Meet the Maker: Mary Keehn, Cypress Grove

Our country is learning about cheese, and about the mind-boggling range of styles being made by cheesemakers across all fifty states. It’s still new to us. But if American cheese has a Steve Jobs equivalent—a mad scientist tinkering in the garage, fueled by a vision and passion way before its time, and, ultimately, producing a product that changes the way Americans experience life —then Mary Keehn is probably that person. Only, as she would undoubtedly point out, with way more elbow grease and way less money.

Mary Keehn and Humboldt Fog, the signature cheese she created, are the quintessential success story of what entrepreneurialism can be. Her story begins in the early ‘80s, as a single mother of four children who had trouble digesting cow milk. Living in small-town northern California, she had an opportunity familiar to many rural Americans: enough land to support some goats that she could milk to feed her kids. As she reminded me recently, “Goats are the poverty animal. Maybe people know goat milk because they ate their grandma’s cheese, because they had to. And when they get a chance, maybe people want to trade up. We are a cow culture.” The appeal of goats and food made from their milk is novel in 2021. In 1983 it was commercially negligible but of great personal value to Mary.

A year or two after she got her first goats Mary travelled to France and fell in love with their soft cheeses. Although she spoke no French, she learned to make Brie-style (bloomy rind) cheese from the farm family she stayed with. On the plane ride home, she fell asleep and dreamt of a cheese that didn’t yet exist but was a mash-up of many characteristics that had beguiled her in France. This cheese had the white, soft, edible rind of the cheeses she had learned to make, but iwas taller, drier and sturdier so it could be more easily transported. Across the snowy, flaky interior, the cheese was cut through with a wavering line of black ash, similar to famed French cheese Morbier. Mary dreamt every detail of this imaginary cheese, gray and foggy as the Pacific coasts near her home. In homage to her damp, Pacific terrain she decided to call the cheese Humboldt Fog, named for Humboldt County, California.

When I ask Mary, as I have in conversations over more the past 15 years, why she thinks Humboldt Fog became the Apple computer of the American artisan cheese world, she says she doesn’t know. But she has some inklings. “I am not at all risk averse. I think about what I want to do and I go for it. A lot of people who take risks aren’t successful. There’s a lot of luck involved. I was willing to take the risk, people were beginning to travel, people were getting interested in food and it all just kind of came together.” That coming together, however, took thirty very gradual years. 

The first hurdle was getting her cheese down to the metropolitan market of San Francisco, with its chefs and population density. This is where Mary got her first distributor but, as she was quick to acknowledge, the challenges of being first to market were balanced by some benefits. There weren’t as many rules in the ‘80s and 90s as there are today. There were far fewer competitors. Mary could do things like send her cheese from her farm down to San Francisco on the Greyhound Bus—a move that would get you shut down today, or at least brutally skewered on social media. There was more possibility for make-it-up-as-you-go, and Mary’s farm Cypress Grove steadily rode that wave. 

In the late ‘90s and early 2000s it became clear that if Cypress Grove was to continue growing from a regional to a coastal and even national business, Mary would need to sell her herd of goats, which she finalized doing in 2003. I see this as a major turning point for Cypress Grove, allowing Mary to focus solely on the making and selling of cheese. The cheese got better. Mary developed a network of farms whose milk Cypress Grove would buy, and she helped other family farms struggling to subsist on the sale of cows’ milk convert their dairies to goat dairies that her operation could support. 

Meanwhile, the world around her was starting to pay more, and different, attention to the complexities of smaller scale American food production. Mary sagely drew a parallel between the impact of the media in the early aughts and the impact of the media today: “When the media reports on something, it becomes real. The media has a lot more power than people realize. And it’s a wonderful thing when it works out.” Florence Fabricant at The New York Times wrote about Humboldt Fog and said it was a great cheese. And thus it was. An article was written about the Top 100 Designs in the World, from great architecture to Hermes scarves to…cheese? And so Humboldt Fog was a world-leading design innovation. Just as people started to hear about this thing they had to have, Mary had positioned Cypress Grove to make that thing available from Texas to New Jersey. 

The legacy benefits of this growth can’t be overstated. As Cypress Grove became a “big” artisan cheesemaker, it also became a company that could preserve open space in the community and offer employees a profit-sharing plan. As Mary looked to the future of the business she was adamant about her stewardship of the people, and the cheese, that made Cypress Grove great. “As an entrepreneur,” she told me, “you care about the business. You birth it, you take care of it, you’re there in the middle of the night when there’s a problem. You do everything you can. Having your business succeed is like having your child succeed. On top of that there all the families that rely on you—I had people who had been with me for 20 years. I want the business to go on as much like it is.”  After receiving multiple offers, Mary opted to sell the business in 2010 to Swiss dairy conglomerate Emmi, which owns and operates multiple American subsidiaries. She saw this as a partnership of shared values, with financial backing that would allow Cypress Grove, for the first time in its existence, to plan and build for future growth, not just immediate need. 

As a cheese expert, I regularly encounter resistance to goat cheese. Maybe it’s because consumers are less familiar with it, or because they are familiar with it and associate it with a legacy of compromise. Perhaps it’s because, as Mary says, we all live in a cow culture. I attribute a lot of this resistance to the tangier, more citrusy, more intense flavor of fresh goat cheese as opposed to more familiar white cheeses like cream cheese, or cottage cheese, or mozzarella. Goat cheese is different from what most of us are used to. 

I’d argue that’s what makes Mary’s 1984 plane dream so particularly visionary. She imagined a cheese that was part Brie, part goat, part cheesecake. She took an unfamiliar food and enrobed it in the trappings of, if not familiarity, than of delightful decadence. Humboldt Fog is essentially a white-frosted layer cake. It’s a childhood fantasy that, when sliced, demands your consideration with its insistent striping of (totally edible) black vegetable ash. A bite of this cheese is like tropical frosting: light and smeary, but bright. Sunny, with a lemony, citrus tang. That Brie-ish rind softens the acid and introduces some yeasty notes, all of which pair brilliantly with California Chenin or Sauvignon Blanc. I’d say everyone should try Humboldt Fog at least once because you’re eating a piece of history. That’s the first reason. The second time, you’ll eat it just because it’s so damn good.