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How an Australian Changed America’s Artisan Vegan Cheese Game

“I thought I would never have good cheese again,” says Imber Lingard, who took matters into her own hands and began culturing ten of her own unique vegan cheeses—and most of her clientele isn't even vegan.
All photos by the author.

At last, we can't believe it's not cheese. The long, winding road of creating ostensibly subtle (and delicious) dairy substitutes has hit nirvana in Portland, Oregon—a city with a culinary tradition of thinking outside of the box. Dick-shaped donuts, anyone?

Specifically, Portland's first all-vegan cheese shop, Vtopian Artisan Cheeses—the second of its kind in the country—is doing everything it can to keep vegan cheese weird.

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Vtopian Artisan Cheeses, which opened last summer, owes its roots to an unconventional duo: Australia and Myspace. It was on Myspace in 2008 that Australian Imber Lingard met Vtopian cofounder Mark Jordan, whom she married after buying a plane ticket to the US. (They met a few times in real life beforehand.) Coming to America was the perfect escape for frustrated Lingard, who was dismayed by Australia's apparent lack of vegan alternatives.

"I thought I would never have good cheese again," explains Lingard, who gained a job at the vegan comfort food refuge Cornbread Café in Eugene. She took matters into her own restaurant and began culturing ten of her own unique vegan cheeses. After finding a passionate local following, Lingard and Jordan set out to expand their business up north in Portland, which lacked a vegan cheese shop to call its own.

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Some of the cheeses on offer at Vtopian. All photos by the author.

Lingard and Jordan became intent on inventing vegan cheeses so similar to dairy cheeses that they could satisfy the void felt by many who dishearteningly rely on the soy- or coconut-based solutions common to upscale grocery stores. Make no mistake: Lingard and Jordan realized they would have to get creative in order to construct authentic decoys of the colorful European cheeses that they missed the most.

Indeed, when the first commercial vegan cheeses were introduced in the 90s, they were a mess—the union of crude oils and thickening agents. In other words, vegan cheese appeared only physically suitable for a third grader's grilled cheese. Nowadays, the cultivation of artisan vegan cheese is emerging as an art form, buoyed by creativity and faithfulness to the model. After all, vegan mozzarella should look and taste like real mozzarella.

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"We don't want to copy anything produced by other companies," says Lingard, who cites originality as a key ingredient in her business.

Currently, Vtopian Artisan Cheeses offers the likes of a perplexingly accurate smoked Gouda, a conservative Camembert, and a variety of fruit-infused bries. You won't find vegan takes on these cheeses anywhere else, which is possibly why Vtopian Artisan Cheeses now ships internationally to 40 stores dotted throughout the US and Canada. Even Whole Foods sells Vtopian products.

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A spread of vegan cheeses.

With 30 distinctive types of vegan cheese currently available at Vtopian Artisan Cheeses, Lingard and Jordan's kitchen is a veritable science lab. "There is lots of experimenting that goes on in here," confirms Lingard. "It took me a few months to work with sauerkraut alone, for example. We actually age our cheeses, which many vegan cheese producers believe is impossible."

The process of aging vegan cheese is simpler than one might expect. "We put all the unique ingredients together and age the cheeses by isolating them in the fridge," says Lingard.

Unlike many soy- or coconut-based vegan cheese products, all of Vtopian's recipes are cashew-based. Lingard and Jordan refine their cheeses by culturing them with probiotics, sauerkraut, and vegan yogurt. Sauerkraut is the quintessential ingredient that gives certain items their "unique tang," according to Lingard.

Vtopian's cheeses also play a role in Vtopian's lunch and dinner menu. Besides being the second all-vegan cheese shop in the country, Vtopian Artisan Cheeses is also the US's only all-vegan cheese shop in conjunction with a full menu vegan restaurant. Vtopian's cheeses appear in customer favorite such as the roasted tomato or "fancy" mac 'n' cheese bowls, Caprese paninis, and house-made cheesecakes.

And Portland loves it—even those who shouldn't. Vtopian Artisan Cheeses estimates that roughly 80 percent of its patrons aren't even vegan. "Everything's vegan in here, but the customers usually aren't," says Lingard. "In fact, we get a lot of people who are specifically lactose-intolerant."

So when food tourists visit Vtopian Artisan Cheeses and then hop off to Salt & Straw for a double waffle cone à la Joe Biden, there are no hard feelings.