BRATTLEBORO—To describe the unpasteurized, organic cows’ milk cheese he and his family make at Stonewall Farm in the rural outskirts of Keene, N.H., Joe Sawyer says, “We focus on the Alpine."
Although New England is often associated with Cheddar, he doesn’t make Cheddar, explaining, ”There are already too many great Cheddar makers. We take a core Alpine-style recipe and mature the cheese to different ages.”
Ver-Hampshire, Sawyer’s Artisanal Cheese’s flagship cheese, is aged for approximately six months, but the company also holds wheels in aging caves, selling them at 18 months and 24 months.
The older cheeses are of very limited supply because Provisions International, the specialty food distributor located in White River Junction, takes the wheels “almost faster than we can make them,” Sawyer says. He explains that this prevents most of his extremely popular cheeses from aging much longer than four months.
Because Sawyer wanted to sell cheese at a lower price-point to enable more customers to afford it, the cheesemaker also sells a three-month-aged version, aged in Cryovac instead of in the open air of the cheese cave, where it would develop a natural rind.
“It’s less labor that way [in Cryovac]. We don’t have to turn it as often, or brush it,” Saywyer explains.
He notes that some of his clientele enjoy the milder flavor of the younger cheese.
In addition to selling the cheese at a variety of ages, Sawyer adds carefully selected flavors to the cheese: interesting notes that don’t betray the central identity of the fruity, rich, lactic cheese.
Depending on availability, one may find Sawyer’s Artisanal Cheese infused with red peppercorn, black peppercorn, organic lavender flowers, or caraway seeds. Sawyer reports the latter is his newest, “and it’s been very successful."
Although Joe Sawyer had never heard of Barely Buzzed until I told him about it in the beginning of January, he recently began making a sort of doppelgänger to the Cheddar-like cheese made in Northern Utah by Beehive Cheese Company.
Both that cheese, and the one Sawyer makes, involve coating the outside of the wheels in coffee grounds and lavender petals.
Although those cheeses present a nightmare scenario for cheesemongers — every time you cut a wedge for a customer, or even open it to offer samples, you end up with coffee grounds all over your workstation — the rich, almost malty flavor and subtle floral notes make it worth the trouble, because then the ’monger gets to eat some too.
Sawyer’s neighbor at the Brattleboro Area Farmers’ Market and the Winter Market, Cory Walker of Guerrilla Grown Produce, supplies Sawyer with fresh garlic. When it’s seasonal, Sawyer adds that to his cheese too.
Joe Sawyer speaks fondly of another Brattleboro Area Farmers’ Market neighbor. “The most eye-opening thing for me is to set up [my stall] near Nancy [Bergman] at Spoonwood Cabin Creamery,” he says, describing the “funny customers” who will either head to Spoonwood and ignore Sawyer, or vice versa, noting how particular people’s cheese tastes run.
Sawyer expressed appreciation for Spoonwood’s cheeses, which are so different from his own: “I learned all about soft cheeses from Nancy,” he says, and from her he learned to appreciate that category of cheese to which he previously had little exposure.
For the past eight years, Joe Sawyer has been on a sort of accelerated cheese course. “I was at the Walpole Farmers’ Market and I met Stan Richmond from Boggy Meadow Farm,” maker of Baby Swiss, he says. “I’ve been forever curious about cheese.”
So Sawyer bombarded Richmond with questions.
Richmond’s reply, according to Sawyer, was “Come on over!” So he did, and he saw how Boggy Meadow makes cheese.
Three weeks after the two met, Sawyer began working part-time at Boggy Meadow because Richmond had lost his cheesemaking assistant. Sawyer says, “Stan offered me the job."
Sawyer also owns a landscaping business and works part-time for FedEx.
Although Sawyer was far from bored with his other jobs and his familial responsibilities, shortly after beginning with Boggy Meadow he found himself fascinated by cheesemaking: ”Hook, line and sinker."
For the next two years, Sawyer says, he went up to the now-defunct Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese and spent all his vacation time taking every course they had.
While at VIAC, Sawyer said, he met Italian, French, and Spanish cheesemakers and made connections enabling him and his wife and business partner, Sonia, to travel to Europe and receive cheese-related tours from locals in the industry.
Sawyer reminisces, “We met the head cheesemaker for the whole of Spain, Enric Canut,” who, for four weeks, was their personal tour guide in Spain. “It was an amazing tour.”
The Sawyers went from the smallest to the largest Spanish cheesemaker. The latter processed approximately 180,000 liters of milk per day into cheese. The former was in the Pyrenees, Sawyer says, and “was a guy who made blue from the milk of two cows, and he only sold his cheese at the farmers’ market."
Canut also brought the Sawyers to Minorca, a Spanish island in the Mediterrenean Sea that Joe describes as “a place everyone should visit.”
The Holstein cows’ milk cheese, Mahon, is made there, and Sawyer says, “those guys were funny.”
The Mahon facility is a tourist attraction, Sawyer says, “and busloads of people come every day and watch them make cheese through this big window, so these guys were used to performing.”
Sawyer recalls seeing the cheesemakers tossing curds and whey around, and says their cheesemaking was performance art at its finest.
As a result of Joe Sawyer’s experiences making cheese, learning about cheese, and traveling for cheese, he realized he needed to make cheese by hand.
Living on the Walpole farm his family has held for generations, Sawyer searched the Internet for “the next-closest” cheesemaker to his home.
He found David Major, proprietor and cheesemaker for Major Farm in Westminster West, home of Vermont Shepherd.
“I started making sheep cheese with David,” Sawyer recalls, “and sheep is a whole different ballgame.” He describes the rapidity and firmness with which the curds set once rennet is added to the warmed sheep milk: “It was like trying to stick my finger into cement.”
(Poking the newly set curds to test their texture is common before moving on to the next step of cheesemaking.)
“I worked there for four or five years. David taught me so much. He’s generous, magnanimous, and busier than a one-armed paper hanger,” Sawyer says.
In 2010, Joe Sawyer began making his own cheese as Sawyer’s Artisanal Cheese, using locally sourced cows’ milk.
Since then, he’s twice lost his milk source, providing intense stress on top of the already-anxiety-inducing experience of running one’s own business that deals solely in a highly perishable, finicky product. He attributes his ability to continue under such conditions to “Yankee stubbornness."
In mid-April of 2014, Sawyer began working with Stonewall Farm in Keene, N.H., using their certified-organic Holstein cows’ milk.
Because Sawyer demands the freshest milk possible, and balks at having the milk travel too far, he and his family moved their cheesemaking operation to Stonewall Farm. “It was a huge endeavor,” Sawyer says.
The farm schedule also forces him to arrive to work “when they milk, at 3:30 in the morning,” noting his cheesemaking assistant — his son Ian — arrives at 4:30 a.m. “I let him sleep in,” he jokes.
Sawyer considers the change “entirely worth it, because now we use only morning milk,” which has a greater fat content, more vitamin K, and more Omega-3s than evening milk.
The other benefit to making cheese on the farm, Sawyer says, is that the milk goes directly from the cow to the vat where the cheese is made; the milk is never cooled, and remains between 55 degrees and 100 degrees throughout its life as a liquid.
“I’m much happier with this cheese,” he says, as the milk is of a higher quality than the milk he had been using. His customers say they agree.
“It’s been generally well received, and that has gotten truer and truer during this period of adjustment to the new farm,” he explains.
In addition to finding any one of the Sawyer family selling their cheese at the Saturday Brattleboro farmers’ markets, Sawyer’s Artisanal Cheese is also sold in Keene at the Monadnock Food Co-op, the Saturday Farmers’ Market, Blueberry Fields, and Hannah Grimes; in Walpole at Burdick’s restaurant and the neighboring Walpole Grocery; and in Peterborough’s Green Grocer.
“Part of my job selling cheese at the farmers’ markets is educating people,” Sawyer says, adding that now he knows how absolutely critical milk quality is to making good cheese:
“My goal is to make the finest food possible from this milk."
Sawyer explains the thing he’s most committed to in cheesemaking, other than just making the highest quality cheese, is that he wants people to know “what farmers go through” in bringing food to people.
Sawyer notes a resurgence in caring about food and where it comes from, “especially in younger people doing great work.” He singles out “Jonathan at Amazing Planet and Amy and Justin at Circle Mountain” for praise.
“Farmers need land and support,” Sawyer asserts.
He recalls Sonia saying, “I couldn’t imagine a world without our cheese,” and says that inspires him to carry on, even when he had wanted to throw in the towel.
Sawyer pauses and says, “But I won’t, because the most miserable times in my life were when I wasn’t doing anything with farming. The most important thing is food, and cheese is one part of it."