Mystic Cheese Lands in Groton's Airport Business Park

Right around Valentine’s Day, Mystic Cheese opened its doors to the public in their new facility at 225 Leonard Drive in Groton. Having hand-crafted cheese since 2013 in a custom-designed shipping container on a farm in Lebanon, the founders of Mystic Cheese were ready to expand their operations.

With their expansion into this new space, Mystic Cheese now operates a tasting and sales room alongside their production facilities. Currently open for sales and tastings on Saturday afternoons, you'll be able to sample cheeses made on site as well as cheeses curated from artisans around the globe and take a peek into their cheese cave, learn more about cheese making as well as pairing cheese with beer and wine.

Mystic Cheese shares a building with Beer'd Brewing which expects to open by summer 2019 and will also feature a room for tastings and retail sales. Arrangements have been made so that Mystic Cheese platters and sandwiches will be available to those sampling beers in the other part of the building.

Founders Brian Civitello and Jason Sobocinski met in New Haven around 2011. Brian was working at Calabro Cheese and Jason was operating his family’s boutique cheese shop, and they started talking about an idea. The big idea was to design and manufacture a self-contained cheese pod in a shipping container. They built a working prototype and started using it to make their own cheese, primarily as a demonstration of the proof of concept.

This cheese making operation began as part of the sales and marketing of the pod itself with the idea of opening a cheese shop sometime in the future. However, the response to their cheese was so overwhelming that they shifted their attention from promoting the pods themselves and instead spent the next two years scrambling to keep up with demand, producing between 35,000 and 40,000 lbs of cheese each year within 320 SF of space.

With this new business model in mind they had a need to expand their production facility. They started looking throughout New London County for space that would suit them and found an opportunity on Leonard Drive in Groton.

Mystic Cheese sets itself apart by focusing on inventing completely original styles of cheese brand new to the marketplace and exclusive to the company. Having trained with traditional cheese makers in Europe and throughout the U.S., Brian noticed a tendency to adhere to traditional styles and recipes, but what Mystic Cheese wanted to do from the start is to literally invent original styles of cheeses that now become exclusive to Mystic Cheese. The company sells their product wholesale through distributors but also directly to restaurants. Once restaurants incorporate these exclusive styles into their recipes, the demand only continues to grow.

Beyond the compelling story of making cheese in a purpose-built shipping container, Mystic Cheese also benefitted from marketing and branding designs which were successful at garnering outsized attention for a small new artisan shop.

Both Brian and Jason are fans of literature and poetry so they began with names related to both literature and the lore of the sea, reflecting the connection to Mystic. They refer to it as ‘Literary Dairy’. The first cheese style was named Melville after the author of Moby Dick, one of their favorite books, with a nod to the whaling history of Southeastern Connecticut.

That theme continued with the next original offerings: Sea Change, a reference to Shakespeare's Tempest, and the aged cheese Melinda Mae, named after a poem by Shel Silverstein about a girl who eats a whale over the span of 99 years. Moving forward, the blue cheeses that will be made available in greater quantities thanks to the new facility will be named after the largest whales found in the Northwest Atlantic, including the cheese ripening in the new cheese cave today, Bowhead Blue.

Mystic Cheese is open on Saturdays from 12 noon to 7 PM. For details about upcoming tasting events, go to mysticcheese.co and join their mailing list.

Groton Economic Development staff sat down with Brian Civitello, one of the founders, to ask him a few questions about Mystic Cheese:

Why are you so passionate about cheese making?

I grew up on a farm in Salem, my family has always loved cheese and cheese making is a culmination of things that I love.

What’s fascinating about cheese making is the transformation, turning a raw product into something that's nuanced and complex – the daily transformation process of starting with a blank slate as a vat of milk and in a few months creating something that’s so complex and enjoyable… It never ceases to be fascinating to me to open up a batch of cheese after it has ripened.

What works for you about being in this facility and in the Groton area?

Groton has the utilities that we needed including municipal water and sewer. In addition, mixing retail in a factory environment is great for us and Groton’s zoning regulations made that possible. To a manufacturer that wanted to dedicate floor area for a tasting room, other towns were not as inviting. Cheese tasting is an essential part of our business. If you want to take some cheese home you should have it curated and chosen for you and be able to sample the product. You should be able to know what you're getting and to know how good it is, not just look at it behind a glass case or under a plastic wrap.

Also, all of our distributors move product along this route. Being in Lebanon, the cost of distribution was high since shippers needed to travel some distance off the highway to reach us at the farm. The amount we save on distribution costs and surcharges has been enough to justify the move and investment in new space.

It’s often overlooked how convenient Southeastern Connecticut is for manufacturers of food – the urban distribution markets are within easy reach. All the higher end distributors we work with are in Boston and New York. Being in Groton makes the Fairfield County and Greenwich areas accessible as well.

How do you describe the differences between Mystic Cheeses and commercial/mass-produced products?

At Mystic Cheese, we work with a single source for our milk – close connection with the farmer to craft best raw ingredient that we can. So we use a high-quality milk from a local farm. In fact, the farmer was considering going out of business before we came in as a customer. Unlike a commodity cheese that is buying commodity-quality milk from all over, we’re injecting money back into the local economy by keeping this farm going.

Also, we make the cheese by hand – we have some equipment to assist in the heavy-lifting, but we are a small group of cheese makers who interact with the cheese directly on a regular basis. So the love and care that the cheese is getting during the process, you wouldn’t find that at a larger company.

What style of Mystic Cheese should a newcomer be sure to try?

At Mystic Cheese, we specialize in the blue cheeses that are ripening now which we would recommend to anyone. Beyond what we produce, the internationally-sourced cheeses that we offer include a selection of goudas which is amazing and that newcomers would enjoy.

When a customer walks up to the counter to taste a broader selection of cheeses for the first time, we want to help that customer find a cheese that is maybe something that they’ve never had but will really enjoy. The job on the other end of cheese making is cheese mongering, and a good cheese monger is going to help you find a cheese you really like.

What do your customers tell you about why they love Mystic Cheese?

Our customers appreciate the high quality of the cheese and the consistency – one thing we focus on is the consistency of the product from one batch to the next. This expertise comes from 19 years of making cheese.

Another aspect that our customers appreciate: Some of the artisan or hand-made cheeses tend to be a little overpowering in flavor – we try to strive for a balanced product that can be used on a cheese plate but can be at home in your kitchen. Our mindset is to go after milder flavors that can be enjoyed both ways.

Up until now, lack of availability has been our biggest challenge, but now with this new facility, we’re finally going to be able to solve that problem.

What is one potential scenario for what Mystic Cheese looks like five years from now?

Our facility has the capacity to produce more cheese than we can hold in this cheese cave. We’ll eventually fill this room up and we’ll start looking for another location close by for a second ripening room. With any luck, that location will be in Groton.