Mike's Fancy Cheese: 'We raised £80k in three days... I gave away 40% of the company'
To help his cheese dreams mature, Mike Thomson turned to crowd funding. John Mulgrew reports
Walking into Mike Thomson's cheese ageing room is not for those with a strong sense of smell. It's a whack of astringent, pungent and potent aged blue cheese – but in a good way.
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He's taken up a craft which has been around for thousands of years – and he's the only Northern Ireland producer doing it the traditional way.
He only began selling his blue cheese 'Young Buck' late last year from Newtownards, Co Down, under the banner of Mike's Fancy Cheese.
And no one else is doing it in the same vein as the best known English and French cheeses – using raw, unpasteurised milk.
"It's a dying art around here, and I'm trying to help revive it in Northern Ireland," he said.
But despite plying his trade in such an ancient tradition, he went about funding his ever-burgeoning business in a very modern way. The 28-year-old raised £80,000 through online crowd-funding.
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Now, he's reaping the rewards of the craft, and selling to some of the top Northern Ireland restaurants and specialist shops around the UK.
So, what drew this Belfast man to turn his hand to a skill and craft dating back – arguably – some 8,000 years?
His first foray began after a stint working in one of Belfast's top delis and cheese shops, Arcadia.
"When we were doing the shop up, we couldn't find a good, locally sourced, hand-made, small scale cheese," he said.
"That's when it first came into my head. That's where the interest first came from."
He then took the first few steps needed to begin crafting his very own Roquefort or Stinking Bishop.
Mr Thomson studied at the School of Artisan Food in Nottinghamshire for a year to learn the crucial skills required to produce something worthy of the best cheese boards.
"I thought there was a real gap in the market, so I'd go to England, learn how to make cheese and then go back to Northern Ireland," he said.
"I spent a year on a farm making three different raw milk cheeses before moving back."
But despite the training, overwhelming passion and grand plans to begin making cheese, he found it impossible to find the much-needed start-up capital to get the business up-and-running.
"I moved back, contacted all the banks thinking there would be lots of money floating around – but no," he said,
"So, I chose Seedrs – equity-based and all online. And we raised £80,000 in three days."
As one of many crowd-funding platforms, Seedrs allows entrepreneurs to raise cash online in exchange for varying levels of shares in their business.
It's something an increasing number of businesses are turning to in Northern Ireland, including success stories such as bike light firm See.Sense and app-controlled brewing system Brewbot.
"I gave away 40% of the company for £80,000," Mr Thomson said.
"Of that, we had 100 investors. People could invest from £10 to £15,000. We have one person who gave us the big money, a food enthusiast, and he's been great.
"Another guy who I worked with in England put in £10,000."
And of course, his kin and friends helped play a part in getting things off the ground.
"The family also put in lots," he said.
"Friends for example, they invested £10 or £20. But if they had just given me the money, I would have just spent it."
So, after setting up his production facility at a modest business unit in Ards, he began crafting his 'Young Buck' cheese – similar in style to an English Stilton.
At the outset, it's a reasonably simple process – turning raw milk into cheese. But the minutiae and subtleties of the process is where the skills of a craftsman come into play.
The milk itself, the key component of the soon-to-be rich, creamy and pungent blue, is sourced from a farmer in the area – but forgoes the same pasteurisation process most supermarket dairy products go through.
After the separation of curds and whey – just as Little Miss Muffet's nursery rhyme goes – it's on to several days sitting at a controlled temperature.
At that stage, it sits in tall plastic cylinders – looking like slightly mouldy feta.
"We use rennet to set our cheese. That's used to set the milk, then it's cut – which separates the curds and whey," he said.
Then, around three weeks in the next room – where an aroma of fresh lemon zest packs the nose, and the cheese receives its hand-sculpted rind.
"I use a palette knife, skimming the outside and closing up any small gaps.
"As it dries out, that will begin to create the rind. It's in the second room for around three weeks where each cheese is turned every day."
Each cheese also receives its first 'piercing' to allow the characteristic blue veining to develop.
Finally, a few weeks sitting in the stinkiest of all the rooms, where the full ageing process happens and the product turns into the deeply flavoured cheese that has already helped Mike Thomson become a success.
Working out of a unit at the Ards Business Centre since May, 2013 – and after fitting the place out ready for the process of cheese-making – Mr Thomson began selling just before last Christmas.
At the moment he has around 300 full rounds at his Ards base – producing around 30 cheeses a week.
And it's still very much a one man operation, with some moral support from his girlfriend and family.
"Things are going really well. We've been getting some real interest and business is booming," he said.
At a craft level, cheese is still very much a niche in Northern Ireland.
But with plans to add to his already widely successful and highly acclaimed blue, his cheese could potentially stir up something in a similar vein to the ever-expanding craft beer market here.
He's already selling his cheese in Niall McKenna's multi-award winning James Street South restaurant in Belfast city centre – among others.
"At the moment James Street South and Lavery's are big customers, as well as one over in England, selling around Yorkshire," he said,
"We also sell to a range of top London delicatessens and markets."
The Belfast man is already planning a new addition to the already successful 'Young Buck', as well as opening a pop-up shop in time for Christmas.
"We are hoping to add a sheep's milk cheese – that will offer customers something a bit different," he said.
The yellow stuff is the big cheese in NI agri-food sector
Cheese-making is big business in a dairy-dominated agri-food sector like Northern Ireland’s.
Producers range from the smallest and most niche, such as Mike Fancy Cheese in Newtownards and goats-cheese maker Leggygowan Farm in Saintfield, to Dale Farm, Northern Ireland’s biggest dairy business.
Dale Farm produces several brands of cheese, including Northern Ireland cheddar brand Dromona, and Rowan Glen red cheddar in Scotland.
It’s now the owner of the Fivemiletown portfolio of cheeses, which it acquired after the renowned Co Tyrone creamery ran into financial difficulties.
The Fivemiletown brands helped Dale Farm to win 17 gongs at the recent International Cheese Awards at Nantwich.
The clutch of awards included three gold, two silver and two bronze awards for its cheddar cheeses and a gold, silver and bronze award for Fivemiletown speciality cheese including a gold for Ballyblue, one of the first blue cheeses to be developed in Ireland.
Mike Thomson’s Young Buck blue cheese, meanwhile, gained its first-ever gong in the Irish Cheese Awards in Dublin in June. Young Buck struck silver in the Blue Cheese (Any Milk) Category in the event.
Speaking when Dale Farm revealed its results for the year ending March 31, group chief executive David Dobbin said the company had reversed the sales decline of the Fivemiletown brands.
He added: “Our aim or objective would be to grow the business. The products are good and we would hope to improve their marketing and increase output. We would like to get the facility to a size where it’s more competitive.”
Growing demand in Russia and China had helped Dale Farm achieve export sales of £102m.
But the recent ban on imports of cheese, butter, meat and pork sales into Russia has since been described by Mr Dobbin as “most unwelcome” for all Northern Ireland companies affected.
However, when announcing the results in July, he said the company had been forecasting a slow-down in exports anyway, with sales in home markets helping to compensate.