What started out as a diversification strategy aimed at getting a better price for milk from his parents’ farm has turned into an award-winning business in its own right for its 21-year-old founder.
Dutch-born Giel Spierings started the Cornish Gouda Company last year because he wanted to make better use of the milk produced on his parents’ dairy farm in Lanreath.
The family moved from Holland to Cornwall in 1998 because it was cheaper to buy cows and land – although the price paid for milk is much lower in the UK than in Holland.
Last year, the fledgling business won the Ignite business start up competition, organised by Oxford Innovation, giving Giel a £120,000 launch pad comprising of a £25,000 cash prize as well as support in kind from well-established Cornish companies.
Giel is now about to embark on an ambitious expansion programme after he invested his prize money in new premises that will allow him to increase the amount of cheese he stores.
This means that the Cornish Gouda Company will be able to start selling stronger mature gouda flavours, which need to mature for longer – a move that will eventually see him increase production in a bid to secure new stockists.
At present his cheese is only available in Cornwall, where it is sold at the Eden Project and a number of major Cornish distributors including Roddas Creamery, Hawkridge Dairy and Hanson Fine Foods.
But, in time, he is hoping to extend this network and to add new products including a fresh cheese and a new dairy dessert product that is likely to be a cross between yoghurt and custard.
Giel’s long-term objective for Cornish Gouda is to see the company become the number one, premium artisan Gouda cheese in the UK.
Giel sold £70,000 of cheese in the first 10 months of trading up to September 2013, producing 900kg of the cheese a month. The product has been so successful that he has been unable to produce enough of the artisan cheese to meet demand without expanding his production facilities.
Work starts on this £100,000 expansion this month and, when the eight week build process is finished, it will see Giel recruit his first employee, followed by a second member of staff in around five months time.
Giel has used his cash prize of £25,000 from the Ignite competition to part-fund this expansion.
In his business plan for the competition, Giel predicted current sales would increase tenfold by 2017 if he could unlock the market opportunities through increased production and storage facilities and recruit three new staff to support the growth.
So far, Oxford Innovation and Ignite sponsors such as Francis Clark, Foot Anstey and Sideways have helped Giel set up Cornish Gouda as a separate Limited company, look into accessing ERDF grant funding and to make a video for his Crowdfunder pitch to help secure the balance of the investment.
The former Bodmin College and Looe Community School pupil produces varieties ranging from mild or mature Gouda and flavoured versions such as fenugreek, honey and clover, and Italian herb.
“I don’t know what it is, I just love making cheese. It takes up most of my time, I spend three days a week making and then three days turning, cleaning and waxing the cheeses in the store,” he said.
“I never really have a day off, I’m always doing something, even on Sundays, and I’ve only had one week’s holiday in the last two years. I don’t mind though; I truly love it, making cheese is great fun.”
Giel is working hard to grow the company to keep pace with demand for his cheese – much of which has stemmed from word-of-mouth recommendations as people try ‘proper’ Gouda for the first time and are won over.
Giel said: “Gouda doesn’t have a great reputation in this country, mainly because the kind of ‘Gouda-style’ cheeses you find in British supermarkets are mass produced and tend to be rubbery with very little flavor. Our Gouda is nothing like that; it’s a real artisan product with natural ingredients, much lower in salt than most Cheddars, and incredibly versatile for cooking.”
The cheese is made from milk produced on the Spierings farm and its herd of 90 Holstein Friesians
Making cheese is not new for Giel or his family – it has been a family pastime for generations of Spierings.
Giel’s mother, Annemarie, said: “We’ve always made cheese as a family but it goes back further than that; Giel’s grandparents were farmers and they made cheese, as in those days in Holland, the farms were smaller and you did everything. It was a good way of preserving the milk that you couldn’t sell.
“When we moved to England 15 years ago from Holland, we made our own cheese because we were used to Gouda and we didn’t like the cheese in the shops here.
“We had the milk being a dairy farm, and we brought a 300 litre wooden vat with us from Holland so we made several batches of Gouda with the children helping out when they were young.
“I actually did a course in cheese making when I was pregnant with Giel, so you could say he started learning how to make Gouda then.”
The Spierings family’s background is in farming, with Giel’s father Joost following his own father to buy a dairy cattle breeding farm in Holland.
But Joost wanted to switch to dairy farming, so in 1998 he and Annemarie moved to England with their three children – Giel, then aged six, and his elder brother and sister Jan and Lonneke, who were seven and eight at the time.
Annemarie said: “Joost had always wanted to milk cows but buying a dairy farm in Holland was really expensive so we looked abroad until we found the perfect place here in Lanreath.”
Having moved to Cornwall, the price paid for milk dropped substantially, leaving the family looking round for diversification options.
Giel spent three weeks in Holland in autumn 2012 staying with his uncle and cousin who are cheesemakers, and learnt more about the process of producing Gouda from them.
“I really fell in love with the whole concept then,” he said.
Giel worked out the figures by himself, and his parents re-mortgaged the farm to fund a £100,000 initial investment which included £50,000 to convert a shed into a production unit with a wood burner for energy, and £25,000 on importing a specialist cheese vat from Holland.
“It was a family investment – I was 19, the banks weren’t going to loan me that much money, so mum and dad had to invest in me,” Giel said. “But it was all for the family and to save the farm.”