MEET THE MEYERS

Words: DENISE IRVINE | Images: BRYDIE THOMPSON

On this Tuesday afternoon, Fieke and Ben Meyer are drinking tea at their dining table, looking out to picture-perfect green farmland where a herd of cows meanders up the race to be milked.

In a few months’ time, Fieke and Ben may be sitting at the same table, eating an excellent gouda cheese made from today’s milking, and they’ll know every step of its journey. “From grass to plate,” says Ben. And it will have passed through the hands of several members of their own family — during milking, making and marketing — as is the way with Meyer Gouda.

The Meyers’ cheese-making tradition and expertise is a source of many awards and quiet family satisfaction. Says son Miel Meyer, “We do not change. We play with different flavours but we’ve been making the same good product for thirty-six years in New Zealand. We’re proud of that.”

Meyer Gouda is based at the 150ha family farm at Koromatua, near Hamilton, the cheese factory adjacent to the milking shed, the direct source of its primary product.

Meyer traditions are deeply rooted in the principles of Dutch gouda cheese that Ben and Fieke brought with them to New Zealand from the Netherlands in 1984. Ben, an electrical engineer, and Fieke, a school teacher, began making gouda cheeses in 1976 as a sideline on Ben’s parents’ farm near Bladel, in the south of the Netherlands. When they immigrated to New Zealand, they chose the Waikato — the heart of dairyland — to continue their cheese-craft.

Since then, they’ve introduced countless Kiwis to the full-bodied flavours of Dutch-style wheels of brine-salted gouda. The wheels are typically cured for up to 18 months and require a lot of tender loving care (and daily turning) in that time. “It’s the flavours that make gouda so special,” says Ben. “It keeps well. It’s a strong, versatile cheese.”

The Meyers lived first in Cambridge and then bought the Koromatua farm in 1990. The early years were hard going as they scraped together every cent they had for the farm and learned to work with the unfamiliar New Zealand dairy milk, pasture, climate and customer expectations.

But as Fieke says, “If you make a quality product, the rest will follow.” And it did. In 1994 they won their first national supreme champion cheese award, for a vintage gouda, and they were on their way to become one of the biggest — and most awarded — of the country’s artisan cheese producers.

Meyer Gouda makes 34–40 tonnes of cheese each year. It sells to specialist stores and supermarkets nationwide, and it collects gold medals and championship awards year on year in competitions run by the New Zealand Specialist Cheesemakers’ Association. In 2019 and 2020 it won supreme awards for its sweet, creamy goat’s milk gouda, and in 2019 Geert Meyer, Ben and Fieke’s eldest son, won champion New Zealand cheesemaker. Miel won the same award in 2011, before he moved on to become the company’s managing director.

Which leads us to talk about how the family shares the duties and ensures quality control of every aspect of its goudas. Ben and Fieke have four children, and three are involved in the business. While younger son Frank is not part of it, Fieke says he is sometimes consulted on business matters. (There are also five non-family staff members.)

It works like this: Miel is managing director, Geert is the cheesemaker, and daughter Fieke and husband Bert Van den Bogaard, are 50–50 sharemilkers on the farm, running a herd of about 430 jersey-friesians, and ensuring a quality milk supply. Meyer Gouda takes about 30 per cent of the milk and the rest is sold to Fonterra.

Miel says Bert is the silent achiever at Meyer Gouda: “While I’m accepting awards, Bert is here making sure we have good quality milk. He’s immensely proud of his product. He knows the animals and the challenges of keeping them well fed and disease free.”

Miel’s wife Hayley works in packaging and planning; their three children, and Bert and Fieke’s children, all share jobs on the farm and in the factory. Miel says that while his parents, now in their late sixties, have stepped back from key roles, they remain at the heart of Meyer Gouda. “They have a huge skill set and are always here to share things with us. Dad is still quality control, and we have lunch together at Mum and Dad’s every day.”

Ben and Fieke, and other family members, also care deeply about their rural environment and they are involved with local initiatives that protect and enhance native bush. A stand of kahikatea on their own land, named Meyer’s Bush, is protected under Waipa District Council covenants.

It’s a heart-warming backstory to a much-loved Waikato product. Miel jokes that when he was a youngster he thought it was quite a boring story but now he knows it’s pretty special.

The push for quality and consistency continues. Cow numbers have been reduced slightly so they can in time be entirely fed on farm pasture, and maize supplements phased out. While they buy goat’s milk for their prize-winning goat gouda from a Morrinsville farm, the Meyers want to source everything else from their own land.

Miel sees an increasing trend for New Zealand consumers to shop local, and support trusted artisan suppliers. “We use simple ingredients here. We’re walking the talk.”

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