“Until the past few centuries, most of the world did not consume this much animal protein, either meat or dairy — and there is nothing to suggest that we can’t return to those times.” — Miyoko Schinner, founder and CEO of Miyoko’s Creamery
IN THIS DECADE, the world has seen significant movement toward a more plant-based way of life. With 11% of the American population identifying as either vegan or vegetarian and nearly 50% of Americans interested in reducing their meat consumption, veganism has gone from the fringes straight to the mainstream. Some obvious factors for this shift are the sense of urgency around reducing climate change and the widely publicized potential health benefits, like lower rates of heart disease. But also impacting it is the breadth of alternative options that have appeared on grocery store shelves. Now, instead of being relegated to staples like nutritional yeast, nut milks, and seitan at the health food store, entire sections of major grocery chains are devoted to vegan products. The options abound, which is thrilling for a long-time vegan like me (I jumped the carnivore ship back in 2009 out of curiosity and it stuck).
But it must be said of this new surfeit of options that not all are created equal. The quality and craft behind these new meat, dairy, and egg products is often missing. There is not yet a vegan equivalent to “grass-fed” or “pastured-raised,” and many of these products can often be filled with low-quality, heavily processed ingredients like GMO soy and oils. But three trailblazing Bay Area companies — Miyoko’s Creamery, Prime Roots, and Black Sheep — are separating themselves from the pack when it comes to technological innovation, culinary excellence, and climate activism. The brands are at the forefront of moving the vegan diet from one of abstinence to one of abundance, showing that vegan food can be celebratory, that when it comes to climate, health, and taste, we can have our cake (or French-style truffle cheese) and eat it too. I’m just happy it’s now possible to be vegan and still eat cheese, bacon, and lamb — just made a little differently.
When it comes to climate, health, and taste, we can have our cake (or French-style truffle cheese) and eat it too.
“I don’t want to create foods that remind people that I am trying to copy animal foods exactly, as I don’t want people to look at animals as food or commodities,” says founder and CEO Miyoko Schinner of the Napa Valley–based Miyoko’s Creamery. Schinner is a pioneer when it comes to making plant-based food delicious. Over two decades ago, her journey to vegan cheesemaking started when she began fermenting nut milk in her home kitchen. At the time, she was a Europhile who adored French pastries and Italian cheeses, but she’d grown too compassionate toward animals and the planet to continue eating dairy. She taught herself how to make cheese using age-old methods like fermentation, and began to sell it at her local Napa Valley farmers’ market. Demand soon exceeded what she could make in her home kitchen. Schinner founded Miyoko’s Creamery in 2014. The company became known for their European-style butter and disrupting the yellow-margarine-dominated vegan butter space. They have since expanded to include a robust line of varied cheeses, from “lox” cream cheese (made with seaweed) to aged cheddar, and even a pourable mozzarella for pizza (that browns and bubbles like the real deal) made from watermelon seed milk. In 2022, Miyoko’s products are synonymous with vegan cheese and are sold at major retailers across the country.
Miyoko’s stands apart in this ever-growing array of plant-based cheeses, including some made from non-animal-based whey protein, because of Schinner’s devotion to the artisanal and time-consuming spirit that inspired her to make her first batches at home. Even in her expansion, she preserves the farmers’ market spirit in line with the low-intervention European style of cheesemaking, by sourcing quality ingredients and keeping her products the least processed as possible. “There should be romance and beauty around food,” she says. We’re not looking for functional replacements. Food should inspire and evoke feelings, not just be a manipulated protein replacement at the center of your plate.” At least for this vegan, feelings — contentment, satisfaction — are exactly what I get when setting a wheel of Miyoko’s Black Ash in the center of an apéro cheese plate.
Kimberlie Le and Josh Nixon founded the San Francisco–based Prime Roots to shake up the world of deli meat, that familiar lunchtime staple. When asked why she and Nixon chose to focus on this arguably unglamorous space, Le says, “It’s not so much about being sexy as it is about providing practical products that can easily fit into our flexitarian customers’ busy lives. If we can provide a 1-for-1 swap for lunches throughout the week, it adds up to having a much larger impact.” The two met as classmates at UC Berkeley and were students in the Alternative Meats X-Lab, a pioneering research lab dedicated to alternative protein research. This is where they learned that a time-tested ingredient, koji, a mold derived from the fermentation of grains that is a common ingredient in certain Asian cultures, could be used to make animal protein analogs. Le had been introduced to koji by her mother, a chef who was aware of the ingredient’s natural umami flavoring. Le thought koji would lend itself well to a robustly flavored meat alternative and, through experimentation, proved her hypothesis.
How does it all work though? How can a grain-based fungus create a vegan turkey or ham? “Koji and fermentation are processes that have existed for tens of thousands of years; we are simply combining the two with a unique spin on how to make the koji have a texture and taste that is like the meats that we know and love,” says Le. “The process is a simple fermentation paired with traditional meat-making techniques.” They combine the koji with other plants and fungi to make “meats.” It only takes 2–3 days for koji to grow the necessary fibers to build the structure of their meats, whereas it takes years to grow an animal, or over 10 days for other fungi to produce something similar. Another benefit to koji is that it produces zero byproducts and doesn’t need to be isolated, like soy, or heavily processed like other plant proteins. This keeps it as close to nature as possible. In taste, texture, and even weight, pliability, and chew, Prime Roots products are meat doppelgangers. When asked how they pulled this off, Le explains, “It took a lot of time to study and perfect the koji meats, which is really an art and a science. We wanted the experience to be seamless and as close [as possible] to what meat eaters want and expect.”
Another Bay Area–based company changing the notion of what “meat” can be is Black Sheep. Their protein of choice is lamb. The founders, Sunny Kumar and Ismael Montanez, saw an underserved area of the market in game meats that are often popular in non-Western diets. “Our first product is lamb because it’s both alien and familiar in America,” says Kumar. It also happens to be one of the most environmentally taxing, with high water consumption, use of land, and degradation per yield. Since it’s not generally a part of the everyday American diet, few are aware that it ranks worst among all domesticated meat sources on the metric of waste versus reward. There is a rising awareness that factory-farming practices in the beef, chicken, and salmon industries have had a drastic impact on the environment, but little attention has been paid to other meats. “Pound for pound, lamb is the most taxing meat to the environment,” says Kumar. “We have spent a lot of time looking closely at our supply chain to ensure we aren’t just reducing CO2 emissions, but also cutting down on land and water use.”
The single biggest factor in swaying meat eaters to a more plant-based diet is taste, which Kumar and Montanez knew at inception. Their lamb alternative had to be as satisfying as its animal-based counterpart. “People want to eat less meat, but providing plant-based alternatives that mimic current animal proteins is a losing strategy, since it doesn’t address the most important customer value — taste,” acknowledges Kumar. That is why it took them over three years of research to arrive at the product available today. They analyzed animal meat and took note of both good and bad flavors. Their focus was on perfecting the science to leave only the desirable or palatable flavors in their product. The goal was to revolutionize the way alternative proteins taste, making them even more enticing than their animal counterparts.
Having pushed the boundaries of what vegan food can be, what comes next for each of these innovators? At Miyoko’s, it’s mining underexplored plants. Her team is currently exploring new milks made from unusual nuts and seeds that have been ignored. Schinner believes that there are a lot of ingredients that haven’t been assimilated into our Western food system, and that they can produce similarly delicious vegan products, while bringing uniqueness and nutritional value. (She notes that milks made from sunflower or sesame seeds have recently come to market, and thinks that’s only the beginning.) At Prime Roots, it’s bringing creativity to this new way of eating meat. That’s why instead of being direct-to-consumer, they’ve pivoted to partnering with Bay Area restaurants where their products appear in chef-crafted sandwiches, like veggie muffalettas. They continue to convert meat eaters on the day-to-day level, with the hope that soon a daily deli turkey sandwich will be made with koji and not animals. The focus at Black Sheep is expansion to diversify their offerings. They are developing duck and wild boar to provide the consumer with more choices that don’t skimp on flavor. All three of these companies are leveraging their scientific expertise and interest in culinary excellence to further destigmatize plant-based food. Thanks to them, unctuous butter, umami-filled bacon, and savory lamb are now vegan too.
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Kyle Beechey Writer
Kyle Beechey is a New York–based writer. She’s either writing a screenplay, on a far-off adventure, or baking a cake.
Aya Brackett Photographer
Aya Brackett is a commercial fine art photographer who shoots portraits, still-life, food, travel and conceptual work.