Founder Brian Civitello gives it his all, and discovers himself at the same time
Brian Civitello, Mystic Cheese’s founder and cheesemaker, was sitting in traffic watching trucks haul shipping containers down Interstate 95 when he had an epiphany.
Shipping containers! The perfect modular, mobile infrastructure for making cheese.
And so Mystic Cheese was born. His partner Jason Sobocinski came on board to focus on marketing and sales. Fast forward to 2016. Civitello has made 27,000 pounds of cheese in two shipping containers — a total of 320 square feet — in about two years. “Every single inch is accounted for,” he says. Only two people can fit in his Cheese Pod, as he calls it, and two people in there at one time is quite a squeeze.
Nearly all of Mystic Cheese’s goodies — Melville, Melinda Mae, Sea Change and Frost, which is coming soon — have been crafted by Civitello’s own two hands. His first and most popular cheese, Melville, takes 14 hours to make. He has produced 15,000 pounds of Melville and counting. That’s a long day of cheesemaking. Civitello listens to a lot of podcasts while he works. “The next Cheese Pod will have windows,” he promises. It can get a little claustrophobic in the Pod.
“Making cheese is a science and an art,” says Civitello, a process governed by both meticulous “mechanical rigidity” and intuition, microbiology and sense perception. Making cheese also demands a nearly impossible amount of physically taxing, precise, solitary and monotonous work. Civitello starts each day at 7 a.m. He collects 1,000 pounds of fresh milk himself in 100 pound cans “as fast as I can.”
He milks the same cows each day in the same order. The cows know Civitello. He is well acquainted with their individual personalities and quirks. By the time the milk makes it into his pasteurizer, it has been out of the cow for 40 minutes, maybe less, and travelled a distance of a mere few yards. The incredible freshness of the milk is easy to taste in Mystic Cheese’s creations, which share such vivid lactic brightness that they nearly pop.
After half an hour in the pasteurizer, native and cultivated lactic bacteria, yeasts and molds are added to the milk, and Civitello lets the starter cultures work their magic. Rennet gets added to the curd, which is then cut, agitated and placed in the forms that give the cheeses their shape. These days, Civitello is switching over to larger format cheeses, which are a little less labor intensive and temperamental than their smaller counterparts. The cheeses drain, and then take a bath in brine. Now they’re ready to ripen for about seven to 10 days, and finally to be devoured.
Life On The Farm
It’s a process Civitello has spent a lifetime mastering. His grandfather emigrated from Italy and he wanted to do what he had done growing up, the only thing he knew and loved — he wanted to farm. And so he “randomly bought a big piece of land” in Salem, CT, where acreage was cheap.
Civitello grew up on the farm. His family never went to the supermarket. They lived off the land, canning, freezing, fermenting and curing their bounty. His grandpa even grew a five-acre vineyard in the 1950s. They pressed wine, milked dairy animals and made salami. They kept bees for honey. “We were self-sustainable,” he says. “It was definitely a unique childhood.”
In his early 20s, Civitello set out to find a career. He ran a record label in Boston and travelled around working as a DJ. But he missed the ecosystem of the farm, its beauty and efficacy. Cheesemaking especially turned him on. “I love the complexity of the entire system, from farming and the animals to fermentation, ripening … the culture that each cheesemaker fosters in their creamery” — pun intended.
Civitello turned to his grandfather, who possessed a wealth of knowledge. Still, he was hungry to learn more from beyond the confines of his family farm. “I have dual citizenship so it was easy to jump ship and move to Italy.” He was thrilled with how welcoming cheese people were there, and immersed himself in the craft. He learned to make Alpine cheese on a traditional artisan dairy on the Swiss border. And he produced Parmigiano-Reggiano in a big factory, too.
Back home in the United States he worked and consulted for a long line of cheesemakers, big and small. Civitello is a sort of cheese whisperer. He loves sharing his knowledge. He has provided cheesemakers all over the country with recipes, techniques and wisdom. The Cheese Pod was conceived as an extension of this, a way to streamline cheesemaking, a better, easier infrastructure.
Back home in Connecticut, Civitello sought dairy farmers who wanted to turn some of their milk into cheese, a place to take the Cheese Pod for an inaugural spin. “They all looked at me like I was out of my mind.”
He was about to give up when he visited Graywall Farm in Lebanon, CT, a 900-acre farm with 250 cows. The folks at Graywall took a chance on Civitello and his Pod. And they’re glad they did. Civitello painted his Cheese Pod an army green, to match the buildings on the farm. The whole thing is still a “big experiment.” Mystic Cheese is just a single expression of the Pod’s many possibilities.
Mystic Cheese took off more rapidly than Civitello imagined. “You get a hit and people start digging it, and then you run out of cheese,” he says. “It’s a problem a lot of small cheesemakers have in common.”
Sense Of Community
Civitello doesn’t sell to new buyers because he can barely keep up with his current orders. Mystic Cheese distributes mostly wholesale to grocery stores like Seacrest and Whole Foods, cheese shops like Murray’s and Saxelby Cheese, and a few dozen local restaurants. We stop for a bite at the Engine Room in Mystic where his cheeses are featured on the menu: Melville on a pork sandwich and Melinda Mae atop a mushroom burger. The owner stops to chat. There is real community here.
That sense of community is at the heart of what Mystic Cheese is all about. Cheese is a vehicle for “a better livelihood for the farmers, meaningful work, pride in what we do,” he says. Cheese creates connection.
New Digs In New London
Since demand has quickly outgrown the Cheese Pod’s output, Mystic Cheese is planning a move to a much larger facility in New London, CT. Guests will be able to drink beers on tap, dig into a cheese plate and watch his crew making cheese. Civitello will finally have a crew to help with the work. And at the new spot there will be plenty of windows.
Mystic Cheese embraces contradiction. Although the company is the smallest of small, Civitello is “not afraid of automation. I have no qualms doing things with machines.” American cheesemaking doesn’t have “thousands of years of history and knowledge … we are just getting there,” and so he is even more committed to learning everything he can and sharing everything he knows.
A cheesemaking operation cannot get any more bespoke, and yet Mystic cheeses exhibit incredible technical precision. Civitello does not have the laboratories and extensive resources he learned to use making Parmigiano-Reggiano, but he has a deep knowledge and sense understanding of exactly what he is doing.
The proof is in the cheese, of course. Melville, Melinda Mae, Sea Change and Frost are unfailingly stunning. And yet they don’t take themselves too seriously. Sweet, tangy, satiny Melville, as in the author Herman, a Stracchino-style wonder, melts gorgeously. It’s as approachable as string cheese.
The cheeses are inspired by authors and poets, their lovely, whimsical packaging designed by a children’s book author. “Hashtag CheeseEnglishMajors,” in Civitello’s words. Robiola-style Melinda Mae is a Shel Silverstein poem about finishing what you start. Its cheese namesake is soft-ripened, pudgy and sings the sweet song of ridiculously fresh milk.
And then there is Sea Change.
“Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.”
That’s a passage from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”. And Civitello’s Sea Change is a Shakespearean cheese — brilliant, enchanting, captivating, complex. A pearly, doughy Stracchino cheese covered in an ocean-hued collage of vivid blue and green molds, made from his own yogurt cultures. It’s like nothing else. It’s delicious.
Mystic Cheese is old and new, innovative and classic, tiny but big-hearted. It lives in 320 square feet but its ambitions are colossal. Civitello makes cheese and he makes so much more. CC