Sugar House Creamery
By Tim Behuniak
It’s a word used often to prompt smiles in family photographs. It’s also a delicious snack, a great topping for virtually any meal, or even a dish of its own. But have you ever wondered how the cheese on your plate is made? Or how much devotion and long hours go into making that one perfect, creamy slice? Well just ask Sugar House Creamery - they’ve mastered the craft.
After graduating from St. Lawrence University and working on a dairy farm and creamery in Vermont, Alex Eaton and Margot Brooks wanted their own slice of heaven. In 2012, the couple bought a 23-acre farm in Upper Jay and converted it into a dairy farm, creamery, and Airbnb. “I was raised on a dairy farm,” Margot said. “I wanted to maintain my roots.”
Rather than use an industrial fridge or cooling system, the two took the saying literally by constructing a cave on the property where their cheeses age. The cave creates an ideal temperature for the aging cheese. “We could’ve saved a lot of money by not making a cheese cave,” the two said. “But the passive cooling and underground environment adds a unique flavor to the final product.”
It’s often misunderstood that cheese making itself is a passive and hands-off process: most think it’s tossed into a cold environment and after a few weeks the cheese is ready to be eaten. But this is not the case - especially not at Sugar House Creamery.
The farmers use a handful of Brown Swiss cows to begin the process. These cows were chosen over the traditional black-and-white and other species of cows because they’re native to mountainous environments and produce hard cheese rather than thick cream and thick cheese.
After fine-tuning the cows’ food intake, udders are squeezed and milk is pumped directly to a stainless-steel vessel which delicately turns the milk at 35 degrees. The milk is then heated and culture is added to start the fermentation process. Calf rennet from a French producer is added to pull together the fat, protein, and calcium in the milk. Stirring stops toward the end of fermentation and flocculation occurs. Flocculation is the fine line when liquid turns into clumps, and the entire process - from spinning in the vessel to flocculation - lasts anywhere from 12-16 hours.
The material is then put into the “concrete bunker” and ages for its allotted amount of time. Depending on the type of cheese, the product will age for as little as two weeks or up to an entire year. Throughout the process, Eaton, Brooks, and Creamery Manager Casey Galligan constantly take notes regarding specific tweaks made or even weather changes that occur. “Cheese-making is a utilitarian art,” Galligan said. Plus, the Sugar House Creamery’s cheeses don’t merely sit on a shelf while aging. A dedicated attentiveness is required during the maturing process as the farmers carefully tweak and create the perfect environment that’s conducive for the rind to develop. They even choose specific wood for the cheeses to sit on, which adds to the final product’s flavor.
In order to maintain a tight production line, Sugar House Creamery pumps out only three different cheeses. “It’s hard to achieve perfection with a scattered focus,” said Brooks. Dutch Knuckle, Pound Cake, and Little Dickens are the final three products at the end of the creamery’s process.
Dutch Knuckle ages for up to a year on 25-pound wheels and are “mouthwateringly meaty.” The farmers use a beer wash from the Ausable Brewing Company to add unique flavor to Pound Cake, a semisoft cheese that ages for about a month. Little Dickens, the creamery’s smallest cheese, takes about two weeks to age and is “super creamy” and “spreadable.”
According to state law, customers have to buy raw-milk products directly from the producer rather than retail or grocery stores. Because of this, Brooks, Eaton, and Galligan are able to interact with their customers and provide first-hand and direct knowledge about the food they’re selling. “It’s important that people meet and trust the makers of their food,” Brooks said.
In the end, the crew at Sugar House Creamery doesn’t just master cheese-making; they master a well-rounded understanding of our planet. In order to make such delicately-crafted cheese, a deep understanding of the farm’s soil, weather patterns, animals, and much more is required.
“We essentially harvest the energy of the sun through mammals to create a final product,” Galligan said. “We’re trying to tell a story through the product we’re making.”