If you live within twenty miles of Ann Arbor you are undoubtedly familiar with the Zingerman's brand. What began as a humble delicatessen in 1982 has since grown into a $30 million artisanal empire that includes a creamery, a bakery, a restaurant, a deli, a market, a coffee roasting outlet, a candy manufactory, as well as steady catering and mail order business. And along with its yummy foodstuffs Zingerman's also exports its philosophies and practices to other businesses for a fee. In a very expensive nutshell, the company has made a name for itself with its strict adherence to exceptional quality, subscribing to standards that most of its competitors don't even bother trying to aspire to.
The end result is often products that are outstanding examples of their particular variety—robust yet delicate coffees, tender pie crusts filled with pricey lard, cheese made from an antiquated recipe no other creamery in the world uses. Quality is emphasized and underscored so much that the resulting product can seem inaccessible, even intimidating, to the fledgling connoisseur.
It's okay: there's an app for that…er…rather, a program at Zingerman's to educate the eager gourmand!
As Zingerman's has carefully cultivated a reputation for sourcing hand-selected products with the finest flavors its very learned experts can find, they have also fostered alongside it a culture of training and education. You see, it is not enough that you know (or at least, believe that you know) that the products they carry are some of the best anywhere in the world—you must understand why.
To wit, the company has created an environment for gourmet learning, whether it's hands-on classes where the curious can make their own Zingerman-like creations or at educational tastings, where amateurs and aficionados alike are taught to identify key characteristics in comestibles (along with the proper vernacular to describe them).
"An educated customer is really our best customer," says Allen Leibowitz, Managing Partner of Zingerman's Coffee Company
. "The more people know what makes a product better the more they will appreciate the product."
The Coffee Company just moved to its first public outlet last November, taking a space in the same Ann Arbor industrial complex as Zingerman's Creamery and Bakehouse. It sources coffees from all over the world, roasts the beans, and sell them wholesale. Much like its neighbors, the Coffee Company's operations are open for viewing —customers can watch the coffee as it's roasted. "It's an education destination," Leibowitz says of the arrangement.
At the Coffee Company, Leibowitz offers classes and tastings to educate consumers on the finer points of fine grinds. In "Comparative Cupping" (a coffee enthusiast's term for coffee tasting), customers sample coffees from the four major growing regions, which helps them develop the technique and vocabulary for tasting. "Some people don't have a lot of experience describing the things they taste," explains Leibowitz. "We do a blind cupping of the four different coffee "food groups" [the growing regions] at the end of the class, and there's probably a 95% identify rate. Not only can people identify the region but they also develop the vocabulary to describe which is which and why, and which is their favorite and why."
Another tasting class called "Brewing Techniques" takes one identical roast and brews it 4-5 different ways. The reason they go to such lengths to educate their customers is simple: "You can get coffee at a lot of places—why get coffee here? We want people to be able to say why they taste the difference."
His sentiments echo those of every member of the Zingerman's team, any of one of whom could be described as a food geek. There's an obvious excitement and enthusiasm in their voice as they share their knowledge with others.
"Our general take is that this is our life; we're doing this because it's our passion," Leibowitz says of the Zingerman's ethos. "It's crazy, it's fun—we all pretty much love what we do, that's why we're here."
Next door to the Coffee Company is the Creamer
y, lorded over by John Loomis, Managing Partner and cheesemaker extraordinaire. Almost every weekend through May he holds Mozzarella-Making Saturday.
"We chose Mozzarella because the problem with most cheeses is that they're 'Add this, wait four hours,' then 'add this, wait two hours," explains Loomis. "It's difficult to build a class around. But the principles for making mozzarella are the same as any cheese. This gives us an opportunity to teach people how cheese is made and have them give a hand in doing it without committing three days."
Even still, the typical process for making mozzarella takes about eight hours, so the classes use a slightly sped-up system. At the end of this two-hour class, participants will have learned how to go from raw milk to cheese and also how to texture three different kinds of mozzarella.
"People are fascinated by the process," Loomis says. "It's what got me into cheesemaking—you've got all these different cheeses with all these different tastes and they all start with the same ingredients."
Loomis talks in detail of the chemistry of cheesemaking, about fats and proteins and water retention, the seasonality of certain milks, the history of Camembert, and Zingerman's signature "Great Lakes Cheshire," made from a recipe that no other cheesemaker in the world currently uses. Think of it as Cheesemaking 101, with Loomis as the nutty…nay—cheesy professor.
Loomis has very specific intentions in his tastings and cheesemaking classes: "I want people to not be intimidated by cheese. We tend to put certain food way up on this pedestal as something people should be afraid of—'How am I supposed to eat this?' If you want to put M&Ms on your cheese I don't care; it's up to you. I want people to get over the mystique with it."
Loomis encourages people to not be shy. "There are no stupid questions," he says, though he is also realistic about teaching the craft. "If they're cheese experts when they walk out of there, I've wasted 25 years of my life! But they're at least going to walk out with a basic understanding and they're going to have fun."
If you really want to get interactive, Zingerman's Bakehouse
is probably the best place for you. BAKE!
is the hands-on teaching bakery operated by the Bakehouse. It offers roughly five themed baking classes per week, ranging from pizza to pies to pastries. (In fact, the pizza, pie, baguette, and croissant classes are their most popular.)
Shelby Kibler is the Principal of BAKE!, and has held the position for the last two and half years. "Teaching is what I most enjoy to do," Kibler says. "I feel like we really have a positive impact on people's home baking and that's very satisfying—exposing people to baking in general."
Kibler has been a passionate baker since childhood, and worked in the Bakehouse for several years before bouncing around across the U.S.. Ultimately he was lured back to the Zingerman's realm. "I missed the system of values Zingerman's has," he explains. "At Zingerman's all of our objectives include education for other people as well as ourselves; to teach and to learn constantly. From the partners on down everyone's dedicated to both learning and teaching. It is exciting to work somewhere that has that in their values."
BAKE! not only offers small group classes, but also private classes, and BAKE-cations
- intensive two and four-day "fantasy camps" for bakers taught by Kibler. "It enriches your life to teach something you're good at," he says. "It means you have to develop a wide set of skills, recognize what you're doing instead of just doing it—the 'whys' of what you're doing instead of just the 'hows'. This school is a nice spot for the constant education of the public and ourselves."
Which is precisely why Kibler came back to Zingerman's after so much time and travel. "I am proud to be associated with Zingerman's. This is a company I can totally stand behind."
Nicole Rupersburg is delicious. She;'s also a freelance writer and popular Metro Detroit food blogger. Read her blog at http://www.diningindetroit.net. She's also a regular contributor to Metromode. Send comments here. Check us out on Facebook here.All Photos by Dave LewinskiPhotos:Steve Mangigian at Zingerman's Coffee-This is what happens when you have a willing participant in a portrait.BAKE! Class is in sessionZingerman's Coffee CompanyZingerman's Coffee Tour & TastingCreamery Cheese Making KitBAKE! CLASSShelby Kibler Stanley Kubrick Style