD in Food Science & Technology from Cornell University, where my love for the science of cheese prompted me to help found Cornell's Cheese Club.
In January four fellow students and I (including two other Cheese Club founders) were invited to spend two weeks in Kenya working with Brown's Cheese, an artisan cheese company founded in the 1980s. We went as part of Cornell's SMART program, which partners teams of students with organizations and entrepreneurs in developing countries. Below, I share the story behind Brown's Cheese, its current trajectory in the hands of a new generation, and finally, our experience as student consultants, working with familiar food in an unfamiliar country.
Over 30 years ago, Sue and David Brown moved to the Eastern Highlands of Kenya to sell solar water heaters, but a scarcity of local cheese set them on a different course.
At the time Kenya was suffering a milk shortage, and milk was required to be sold in fluid form. “People like us were desperate for cheese,” said Sue. But not for long. The couple made their own crude cheddar, pressed by varying weights on a chair in the living room. Friends got a taste, and eventually other British Kenyans and expatriates with European palates wanted to buy what they couldn’t find anywhere else in the country.
The Browns started selling fresh cheeses in Nairobi out of their Honda station wagon, including Gournay-style cheeses. But fresh cheese alone didn’t satisfy their appetites. “David said he wanted Camembert and I said, ‘you don’t make Camembert, you buy it,’" said Sue, "I didn’t win that one.”
With little knowledge of cheesemaking and only their home as a workspace, the Browns ran into challenges with Camembert and Brie. With no atmospheric control, the initial results were disastrous, but the temperate climate of the Eastern Highlands came to their rescue. “It’s probably thanks to the humidity and temperature in our location – for 3 or 4 months a year we have a mist and cold – that we actually pulled through at all,” said Sue.
A visit to Scotland for a cheesemaking course helped them perfect their Brie and Camembert, and now these mold-ripened rounds are their top sellers.
Now known as Brown’s Cheese, the company continues to craft award-winning European style cheeses in the town of Limuru.
The next generation
Brown’s Cheese is now run by Delia Brown, Sue’s and David’s daughter, and her American husband Andy Stirling, whom she met at Cornell University where they studied hospitality and mechanical engineering, respectively.
In 2010 the Stirlings decided to take over the family creamery, and are now transforming the company. “We’re moving beyond a mom-and-pop cottage business,” Andy said, and in the coming years they hope to expand Brown’s ouput and product lines. “We’re putting things in that are improvements with a long term vision. The industry is changing, and our competitors are getting better,” said Delia. “We’d like to be the strongest cheese brand both in quality and distribution in Africa.”
The Student Approach
The Stirlings found help expanding their business and developing new products from us, a group of four graduate students from Cornell University.
For six months Stephanie Bryant, Pajau Vangay, Matt Ranieri, Steve Beckman, and I prepared for our African adventure. We Skyped with the Stirlings about their goals: cottage cheese, ice cream, and exporting to new markets. We then spent long nights in Matt’s kitchen slaving over double boiler pots and a Simac Il Gelataio ice cream machine, tweaking our recipes to match those goals. Stephanie, our economics whiz, found an unfathomable amount of literature on dairy in the United Arab Emirates, and took breaks only to taste samples.
In January, after a long journey, four members of our team landed in Nairobi; Steve couldn't make it, and consulted from our headquarters in New York. Andy picked us up and we hit the rough roads to the Stirlings’ Tuscan-style home in Tigone, where we awoke to guinea fowl pecking in the backyard and Colobus monkeys swinging through the trees. Andy, Delia and their two children welcomed us into their home (although the boys took a while to win over).
To understand the company’s retail outlets and clientele, we visited the upscale markets and restaurants in Nairobi where European, American and Indian expatriates shop. But we spent most of our energy working at the Stirlings' farm, whose processing facilities and kitchens were anything but luxurious.
Pajau and I formulated the richest superpremium ice cream south of the Sahara. With gobs of fresh cream and deep orange egg yolks sourced from the Stirlings’ coop, our frozen foam was decadent. We used home canister freezers, which limited how quickly we could freeze, but the results were promising. Even the Stirling boys approved. Our best flavor, as determined by Brown family consensus, was mascarpone honey lavender with honeycomb crunch, but our favorite flavor was a tree tomato and chocolate chunk. Tree tomatoes are a local fruit that stews down into a deep purple sweet pulp with a hint of tang.
Matt set his sights on making cottage cheese – not an easy task using variable milk and the cultures already used for cheesemaking. But being the serious scientist that he is, he managed to run a three-level, two-factor full factorial design experiment to hone in on the most important variables in two short weeks.
Stephanie researched the United Arab Emirates export market, helped with ice cream, designed a product catalog, and entertained the house staff by swatting at flies.
As we had hoped, the Browns were able to benefit from our help. “Our experience was enlightening,” said Delia. “Looking at our processes from a food science perspective was extremely valuable. We found it useful having a new set of eyes look at our facilities, processes, and potential for contamination, and we also found it valuable having people who focus so heavily on flavors. We rarely dedicate as much time to product development as we did during the students’ visit. We’ve made several immediate changes to our processes and facilities, and plan to incorporate more changes in the coming years,” she said. “We believe we will have both an ice cream and a cottage cheese product on the shelves by the end of this year.”
Our visit to Brown's Cheese was a trip of a lifetime. We look forward to seeing the company grow, and hope to taste their antique Gouda again someday.
Written by Daina Ringus
Photography by Daina Ringus and Pajau Vangay