Mozzarella consumption plummets once tomato season ends, but not at my house. I love mozzarella with roasted sweet peppers and, in winter, with cooked greens. This summer, a buffalo-milk mozzarella from Colombia caught my eye. It took a blue ribbon at the American Cheese Society judging, and I realized I’d been seeing the brand around but hadn’t tried it. The Colombian co-founder of Būf Creamery told me the company’s origin story—there’s a Cornell connection—and confirmed its head-spinning growth.
“We sold 33,000 pounds in the U.S. in August,” Alejandro Gomez Torres, Būf’s co-founder, told me by phone from Colombia. For a product introduced to the U.S. only four years ago, that’s quite the pace. The U.S. now accounts for almost half of the company’s sales. The ACS blue-ribbon winner was the 250-gram (9-ounce) ball, but the creamery markets the cheese in multiple sizes.
Water buffalo have been in Colombia since the mid-20th century, used as draft animals in the country’s oil-palm plantations. Gomez Torres grew up on a rice and oil-palm farm, leaving home to study agricultural engineering at Cornell. On his return, he began managing an operation that raised water buffalo, but nobody wanted the females.
“That was our problem,” recalls Gomez Torres. “What do with them? My partners said we should do something with their milk.” A few research trips to Italy and a new business was born.
Colombia has virtually no Italian community and few Colombians knew mozzarella di bufala. Gomez Torres realized the company would have to export. Ten years in, its mozzarella is the biggest-selling brand in Chile. “But my dream was to be in the U.S. market,” he admits. “That became my obsession.”
It was a smart strategy because demand picks up in North America just when South American sales fall off. The creamery now milks about 2,000 water buffalo a day, some in the Andean highlands near Bogotá, some in the lowlands. In the tropical climate, with little seasonal fluctuation, the females give birth year-round, ensuring a continuous milk supply.
As in Italy, the milk is outrageously rich, about 8-1/2 percent fat on average, even more from the herd in the Andes. In Italy, the finicky animals are raised mostly at sea level; I wondered how well they had adapted to life at 9,000 feet.
Easily, said Gomez Torres. “They produce more and better-quality milk because there’s more energy in the grass,” he said. Plus, no flies or ticks. But the Andean land is too expensive to support the entire business. The company makes a USDA-certified organic line for Whole Foods with the Andean milk and is working toward certification for the lowland milk as well.
Gomez Torres estimated that it takes about 12 days for the mozzarella to go from Bogotá to my cheese shop in Napa. The cheese flies to Miami on the temperature-controlled cargo planes used by Colombia’s cut-flower trade. It clears U.S. Customs then travels by truck to its U.S. distributors.
“When people ask me what I do, I tell them I just do logistics,” jokes Gomez Torres, who is working on some transportation changes to minimize Būf’s carbon footprint.
“It would be beautiful if we had water buffalo in Texas,” he muses, “but there are not enough water buffalo in the U.S. for all the mozzarella people want. The closest place with water buffalo is South America, with fresh grass and clean processes. If you want buffalo mozzarella, it has to be imported.”