Utah’s Beehive Cheese is buzzing as 2nd generation takes over the reins
Utah State University’s expertise when it comes to dialing-in on delightful dairy products may be the state’s worst kept secret (scoop of Aggie ice cream, anyone?) but it’s a body of accomplishments born from over a century of research, development and good old-fashioned tinkering.
But while the cold, creamy goodness of Bull Tracks or Blue Mint may be sigh-inducingly familiar to many, the school’s perhaps lesser-known cheesemaking legacy also tracks back to the 19th century founding of the land-grant university.
That knowledge base is one that USU has propelled into the world far beyond its Logan campus, thanks to a long-running program that’s offered twice-yearly cheesemaking classes to members of the public, be they accomplished fromagers or just curious newbies.
And that’s exactly where Utah’s multiaward-winning specialty cheesemaker Beehive Cheese got its start almost 20 years ago when founders (and brothers-in-law) Pat Ford and Tim Welsh walked away from careers in real estate and computer software, respectively, to begin again in the world of cheese.
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Now, the progeny of Pat and Tim are moving into leadership positions at the company while the founders stay very much involved with operations, as Beehive continues to expand its product offerings, customer reach and medal count.
Oliver Ford, son of Pat Ford and currently Beehive’s director of sales, recalls first hearing about his father and uncle deciding to recompute their work lives and launch a cheesemaking company entirely from scratch in 2005.
“It was kind of a shock for me when my dad came home and said ‘we’re starting a cheese company,’” Oliver Ford said. “What I knew about cheese at that time was Kraft Singles.”
But Oliver Ford’s perspective when it came to cheese would soon expand wildly when he and other members of the founders’ families began working after school and weekends at the start-up cheesemaking facility in Uintah.
Beehive’s debut product, Promontory Cheddar, is a direct descendant of USU’s cheesemaking program through both production processes and the use of the “Old Juniper” cheddar recipe that was developed there.
Promontory is not only the most-awarded cheese in Beehive’s lineup, it is also the “mother cheese” base for the company’s other varieties which feature a unique technique that adds flavor through an exterior rub.
Food scientist Donald McMahon, like Oliver Ford, is well familiar with the world of Kraft cheese products having worked for the company in the early 1980s after earning his doctoral degree, but spent the majority of his career at USU, teaching, researching and heading up the school’s Gary H. Richardson Dairy Products Laboratory as well as the Western Dairy Center housed at USU. McMahon retired in 2021 after 34 years at USU but remains involved with programs there as they transition to new leadership.
McMahon also oversaw the school’s cheesemaking classes during his time there and has had a close connection to Beehive Cheese since before that first batch of Promontory left the building.
“Tim and Pat came to our course for their early education in cheesemaking but returned multiple years and continue to send their employees to come and learn those skills,” McMahon said. “We also provided technical support as they built out their manufacturing facility. While we gave them a recipe that actually has formed the foundation for all of their cheeses, it has really been the creativity they applied to that, their rubs, and business skills that have enabled them to build a remarkable company.”
While that mother recipe has earned a ton of accolades, the way Beehive imparts unique flavors to its other varieties comes in the form of various rubs applied to the exterior of the 20-pound rounds that they produce.
Beehive’s first foray into flavor rubs came early on in the company’s story when, in a moment of “not knowing what we didn’t know,” Tim combined whole bean coffee and a dash of lavender in a burr grinder and decided to rub it on an experimental five-pound wheel of Promontory. The wheel was stashed in an aging cooler and, according to company legend, mostly forgotten about until a group of USU mentors showed up and the cheese was hauled out for a taste. While the experts waxed pessimistic about the method, one taste changed everyone’s mind and Beehive’s Barely Buzzed was born.
The cheese won its first award in 2007 when it took first place in its category at the American Cheese Society conference in Vermont and was, reportedly, the most buzz-worthy entrant that year.
“It was all the things: exciting, innovative and produced by a plucky unknown upstart from Utah, of all places,” according to a company history.
The “unknown” part of that dynamic was poised to change, however, and the innovative Utah grocery chain, Harmons, would play a pivotal role in making that happen.
Mariah Ballard has worked for Harmons for as long as Beehive Cheese has been in business and is currently the grocer’s director of specialty cheese. She said Bob and Randy Harmon, the grandsons of the company’s founders, ran into Tim and Pat at an event in 2007. And, after some sampling, they expressed immediate interest in carrying Beehive’s innovative new cheeses at their stores. Since then, Beehive products have been among the favorites for Harmons customers and have anchored a specialty cheese market that’s exploded in the last 20 years.
“Specialty food products have really grown,” Ballard said. “Beehive had exciting flavors early on and it’s exciting to see how those have stuck. At the time, having a cheese rubbed with coffee and lavender seemed kind of weird … but now it’s a classic.
“Customers come into our stores specifically to buy it and the other Beehive flavors. … It’s a destination cheese.”
Ballard also noted that Beehive really innovated the flavor rub technique that has since become a method widely adopted by other makers across the industry.
The company’s current flavor offerings include, in addition to Barely Buzzed and Promontory, Queen Bee Porcini, Red Butte Hatch Chile, SeaHive, Pour Me A Slice, TruffleHive, TeaHive, Apple Walnut Smoked and Big John’s Cajun.
Ballard celebrated Harmons long-running partnership with Beehive both as a provider of excellent locally made products, and because of the cheesemaker’s uniquely personal approach to doing business.
“Every year since Harmons began carrying their products, Beehive has invited our cheese team and management anyone who’s interested to go to their facility to learn about cheesemaking first hand,” Ballard said. “It’s pretty rare for a cheese company to engage at that level and to allow a customer to be that hands-on with their process.”
Ballard noted Harmons has also partnered with Beehive on numerous community projects, including when the company stepped in during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, when millions of gallons of milk was being disposed of by dairy farmers who couldn’t move their product amid widespread shutdowns. Beehive began taking some of that milk and making cheese which it then donated to the Utah Food Bank.
“Beehive is a company that doesn’t just talk about their values, they act on them by giving back,” Ballard said.
Beehive Cheese President Britton Welsh, son of founder Tim Welsh, said the company has always strived to maintain “authenticity and balance” and attributes continued growth as a result of “staying true to our core values.”
In a further expression of those values, Beehive recently became a certified B Corp, a designation that requires companies to be assessed and verified for maintaining strict standards of “overall social and environmental performance, public transparency and legal accountability”, per B Lab, the nonprofit group that oversees B Corp certification.
“B Corp certification really overlapped with the values we’ve had as a company since the beginning,” Britton Welsh said. “Becoming a B Corp is a continuation of our business principles ... and a way to communicate to our customers and community about what we hold important.”
And, Britton Welsh said the company will continue trodding the path that has led to continued sales growth in domestic and international markets, winning awards and wowing cheese fans with its products, all of which its accomplished without taking on venture capital funding or veering away from its roots as an artisanal producer. So far, under its second generation leadership, Beehive has increased sales by nearly 150% while expanding both its staff size and distribution reach.
“We’ll keep true to what we’ve been doing,” Britton Welsh said. “Making good cheese and being real in all of our dealings.”