Michael Schwarz is quick to point out that his creamy, French-style cheeses are not a vegan take on Brie or cheddar. He’s not coloring or flavoring vegan ingredients to look like plastic-wrapped slices of bright orange “American” cheese, either. Instead, he introduces his Treeline Treenut Cheese by saying, “This is cheese made of cashew nuts. It’s different than anything you’ve had before, but it’s really good.” And it is.
Schwarz grew up in South Africa, the son of Annette and Harry Schwarz — an anti-apartheid activist, lawyer, and statesmen. The Schwarzs taught their children that it was completely inadmissible to accept apartheid as the norm. This upbringing left an indelible mark on Schwarz, who later looked back on his childhood with the realization that had he made a different choice, he would have grown into an adult filled with shame. “I think it’s really important to know that you’re doing the right thing,” he tells the Voice. “Especially when you look back on your lot: Did I do the right thing or not?”
Fast-forward to the 1980s, when Schwarz was a lawyer living in Texas, observing firsthand the large-scale abuse on animals raised as food. He became a vegetarian and then, 25 years later when he learned about the similar abuses on animals raised for their milk and eggs, he embraced a vegan lifestyle. He’s not judgmental or condescending to those who still consume animal products, but Treeline is a result of his upbringing of making “sacrifices to move things forward.”
“I really believe that future generations will look back on the way we treated animals and abused the environment, and go, ‘What were you people thinking?’ in the same way we look back on our history in South Africa and America and go, ‘What was that about?’ ” Schwarz explains.
Of course, making vegan cheese makes business sense, too, since most on the market are not as appetizing to the palate as their dairy-full counterparts, which was a huge gap in a market that needed filling.
Schwarz started fiddling with recipes in his New Paltz, New York, kitchen with all the discipline his engineering and patent law experience had ingrained in him. He ground various nuts into a thick cream, and then tested which ones might develop most naturally with a traditional, French-style technique. His first great success was found in the high-fat content of cashew nuts, to which he simply added culture and salt. After moving his production to a local vegan chocolate factory, Schwarz started selling the soft, spreadable cheese to patrons there, then at a monthly vegan market in Brooklyn, “and it just took off,” he says.
Now, his line includes soft cheeses with the addition of fresh herbs and spices, like scallion, chipotle serrano pepper, green peppercorn, and herb-garlic (the bestseller). The harder, aged-nut cheese comes in a cracked pepper variation and a tangy-yet-firm, plain flavor that can easily be grated over pasta or risotto.
“We don’t use cashew milk — this is an important distinction between us and other manufacturers,” Schwarz points out. “Some vegan cheese companies extract the milk and then coagulate that into cheese. We turn the cashews into a cream by grinding them and adding the flavorings and probiotic culture to that cream, which then causes a fermentation process that turns it into the cheese that you see in the actual end product.”
This means Treeline’s cheeses are richer and creamier, as well as higher in fat, protein, and fiber — but they’re also lower in overall sodium, sugar, and additives than other vegan cheeses.
Schwarz’s products also speak to the overall ethos of his company: compassion. Using the entire nut means his product doesn’t involve waste, a differentiation especially unique in contrast to traditional dairy farming and cheese making. He sources his cashews from Brazil, which has long employed humane ways of extracting nuts and contrasts with other markets where child labor is often assumed (which Treeline “absolutely did not want to support”). He recognizes that using high-quality products that are sourced sustainably means something for his business’s bottom line, but he says, “I’m willing to forego that difference in order to be comfortable doing the right thing.”
Doing the right thing is working.
In 2013, with the company’s current packaging, Treeline started selling to larger national markets (like Whole Foods) and is now selling in 1,000 stores in all 50 states. Soon, he’ll start selling at Kroger — the largest grocery chain in the country — which will double the company’s distribution. It also might mean that Treeline breaks into selling seven figures of individual units each year — all sourced from the upstate New York production facility. There are also talks about producing and distributing in Europe, too, where his pitch (“This is cheese made from cashew nuts”) has invoked more interest and appreciation than incredulity.
But when it comes down to it, Schwarz’s singular focus with Treeline is “all about affecting change in how people eat. Whatever I’m excited about is going to relate back to that.”
Luckily for us, with Treeline’s vegan cheeses, change tastes really good.
Find out where to pick up a package (or several) of vegan cheese near you with Treeline’s store locator.