Our cheesiest article yet

From a local cooperative founded in the thralls of The Great Depression to Canada’s largest independent cheese manufacturer. 

By Pat Rediger. 

Heralding back to the time of its earliest customers, Bothwell Cheese is still frequently visited by the milkman.

Those shipments, however, no longer consist of a few glass bottles.

The independent cheese manufacturer — located in New Bothwell, Manitoba, roughly 50 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg, near Steinbach — is the final destination for as much as 168,000 litres of the ‘white stuff’ per day, equivalent to 5-7 truckloads, seven days per week.

And it’s not just any milk. The company uses only 100 per cent pure, locally-sourced milk in every block of cheese it produces, free from hormones, antibiotics, preservatives, artificial colours, fillers, or additives.

For Bothwell Cheese Vice President Mike Raftis, that commitment has been the not-so-secret strategy for success.

“Our recipe has stayed the same — we’ve never wavered from using 100 per cent local milk since the beginning,” says Raftis, who notes that 98 per cent of the cheesemaker’s ingredients come from within a 100-kilometre radius. “Some companies use modified milk because [the alternative] is expensive. We could add these inputs to lower our costs, but we believe pure milk provides the highest quality product and directly supports the farmer.”

This longstanding philosophy was inspired by the company’s founders.

Bothwell Cheese began in 1936 as a cooperative of dairy farmers looking for a way to put their extra milk to good use. It was a small operation, with only a handful of employees, but provided a unique foundation for growth coming out of The Great Depression.

“When you look at the co-op model, there were a lot of farmers with shared values and interests, who were passionate about the cheese-making process, and put a lot of hard work and dedication into their craft,” says Raftis. “The founders really established roots in the community, and cultivated a loyal following that continued with generations of families growing up with the product.”

While there is no denying Bothwell Cheese is steeped in tradition, it has also demonstrated a remarkable ability to adapt to changing market conditions.

One of the first major pivots was to invest in a milk pasteurizer — among the first plants in Canada to do so. This technology allowed cheesemakers to control how much cream, fat, and moisture enters each block of cheese.

The company has turned to automation as well. To keep up with the pace of growth, portioning and packaging processes have been mechanized, helping to sustain a production line capable of churning out 15,000 kilograms of cheese daily — even more astounding considering one kilogram of cheese requires approximately 10 litres of milk. High-capacity vats are used to produce 19-kilogram blocks of cheese, which are then packaged, refrigerated, and aged for up to a year.

In total, Bothwell Cheese manufactures more than 25 varieties, including Jalapeno Monterey Jack, Habanero, Black Truffle, Horseradish Cheddar, Red Hot Chili Pepper Jack, and Madagascar Green Peppercorn. Red Wine Extra Old Cheddar, meanwhile, has exploded in popularity across Eastern Canada.

In fact, these products can be found on store shelves throughout much of the country — a significant departure from the original cooperative model.

Raftis credits this shift — and owners Kevin and Len Thomson — with the company’s recent expansion.

“Under the co-op structure, in the later years, Bothwell Cheese just wasn’t financially sustainable,” he explains. “The new ownership has invested heavily in sales and marketing to ensure there is demand for our products. We virtually didn’t have any personnel in that function four years ago.”

The result, he adds, has been a surge from 60 employees to more than 100 in only 24 months.

“We’ve been able to persevere in the market through product development and listening to our customers. By investing in advertising and social media presence, we’ve created materials that better tell our story. It has made a tremendous impact.”

Other big plans are on the horizon. Beyond tightening its foothold on markets nationwide, in 2017, Bothwell Cheese will become the first Canadian manufacturer to offer cheese made from ‘Non-GMO Project Verified’ milk.

It also plans to explore other product areas, such as butter, made possible by the acquisition of the province’s famed Notre Dame Creamery, built in 1921 in Notre Dame de Lourdes.

For a company that celebrated its 80th anniversary last year, there are plenty of reasons to celebrate.

Among them is sheer survival. Bothwell Cheese endures as one of the few remaining cheesemakers in Manitoba — an industry that was once comprised of more than 40 producers.

According to co-owner Kevin Thomson, the next 80 years will require adherence to the same proven recipe. Although strategies may change over time, values do not.

“Bothwell Cheese has a long history of introducing innovations in cheese to provide customers with greater choice,” he says. “This has allowed us to thrive in a very competitive market for 80 years.

“Individuals and families are telling us they would like to be given more choice, and we are proud to be able to offer this as an option.”