Sweet Grass Dairy Cheese Making Class

This weekend was so awesome, it took me over an hour just to go through all my pictures.

If you’ll remember, Wheat got us tickets to a cheese making class at Sweet Grass Dairy for my birthday.  The class was this past Saturday, and it was worthy of an entire dedicated post.  A really, really, long post.  So buckle up, buttercups.

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The class began at 10 a.m., and we arrived early around 9:30.

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The cheese making facilities are locating a few miles north of Thomasville, and about 30 miles from the actual dairy.  So, much to many class-goers’ dismay, there were no Sweet Grass Dairy cows.  There were, however, SGD donkeys that were awfully cute.

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We pulled up next to a brick house, a small metal building, and a small freshly-tilled and planted garden, wondering if we were in the right place.  The only part that gave it away was the other cars, with license plates from all over the place – turns out, we were the only locals in the class.  We were greeted by a small pack of adorable dogs, which we later learned belonged to Jeremy and Jessica Little, the owners of Sweet Grass Dairy, who live in the aforementioned brick house.

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Since class hadn’t started yet, we poked around the grounds.  Behind the metal building, in some old milking stalls, was a makeshift chicken coop, filled to the brim with juvenile chickens.  They piled on top of each other to see who was coming to see them.  I’m sure that I severely disappointed them by not bringing any food.

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We found out later that these chickens are being raised to provide eggs for the appropriately-named Blue Coop, Sweet Grass Dairy’s soon-to-be-new full service restaurant in downtown Thomasville (set to open at the end of this month).  I am looking forward to seeing these chicks’ hard work in person at Blue Coop and seeing what Chef Jeffrey Brana has in store for the eggs and veggies produced here at the farm.

Anyway, so we finally sanitized and stepped into the small metal building, which is where all the cheese-making magic happens.  We sat around a few long tables and introduced ourselves while perusing some suggested titles in cheese making.  A couple of highly recommended titles, in case you’re interested:

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Seriously though: we could not believe that all the cheese Sweet Grass makes is made in this facility.  They’ve expanded and improved upon the original building throughout the years, but still.  Let me preface the rest of this post by telling you that they estimated (on the fly, when asked) that they produce 156,000 pounds of cheese a year.  Is that not insane?  And they make it all in this room:

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Plus a few other small rooms, including the coolers where they age the cheeses.  They are an efficient bunch, for sure.

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Speaking of the bunch, that’s Jeremy Little, the owner of Sweet Grass Dairy (which he owns with his wife, Jessica).  He led our class on Saturday.  We started out with an overview of Sweet Grass Dairy and how SGD came to be.  A brief synopsis (crossing my fingers I get this all correct): Jeremy’s mother-in-law and father-in-law were dairy farmers practicing New Zealand-style rotational dairy farming.  They also had a lot of goats, and his mother-in-law began experimenting with making goat cheese.  After some encouragement from the cheesemonger at Star Provisions in Atlanta, she got serious and began marketing it.  I used to buy a pack a week from New Leaf Market throughout law school, and I was absolutely addicted.  As they grew and the cow’s milk cheese became the more profitable cheese, they made the difficult decision to sell the goats and push forward with cow’s milk cheeses.  As sad as I was to see the goat cheese go, I am elated Sweet Grass Dairy is still around to make the rest of their cheeses.

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I’ve made it my mission to try all the SGD cheeses, and feel lucky I was able to gorge myself on try their goat milk chèvre back in the day.  I checked Clayburne (cheddar) off my SGD bucket list at the end of the day, but I still have a few seasonal cheeses left to go.  Still on my cheese bucket list: Beaufort, JessAnne, Black Swan, and Lovely.

Next we got a quick tour of the facilities.  We watched some of the employees working hard in the main room.

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They were busy getting ready to make a batch of Thomasville Tomme – and we were going to get to help!  The set of molds to Jeremy’s left are the ones with our names on them.  The table full of molds behind it will be for general consumption.

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We walked right by the huge swirling tub of milk that would later become Thomasville Tomme.  It is brought to 95 degrees while constantly and slowly mixed, and once it reaches 95 degrees, the bacterial culture is added and mixing continues.  The pH, temperature, and timing is constantly monitored.

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The stuff floating on top of the milk is butter fat.  Even though they  mix the milk as gently as possible, some butter fat still separates out.  They don’t skim it off though.

Then we got to walk through the coolers where they age all of their cheeses.

The wheels of Thomasville Tomme below have just been salted and begun the aging process.

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The next cooler was full of wheels that were further along in the aging process, as you can clearly see.

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Hair nets: so hot right now.

It was so interesting to learn about the different molds that grow on the surfaces of different cheeses, and how that affects the taste.  Sweet Grass cheeses are raw cheeses with natural rinds, generally (except for fresh cheese, such as Little Moo, and Green Hill, which is it’s own thing altogether).  Above you can see the differences between the Thomasville Tomme, the Beaufort, and Asher Blue.

Then Jeremy walked us through the way the Green Hill cheese is made.  Green Hill is a pasteurized soft cheese with a bloomy rind (like a brie) that is started by using a brine to salt the cheese, rather than hand salting (as you can see on the Thomasville Tomme wheels above).  The brine results in the fluffy white mold that makes a perfect rind that covers the entire small wheel of cheese evenly and completely.

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Next up was a lesson on cheese structure.

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Above you can see a smaller, experimental version of Asher Blue, compared to the typical large wheel they make.   These cheeses are actually around the same age, but the smaller wheel ages much more quickly than the large one.

We also learned that blue cheese is pierced with a long spike in order to allow oxygen in to facilitate the proper Roquefort mold growth on the interior of the cheese (aka the “paste,” as we learned it is properly called).  The holes from the spikes also allow carbon dioxide produced by the bacteria to escape.  But if the cheese maker pierces the wheels too early, the holes will just close back up.  Too late, and not enough Roquefort mold development.  Cheese making is truly a science.  It made me wish I had paid closer attention in microbiology back in college.

Then we learned how you can tell if a cheese you purchase has been mistreated.  If the rind is thicker on one side than another, it means the cheese wasn’t flipped properly to allow even mold growth.

And then, we finally got to eat some cheese.  Jeremy cut open three types of soft cheeses/bries for us to compare.  Cremont from Vermont (which was awesome), SGD Green Hill (always delicious), and what I believe I remember was an excessive triple creme brie called Brillat Savarin, that order.

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The Cremont was amazing.  It’s a double creme brie using cows’ milk and goats’ milk, and was perfectly balanced, flavor-wise.  I would snap this up in a heart beat if I saw it at the market.  Green Hill is one of our favorites from SGD, so I already knew I would love it.  If double creme is good, triple creme ought to be better, right?  Wrong.  The Brillat Savarin was delicious and rich on the front of your tongue, then as it hit the back of your tongue it turned into almost an anchovy flavor.  The saltiness was out of control, and the mouth feel was so velvet-y that it was really weird.  Jeremy described it like eating a bunch of raw mushrooms.  I definitely didn’t love it.

At some point around-about this time, we added the veal rennet to the massive vat of warm, microbial-filled milk.   (FYI: According to the Artisanal Premium Cheese glossary, “Rennet is a plant or animal derived substance that contains the enzyme rennin. Rennet is crucial to the coagulation of milk in the cheesemaking process. Traditionally, rennet was derived from the lining of the fourth stomach of an unweaned ruminant animal (e.g. a calf, kid, or lamb). Today, microbial, plant-derived, and GMO varieties represent the majority of the market.”)

Next up in this all day adventure was a lesson on homemade ricotta.  I have never done this at home, but I’ve had fairly serious intentions of doing it.  I mean, I pinned it approximately 10 times, so that’s got to count for something, right?

Anyway, after seeing Jeremy make it in front of my eyes, it’s crazy easy and I no longer have any excuses.  You can use any acid you’d like: lemon juice, white wine or rice vinegar, whatever your little heart desires.

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Heat a gallon of whole pasteurized milk (but NOT ultra high pasteurized milk) to approximately 170 degrees.  Add the acid little by little while stirring constantly, until the curds separate from the whey.IMG_4917 IMG_4923

Strain using a strainer lined with cheese cloth.  The amount of whey you strain out will simply affect the texture of the cheese.IMG_4924 IMG_4926 IMG_4928

We tried it by the spoonful with and without salt added.  It was delicious!

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I promptly purchased a gallon of whole milk on Sunday with big plans for ricotta this week.  Jeremy said it freezes well, which I also plan to test out.

After our lesson on ricotta, we came back to the vat to check on the milk + rennet.  Basically, the rennet separates the whey from the curd, and the entire vat of milk basically turns into a giant curd.  We felt it.  It was really cool.

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Then we cut the curd.  The 3rd grader in myself couldn’t help but mentally giggle every time somebody said that.  Related aside: I have had Little Miss Muffet stuck in my head since Saturday morning.

They use giant “knives” to cut the curd.  They’re just metal frames with taut wire strung across them like an egg slicer.  Anyone who wanted got the chance to cut the curd themselves.  I got to cut it twice.  Wheat took some pictures of me the second time.

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Hair nets: almost as hot right now as beard nets.

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Yep.  Wheat had to wear a beard net.  You’re very welcome.

Next we got to fill our cheese molds with curds and whey.  You stir the curds with one hand while scooping with the other, scooping up hopefully an even mixture.  Then you pour it into the mold and the whey drained off.  Gravity “presses” the curds into shape.

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These two are ours!IMG_4981 IMG_4983

Once full, the mold is flipped over to flatten the other side.  I believe they are flipped a few more times as gravity keeps pressing them into shape under their own weight, then the next day they are salted and put into the cooler (like you saw wayyyyyy up at the beginning of the post).

Finally, the cheese tasting and wine drinking part happened.

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I thought it would be fun to quickly go through all the cheeses we tasted and share my thoughts on each.  If you’re following along, I started at the white fresh cheese just below the pimiento cheese (around 3 o’clock).

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Little Moo – Sweet Grass Dairy – Pasteurized – Fresh Cow’s Milk Cheese: Delicious!  I especially like the version they sell at the Cheese Shop with garlic and chives mixed in.  I do it at home with fresh chives and it’s great, as well.  I mixed it into some cheese grits Saturday night (recipe forthcoming!) and they were TDF.

Fresh Chèvre – Capriole – Pasteurized, Fresh Goat Cheese: Two thumbs up!

Feta – France – Pasteurized Pickled Sheep’s Cheese: I have always and will always love feta. This one was no exception, and self-professed Feta-hater Wheat even liked it a lot.

Purple Haze – Cypress Grove – Pasteurized Flavored Fresh Goat’s Cheese: I have purchased this one before from New Leaf Market in Tallahassee, so I already knew I liked it a lot.

Green Hill – Sweet Grass Dairy – Pasteurized, Bloomy Cow’s Milk Cheese: as referenced above, this cheese is the jam.  And is also good served with some jam.

Cremont – Vermont – Pasteurized, cow’s and Goat’s Double Creme Cheese: as mentioned previously, this cheese is thebomb.com.

St. Maure – France – Pasteurized, Ashed Rind Goat’s Cheese: I loved the paste of this cheese.  It was smooth and creamy and perfectly tangy.  However, when the rind was part of the deal, it became very “goaty.”  An old friend once said, “it tastes like a goat smells.”  While I don’t mind the smell of an actual goat (I <3 goats!), I can see how the rind on this cheese would turn those on the fence off.  This goat cheese from this region of France (St. Maure) characteristically has a piece of straw running through the center of the log.

Thomasville Tomme – Sweet Grass Dairy – Raw, Tomme Style Cow’s Milk Cheese: one seriously great cheese!  This is one of Wheat’s and my favorites, and we get it all the time to snack on, grate over salads, and it’s what SGD makes their pimiento cheese out of.  I’ll also probably be making pimiento cheese out of it, once we have approximately 11 pounds of it in our fridge.

Abbaye de Belloc – France – Pasteurized, Tomme Style Sheep’s Milk Cheese: This was one of Jeremy’s favorite cheeses, and was really good.  It’s made by Pyrenees Monks, was super rich (apparently it has a high fat content) and a dense texture very similar to the Thomasville Tomme.

Mareike Gouda – Holland’s Family Farm – Pasteurized, Gouda Cow’s Milk Cheese:  This one turned out to be one of my favorites.  I’m a sucker for sweet gouda!  I learned that many goudas are made in copper pots (like jams and jellies!) to increase the caramelization of the sugars.   You can definitely taste that in this gouda, and even see it in the color.  It was smooth, with a few eye holes, and nutty and sweet in flavor.  I think it would be amazing cubed and tucked into a pasta salad, or a wee bit added to a grownup grilled cheese sandwich.

Comte St. Antoine – France – Raw, Alpine Style Cow’s Milk Cheese: This was another one of Jeremy’s professed favorites, and it became one of mine, too.  This one veered on the side of nutty and sweet, as well, which is probably why I liked it.  It was probably my favorite cheese of the entire day!

Snow White – Carr Valley Cheese Company – Pasteurized Goat’s Milk Cheddar: I actually took Snow White to Charleston for Sara’s Bachelorette party back in September, and it was a big hit with everyone!  It has a tang you usually don’t find in a cheddar (at least, in my limited cheddar experience) and I bet it would make an awesome grilled cheese (sensing a theme here?).  But it’s also really tasty for nibbling.

Cleburne – Sweet Grass Dairy – Raw, Cow’s Milk Cheddar: Crossed this one off my bucket list!  Cleburne is SGD’s seasonal cheddar.  They usually make some in the summer and age it until about now-ish, and we got to try some of the first Cleburne of the year.  It was quite a treat, and quite good, too.  I recommend it, if you can get your hands on some here soon.

Cabot Clothbound – Cellars at Jasper Hill – Pasteurized Cow’s Milk Cheddar:  Cabot makes this cheese and then ages it at the Cellars at Jasper Hill.  It wasn’t my favorite cheddar, but it was very good.

English Cheddar – Mrs. Quickes (England) – Raw Cow’s Milk Cheddar: This was a crumbly cheddar that doesn’t resemble any cheddar I think I’ve ever tasted.  It was salty and I didn’t care too much for the dry mouthfeel.  According to Jeremy, that’s just how the English do cheddar.  Different strokes for different folks!

Fourme d’Ambert – France – Raw, Cow’s Milk Blue Cheese: I actually don’t love blue cheese without a pairing.  I love it on steak, in salads, etc., but alone, not so much.  Jeremy suggested the very strange combination of the blue cheese with a bit of 70% dark Srsly Chocolate (made in Tallahassee by former SGD Cheese Shop Manager, Bob Williamson!).  I tried it, and it was surprisingly really awesome.  So if you’re feeling adventurous at a cheese tasting, I highly recommend that pairing!

Asher Blue – Sweet Grass Dairy – Raw Cow’s Milk Blue Cheese: I love Asher Blue stuffed into dates, on salads, on steaks, pretty much any way you name it… Except alone.  Asher Blue is a very strong blue, so buyers beware.  But if you’re a blue cheese lover, you will absolutely love Asher Blue.  Sold year round in the Cheese Shop and on the Larder.

Pimiento Cheese – Sweet Grass Dairy – Raw Cow’s Milk Cheese Spread: Sold year round in the Cheese Shop and on the Larder, they make their take on pimiento cheese with shredded Thomasville Tomme and picante peppers.  It’s delicious and super popular.  Of course, when I bring it home, I usually add some more heat to it.  Typical.

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We were the last ones to leave, and hung around and shot the shiz with Jeremy for a bit.  He was beyond nice and welcoming to all of our group, and his sheer wealth of knowledge was really impressive.  I love what he and his family are doing for Thomasville and beyond.  Their commitment to educating the public about the slow food, local food and farm to table movements is commendable, and their own support of other local businesses and farmers and movers and shakers is admirable.  They definitely practice what they preach.  Everyone in the class (very much including myself and Wheat) learned so much on Saturday.  I am so glad to have had the opportunity to see firsthand what Sweet Grass Dairy is all about (thanks, Wheat!), and I’m so excited to watch, as even bigger things are on the horizon for them.

For more information on Sweet Grass Dairy, check out this video produced by the Southern Foodways Alliance: The Rise of Southern Cheese.  And as a personal aside, SFA is an awesome organization.  Follow them for all the best in food news in the South and join SFA to support farmers and foodies like Sweet Grass Dairy.

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Now, I can hardly stand to wait the 10 or so weeks until my fridge is filled to the brim with Thomasville Tomme that I helped make.  Let the countdown begin.

Until Next Time

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4 thoughts on “Sweet Grass Dairy Cheese Making Class

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