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Black cheese and robotic arms

Innovation is the driving force at Rouveen.

Every day, Rouveen Kaasspecialiteiten is working on new cheese creations. With ample imagination, the creative team at their in-house R&D lab makes sure they have several new flavours rolling off the line every year. Continuous pressure to innovate forces Dutch cheese makers to constantly reinvent themselves. At Rouveen, standing still means losing ground. ‘Innovation is our core activity,’ beams product developer Danielle de Bruin.

A trip to Rouveen

On the way to the cheese factory in Rouveen, we pass through the picturesque village of Staphorst, part of the Dutch ‘bible belt’. Everything we see looks traditional: the houses, the streets, the people. As we make our way in from Staphorst to the nearby village of Rouveen, we immediately understand why the cheese factory has thrived here for so many years.

All around we see expansive pastures full of grazing cows. A large part of their milk production comes from these surrounding areas, as we will soon discover.

The final leg of our journey leads us over a long and particularly narrow cobbled road, barely wide enough for a milk truck to pass without grazing the grass verges. The traditional access road fits in perfectly with the quaint amosphere of the village.

Ultramodern cheese factory (with robots)

We are welcomed by product developer, Danielle de Bruin, who guides us on our tour through the expansive complex. ‘People are sometimes surprised at the contrast inside our dairy. Traditional on the outside, ultramodern on the inside.’ And that is certainly no exaggeration. As we walk through the two dairies, we see an ultramodern factory with state-of-the-art equipment.

The real sensation is ‘Cheese Factory 2’: a dairy factory that is almost completely robotised. Where a traditional cheese factory is run by at least five people, we only find a single person in this vast hall: the cheese maker. The rest of the production process is performed by machines. Seeing is believing. A robotic arm empties the whey trays and collects the valuable whey, then a different arm sets the cheese moulds down in the right spot. The enormous range of the robotic arm is also striking: moulds are hoisted many of metres into the air and set down in their right locations.

Danielle proudly explains the robotised cheese factory. ‘A robot gives you more flexibility in the shapes that you can run in succession. You can seamlessly switch from round to Euroblock, without any extra cleaning time or loss of whey.’ The cheese maker nods in agreement as Danielle tells her story. But the cheese makers need not worry about being replaced by robots. ‘To my mind, a fully automated cheese factory is unthinkable,’ offers Danielle. ‘Cheese making takes craftsmanship. I don’t see a computer program ever being able to assess the coagulation of the milk.’

Cheese trends come and go

Exclusivity is Rouveen’s calling card. They don’t produce regular Gouda cheese – instead they make specialities and distribute them under a label. This approach permeates Danielle’s day-to-day work as she leads a three-member R&D team. ‘Cheese trends come and go,’ adds Danielle. ‘Our trendy cheeses are popular for a few years, but then vanish from the market after a little while.’

This is why Rouveen’s cheeses remain exclusive. At the same time, this also demands innovation. ‘If you never come up with anything new, your portfolio will run out in a few years.’ Danielle explains that over thirty percent of the current product line was developed in the last five years. This is a defining feature of the pace of innovation.

Trial and experimentation

Many ideas come about gradually – such as during one of Danielle’s many brainstorming sessions with her clients. ‘Sometimes clients provide us with a foundation in the form of mood boards, but other times just with a request to think up “something special”.’ Inspiration can come from some of the least expected places. 

Take the Black Lemon for instance: a black cheese with a lemony flavour. ‘In Japan, they have the Kuro Burger, a black hamburger that tastes like lemon. We thought it was so unusual that we decided we had to come up with something along those lines.’

The ambitious plan posed some interesting challenges for the pilot plant. The main issue: how do you produce a cheese like that without breaking strict European regulations? Danielle: ‘The black colouring comes from carbon. You are allowed to add a little bit of carbon to Morbier cheese, but not colour an entire cheese with it.’ The solution they ultimately hit upon was as original as it was creative. ‘This remains the real Cheese Making Secret’, Danielle says mysteriously.

The cheese maker’s secret

Thinking up something new every day: for some it would be an impossible task, but for the Rouveen team, it’s the most normal thing in the world. Their secret? ‘I think you really have to enjoy it,’ the cheese maker tells us. The cheese maker draws enormous inspiration from the cheese factory’s surroundings. ‘Most of the milk is local, so we minimise transport movements.’ We hear that Rouveen has good relations with the surrounding dairy farmers. ‘Hard-working people with a special no-nonsense mentality.’

Endless sources of inspiration

Rouveen finds endless sources of inspiration, not only from its neighbours, but also from international clientele. By working in partnership with labels – from Brazil to Germany – the R&D team discovers something new every day about cheese traditions in other cultures. ‘The world is diverse, and there’s so much more out there than Gouda, which we so enjoy eating on bread in the Netherlands,’ remarks Danielle. ‘By going international, you get a real look at the variety of ways to use cheese: like as a snack, as a flavouring in cooking, or as a meat substitute.’

By the end of the visit, we were truly impressed with their creativity and drive. And even though our visit had come to an end, the interviewees workday was about to begin: helping brainstorm the strategy for Bastiaansen Bio-cheese, and producing a flavour that fits the Christmas holiday season on behalf of a private label.

‘Every day is a challenge. There’s never a dull moment here,’ she smiles.

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