„There is somebody who wants to start a cheese cave here at the market.“ That was the first thing I heard about Matthias Becker and his Alte Milch project, literally old milk. I admit, I didn’t take that very serious. I can’t remember if the tall lanky guy back then wore the same wooly hat like today, but it wouldn’t have done anything for my expectations.
Since then I have long recanted, and today the Alte Milch stall for me presents one of the market’s highlights. Matthias gradually builds up his business, following his very own, distinctive ideas – and he actually built a (glass) cave!
But let’s start at the beginning. The official Alte Milch story did not originate at the present location, but at one Matthias explicitly requested from the market team: opposite the toilets. A stall made from wooden euro-pallets and just three hard cheeses, full stop. Why this location? „I was really worried to be seen as too hipster and pretentious. And it worked pretty well, everybody knew me as the one with the shitty place, even the people from the neighborhood accepted me as an underdog.“
How did a 33 year old North German who started his career in advertising get into cheese? Coincidence. The advertising world wasn’t really his, so he was looking for work, and the job center had one on offer, selling cheese. That’s how in 2011 he started cheese mongering at Ivo Knippenberg in Berlin. He liked the situation, talking, listening. And because he thought academic studies were essential for a successfull career move, he went to Vienna for two semesters of psychology. After that he returned to Knippenberg and cheese. The, during his first year at Cheese, the international Slow Food cheese fair in Piedmont, he met the Neal’s Yard Dairy team from London. „I started to understand that all this cheese thing could be about so much more than just retail, and that totally obsessed me.“
Another decisive moment: after two years behind the counter he worked for the first time in the Knippenberg cave, prepping cheeses for the respective outlets, and he experienced the intense aromas of freshly cut wheels. A whole new world. Next step: He came across a podcast about Neal’s Yard’s Jason Hinds personally selecting Comté wheels at the affineurs‘ caves in France. „I was so impressed, and when I started to understand why someone would do that, my ideas about quality in cheese completely changed. I had a vision: I would sell cheese at Markthalle Neun, one single cheese, top quality Comté.“ But when he told his friends about this plan, looking for investors, they told him one cheese was just too extreme.
How did he find the other two cheeses? While attending Adam Moskowich’s 2015 Cheesemonger Invitational in New York he met Betty Koster, Dutch wholesaler, affineur and quality driver in all things cheese. Boerenkaas, artisanal raw milk gouda cheese, fascinated him, so it landed next to the Comté. And the third had to come from Germany. He already knew about Hof Backensholz, where not far from the Danish border the Metzger-Petersen family since the early 1990s has been building up their creamery working with raw milk. „When Thilo Metzger-Petersen picked me up from the station at my first visit, we both knew after five minutes that we’d cooperate well.“ The months‘, sometimes years‘ aged Deichkäse became part of the core selection.
„Today I offer around ten cheeses, which change a lot, and my point of guidance is a cheese plate that gets continuously re-curated. My customers never thought of my limited selection as something negative, the opposite.“ Matthias doesn’t see himself – and rightly so – as „just another cheesemonger“ or a competitor to those with a fuller range of cheeses, but as the link between producers and customer. For him the direct contact with the producers is absolutely essential. „Thoughtful, funny people make exciting cheeses, that is a kind of cultural capital, and with those I don’t even have to negotiate about prices.“ How does he find his cheeses? „It’s a lot about so-called coincidence and gut feeling, one thing leads to another.“ Such as with the two Irish guys who first came for Cheese Berlin in November 2016 and recently returned for the #rawmilkcheese appreciation day in April with their cheeses, Corleggy’s Tom Crop and Mike Thomson from Mile’s Fancy Cheese.
The fundamental principle of a limited offer in cheeses is also followed in the very straight design of the whole stall (left is a picture of the remains of a original one). Today it represents just as much a contrast to Matthias‘ unavoidable wooly hat as the original, shitty location. This look is witness to the important role Fabian Greitemann, Matthias‘ friend and business partner, plays in the Alte Milch project. With his design agency he not only helped develop the whole business concept, he also provides a constant independent voice. And moral support: „It is a lot to look after and get through! I still have to get used to the fact of owning a business.“ It isn’t always easy to find the right people to help him behind the counter with his limited financial means, to juggle cheese and family, not to succumb to nervous worries. Alte Milch is all about the cheese and the producers behind, and Matthias‘ excitement is infectious. There is somebody who started a cheese cave at Markthalle. Old milk at a historic, newly revived place.
(pictures (c) Anna Warnow, Stefan Stefanescu and UH)