Artisanal Sheep Cheese: Shepherds Manor Creamery Part 2 of 2
Reading Time: 8 minutes
By Jacqueline Harp – In the last installment, you were introduced to Colleen and Michael Histon and their sheep cheese dairy, Shepherds Manor Creamery.
Read on for the rest of their story.
Meet the Cheeses
The Histons considered producing “mixed milk” cheese (where goat or cow milk is added to the sheep milk), but have found that their niche in sheep is what makes them stand out. All of the artisanal sheep cheese produced at Shepherds Manor Creamery is made from 100% sheep milk.
Colleen currently produces nine cheeses, of four types: Tomme (five, distinct varieties), Fetina, Colbere, and Ewe Crème.
The yield of cheese per gallon will vary depending on the cheese style, the method used to make the cheese, and the moisture content of the cheese. One gallon of sheep milk at Shepherds Manor Creamery weighs 8.6 pounds. The harder cheeses, such as the Tomme, will yield approximately one pound of cheese per gallon of milk. The Fetina and Colbere cheeses, which are softer, yield approximately 1.4 pounds per gallon. A fresh cheese, called “Ewe Crème,” which is the softest, yields approximately 3.5 pounds per gallon.
A cheesemaker’s rule of thumb is that softer cheeses, especially fresh cheeses, hold more moisture; the more moisture a cheese holds, the more cheese that is produced. The harder cheeses yield less because they are allowed to age, and they become dryer and harder, and shrink from the moisture loss over the aging process.
The Tomme is a semi-hard, washed-rind cheese, and it is Colleen’s most popular cheese, across-the-board, among chefs, wineries, and retail customers. It was her classic “Tomae” which took first place in the 2017 American Cheese Society’s Competition, “Sheeps Milk Cheese Aged over 60 Days” category, which is an amazing accomplishment and speaks to the incredible level of her craftsmanship, as well as the exceptional quality of the sheep milk being used.
Colleen’s Tomae. Photo Credit Michael Histon
A Cheese is Born
Before Colleen adds another type of sheep cheese to her offerings, she conducts extensive research, attends many cheesemaking symposiums, and acquires hands-on experience under the tutelage of cheesemakers of the target cheese. Only after this process does Colleen attempt to make the first batch of test cheese.
With every batch of test cheese, she takes notes on everything — from texture, taste profile, what starter culture was used and how it behaved, to how long it takes for a cheese to spoil.
Once a test batch is suitable for consumption, she brings it to a cheesemaking symposium, where experts in that particular cheese provide feedback and advice. Practice makes perfect, and even if a test cheese is produced consistently and is saleable, Colleen will not stop testing and refining the recipe until she thinks it is just right. Once she makes a test cheese that tastes delicious and can be replicated consistently, she will submit the perfected recipe, and the standard operating procedures used to make the cheese, to the proper regulatory authorities. Once the recipe is approved, she can then make and sell this new cheese to the public.
Sheep Milk Soap
She developed her own, proprietary soap recipe using six basic ingredients: sheep milk, olive oil, palm oil, essential oils, and lye. She offers a word of caution about handling lye; a dangerous situation could easily arise if not handled knowledgeably and with the utmost care. She started her soapmaking journey with a class, to make sure she could make lye soap safely. She follows basic safety procedures without fail.
Colleen likes to point out that she puts a lot of milk into her soaps. Goat milk soap is very popular, but many people are unaware that the actual amount of goat milk used is often quite small. She puts in three times as much sheep milk than what is found in a typical goat milk soap.
Each oval soap bar weighs about three and a half ounces and is stamped with the Shepherds Manor Creamery logo for a unique, finished look. The soap is made in the manor kitchen and is covered by product liability insurance.
The soaps come in an amazing array of scents, appealing to a wide range of customers. The varieties include rosebud, rosemary peppermint, lavender, coconut lime, orange cinnamon clove, apple spice, eucalyptus, sandalwood, English lavender, harvest, gingerbread, oatmeal and honey, and unscented for those who have sensitivities to essential oils. Although all of the soaps move at a steady rate, the top sellers are lavender, oatmeal and honey, coconut lime, and apple spice.
Sheep milk soap attracts loyal buyers for many different reasons. Sheep milk soap is highly moisturizing; the fat content is higher than that of goat or cow milk. Most customers find her via the farmers markets, where people are looking for a handmade product. Some people appreciate the lack of abrasive additives, like salt. Quite a few people have issues with their skin, such as eczema, or intolerance for commercial soap, and this draws them to sheep milk soap.
The Histons believe that most of their customers find them through word-of-mouth, but are always actively looking for opportunities to market their products. They regularly attend seven farmers markets in Maryland and the District of Columbia. In recent years, the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival has been one of their largest venues.
Their cheese is featured on the menu of eight, fine-dining restaurants in the D.C. metropolitan area. In marketing to restaurants, Colleen has learned that they are highly price-motivated and usually will settle for cheeses from commercial food wholesalers because of price. So, she has had to seek out the special, motivated restaurants that see her farm story as part of their marketing strategy, because their customers demand a super-high level of sourcing and quality.
Four wineries currently stock Shepherds Manor Creamery cheese all year long. When working with wineries several years ago, the wineries were only open seasonally, therefore, they only bought cheese for that season. Now, those wineries are open and buy cheese year-round, which is great for the creamery. Wineries are often skeptical, at first, until they sample the sheep cheese. The quality and ability to pair beautifully with the wines wins them over, and they become steady customers.
Another great way to gain customers is by hosting cheese tastings, especially at local farmers markets. After getting all the permits required for their location, they follow a strict set of protocols, which can vary by state:
1) All samples are pre-cut in the cheese room at the Shepherds Manor Creamery and taken to the tasting location;
2) Samples are stored in a dedicated sampling box;
3) Unused toothpicks and/or spoons are provided, depending on the type of cheese being sampled.
The Histons have found it best to hand each sample directly to the customer, instead of leaving out samples for people to self-serve. Otherwise, people are tempted to eat too many samples, and therefore, fewer people can try the cheese. That defeats the purpose of having samples and is not cost-effective.
Shepherds Manor Creamy maintains a website (http://www.shepherdsmanorcreamery.com) and a Facebook business page. These platforms provide a way for customers looking to buy sheep cheeses to find Shepherds Manor Creamery. Customers range from adventurous home cooks to Executive Chefs looking to source a high-quality, specialty item like sheep cheese. Customers call or email to purchase cheese directly from Colleen, and she responds to all inquiries promptly.
Shipping cheeses can be an expensive endeavor, not only for the buyer but for the seller as well. The current shipping costs do not include any charge for packing materials. A large amount of her shipping material comes from friends and family who want to recycle their unneeded office supplies. Buying shipping materials would substantially increase the cost of the transaction, making it unaffordable.
Regulations: Be Informed. Be Diligent.
Shepherds Manor Creamery was the first sheep dairy in the state of Maryland, which presented novel and unique issues in navigating the regulatory systems, especially at the start. Three different state and local agencies had jurisdiction over the operation, and there were growing pains for all involved. It was with great trepidation, but also with great determination that Colleen and Michael approached the regulatory issues.
First, most of the regulatory rules were intended to apply to dairy cows and had never contemplated sheep. Apart from the obvious differences between cows and sheep, the lack of certainty in applying the regulations to sheep was a challenge; no precedent or history existed for parties to rely on for guidance.
One example is the fact that many medications, even when prescribed by a veterinarian, are utilized in an “off label” manner for sheep; anyone who has raised smaller ruminants such as sheep and goats is familiar with this phenomenon. This poses a hurdle in terms of applying health rules to sheep, since the label alone would not, on its face, list sheep as a species to be treated, or address issues of dosing for sheep.
Another dilemma came up when seeking to calibrate equipment measurements and regulatory intentions concerning cleanliness, with specifications created for cows, not sheep. Sheep are nowhere near the size of cows, and sheep are substantially cleaner than cows. Some requirements simply were impossible to implement for sheep. Imagine having to make stalls for an animal over 10 times bigger than a sheep — it makes no sense and is economically and practically impossible.
Colleen and Michael had to work in little steps, carefully proving each point, and making good arguments about why the dairy needed to be designed in the way they requested. In sum, most of the issues brought up by the Histons were accepted because of good reasoning, or in some cases, they had to hire an expert to testify to the efficacy of the recommendation. A few more examples will help illustrate the regulatory issues that cropped up.
The county authorities categorized the dairy not as a milk processing facility, but rather, as a food service facility, which would include restaurants. As such, the county wanted to require drains to have a grease trap, which is designed to capture cooking oil and grease coming from fryers and cookers typical of most restaurants. Michael had to explain that a grease trap is completely unnecessary in a dairy, not to mention an added expense. Fortunately, the authorities agreed and they did not have to install grease traps.
Waste management is often overlooked when starting a dairy or other food-oriented business, but it can be a make-or-break issue. On one matter, the Histons had to hire a certified nutrient management specialist to show that whey — a by-product of the cheesemaking process — should not go into a septic tank, despite the regulations. The whey would solidify, clogging the septic tank. They were able to get a special exemption for an alternate protocol for handling the whey.
When asked what they thought of the sheep dairy industry today, Colleen and Michael observed that there is a slow, but growing market interest in sheep milk and all the delightful products that can be made from it. There is a possibility that it could move into the mainstream, as people seek alternatives to typical, commercial cheeses and products made from cow milk. The challenge for sheep dairies in America is getting the word out about its existence as a delicious, culinary option, and for people to understand the differences between artisanal cheese and commodity cheese.
Around the world, artisanal cheese is appreciated and consumed regularly; there is an art to integrating such flavorful and powerful aromatics into a dish, that has yet to be explored in American culture. The artisanal sheep cheese produced at Shepherds Manor Creamery is remarkable — the cheeses are not pumped with air, fillers are absent, no sawdust is added as an anticaking agent — there is no cheating. Having tasted the cheeses personally, the author can attest to being able to taste the subtleties of the terroir that can only emerge when the ewes have access to the best nutrition and the cheesemaker’s splendid skill captures those elements in the final product. When tasting Shepherds Manor Creamery cheeses, you can truly taste the happiness of the sheep!
Read the first installment of this series at:
Originally published in the May/June 2021 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.