I love Punk Rawk Labs. There, I said it.
I first spotted them in Minneapolis during my American Vegan Roadtrip, having serious indecision in the Wedge Co-op over which flavor I wanted to try first. The crisis was eventually averted later on at a small vegan grocery store after interrogating the guy behind the counter. He told me to get the Smoked flavor…but what if I don’t like super smoked flavors? It’s not too smoky, don’t worry, me either. That one is the best. I eventually went with the Smoked and the Classic. Taste bud exploding ensued.
Of course I wanted to try out the others to give a full review, so I contacted Punk Rawk Labs and they agreed to send me their different varieties to try in their new spiffy square packaging…and offer a giveaway to you lovely readers (US only, sorry)!
Punk Rawk Labs is owned by three women: Alissa, Heidi and Julie. Not only are they super friendly, but I even got to meet Alissa in person recently at Vida Vegan Con III in Austin!
I wanted to know more, so I asked Alissa some questions…
1. It’s awesome to see a woman-owned vegan business! Did any of you have experience setting up a business before? Any advice or resources for those considering beginning their own vegan businesses? Something that totally surprised you about the process?
I would say that the biggest piece of advice I can give a person is to stay positive. Which sounds trite. But it’s kinda true. Starting a business is the most grueling most rewarding most mind bending thing. You really just have to move through impossible barriers. Pretty much daily. And so your state of mind I think is the most important asset you have in the process. You have to stay open to solutions. You have to keep moving forward. You have to see solutions where there are problems. It can be very discouraging at times. The most important thing is to not give up. Things will look different tomorrow. Keep going!
I would say the thing that totally surprised me about this process is just the response. When we first started in 2010 there was one other company making cashew based cheeses. Dr. Cow’s. They were the first ones. After we started, there was an insane flood of interest. One of our first stores, Rainbow in San Francisco, had a clipboard for the waiting list posted in the spot of the shelf where the cheeses were supposed to go. It was crazy! Since then so many other companies have jumped in the game. Kite Hill, Treeline, Miyoko, Chao, Artisan Sun, Nary Dairy, and countless more. We are small and don’t have deep pockets. So it’s crazy to see what this has evolved into. Many of these companies have already way surpassed us in size. But we were here from the beginning. Despite some claims that have been made in the press. 🙂
2. Is it really as bureaucratically complicated as it seems!?
YES! It’s definitely not easy. Some days it feels like an impossible journey. And really, it is. But it’s one of the most rewarding ones out there. I could go on about some of the ridiculousness we’ve encountered. But I try not to give too much energy to that stuff. Because at the end of the day, you have to let it go and keep moving.
3. What was the first vegan cheese flavor you came up with, how long did it take to produce the final recipe?
Your basic original recipe. smoked and herb happened at the same time. nacho came a couple years later. It took a while to refine the recipe. I first started playing with them when I was in culinary school. End of 2009. In 2010 I started selling them in small batches. This was when I was in physical therapy for my car crash. Which last about 18 months. so pretty much that entire time I was refining the recipe. Towards the end of that in early 2011, the cheeses were picked up by a store in Manhattan. And for the rest of the year, I was just in that one store. Because I was still in recovery. But that also gave me the chance to keep refining. I really think that all that time is what makes our cheese special.
4. Alissa, I see you studied to be a living foods chef! For those considering some type of culinary school or study, are there 1-2 standout things you learned or were inspired by via more formal study that you never would have figured out simply playing around in the kitchen as a home chef?
I think there is a huge difference between working in a professional kitchen and being a home chef. I think before I went to culinary school I had worked in the business for 20 years. So I had a pretty good idea of what I was getting into. I know when I was there that there were several people around who were excellent chefs and great artists. But became kind of disillusioned with the gap between that and the reality of working in a kitchen. Working in a kitchen is like being in the wild west. It takes a certain temperament. You need to be an artist. But kitchens are like little laboratories of karma. You work very closely in tight quarters with lots of people. It’s very political. It’s important to stay humble. You become part of a tribe. It’s not for everyone. But if it’s for you, it’s one of the greatest most beautiful experiences in the world.
5. Where can we go to get our hands on some of your cheeses right now?
There is a map of the stores that carry us on our site here: http://punkrawklabs.net/nut-milk-cheeses.html Right now we have the most presence in Seattle and Minneapolis as this is where our two distributors are based. But we are smattered around the country from LA to NYC to Chicago to Cambridge to Santa Fe and lots of places in between. You can also order online at Vegan Essentials.
6. Any hopes, dreams or new products you’re working on for Punk Rawk Labs in the future?
Absolutely, we are working on a new flavor now. Not sure when we’ll have this available. Hopefully in time for the holiday rush. We just got picked up by a distributor on the West Coast. So we hope to have our product more available out there soon. We also hope to re-engage people on the internet. The business actually started as a blog. So we’d like to reconnect with folks that way again. We recently started a new blog as a way to connect with folks (http://inside.punkrawklabs.net) And we hope to start doing more recipe videos again soon to stay connected. These are on our video page ( http://tv.punkrawklabs.net )
Between this and Vida Vegan Con, I’m super inspired about this Vegan Economy exploding out from everywhere. I can honestly say I loved all their flavors, but I’ll break it down for you here in case you’re forced to pick just one…
Base: Fermented nut milks (mostly cashew)
Consistency: Solid, but spreadable
Other points: All organic ingredients, women-owned business, gluten and soy-free
This is where it all began for me! Now with the flavor name alone, I didn’t think this one would be my thing. I envisioned a super liquid smoke flavor, but I’m so happy the vegan grocery store guy convinced me to go for it as there was in fact none of that at all. The pepper adds a zing to it for sure, but there is no intense smoked flavor that I could detect. Reading the ingredients, I realized it’s because they used smoked sea salt, no liquid smoke to be found. This one was the sharpest tasting flavor and that’s why I loved it. I remember feeding it to my friend in Denver who commented that it actually tasted like cheese.
In general I found Punk Rawk Labs cheeses the sharpest-tasting of all the vegan cheeses I tried and that’s why they’re my favorites. If you ever found yourself fantasizing about cheddar cheese when you first went vegan, this may fulfill your need for a sharp-tasting creamy deliciousness. If you don’t like pepper though, this one may not be for you.
This one also totally surprised me. A lot of the vegan cheeses I tried had an herb flavor and I liked them, but they didn’t soar to the top of my vegan cheese list. The balance of this is perfect though, as there are herbs, but they don’t overpower it all and make it taste like you’re eating spaghetti sauce without the tomatoes. Also very tangy and sharp, but not as spicy as the pepper, the herbs seep through slightly in the background. This was the first one I finished! I’d like to say I was creative and tried some swank recipe with it, but it basically all went into my face with a small amount of crackers, as I couldn’t imagine cloaking the magic with any other flavors. They have a video recipe for stuffed date bites with it here though!
Of course nacho is the orange one at the left of the photo above. It’s made with carrot juice and spicy peppers. I mean this fully as a compliment when I say it tastes nostalgically like that orange cheese sauce they make that you pour on nachos at events and stuff, but spicier. How that is achieved with carrots, I have no idea, because it is creamy and hits you with a BANG. I tried to make a nacho sauce out of this by mixing it with soymilk and it didn’t work so well, so next time I’ll follow Punk Rawk Labs suggestion and just eat it on corn chips or in mac and cheese. I could imagine it would also be killer on a baked potato or in a quesadilla whenever you have that nacho craving.
On an average day I’d be less likely to eat this flavor, since it has that very specific nacho taste, and it was too spicy for my Dad’s tastes, but it was still mighty tasty. This was also quoted to me often in the various vegan grocery stores I visited last summer as many of the working employees’ favorites.
All the way to the right in the picture above! Simple and good. At the Vida Vegan Bazaar it was served in a caprese salad (video recipe here) and that was yummy. Great if you want a nice sharp spreadable vegan cheese, but aren’t into pepper or herbs. Just put this on everything, pretty much. What’s great about this original flavor is that it’s not missing any of the excitement of the other flavors with other stuff added in. Some of the other vegan cheeses I tried, I found the original flavor lacking something compared to the others. Cashew Original holds its own here. Just smear it on some toasty sourdough bread or crackers and while you’re at it, please send me some toasty sourdough bread to Germany…and some Punk Rawk Labs.
What makes Punk Rawk Labs Different…
That sharp delicious sharp tang. The flavors are just so well balanced, complex and refined. While I do like that some other vegan cheeses have some more harder sliceable options, the flavor of Punk Rawk Labs is just so good. The owners are also super, super friendly and were lovely to deal with to arrange this review and giveaway, which is not always the case.
Where to Buy
Not lucky enough to live where Punk Rawk Labs is sold!?! Me either, sadly, but if you’re anywhere Vegan Essentials ships than your life is infinitely better than mine! Just head on over to Vegan Essentials here to get your fix and support these rad ladies in getting this magic everywhere. Especially to Germany. Please? It can’t hurt to ask your local shop to stock them either!
Not only was Punk Rawk Labs nice enough to answer all my questions and send me some cheeses to try, but they have some for you too! One lucky winner will receive a combo pack of cheese (so 4 cheeses one of each flavor – original, herb, smoked and nacho). United States only, I know, so sorry! Giveaway runs for one week. Be sure to use an accurate email as that’s how I’ll contact you to get your address for the cheeses!
Disclaimer: I was provided samples of Punk Rawk Labs’ cheeses to review, after contacting the company myself. The reviews posted on this blog are however always my honest opinion of the product.