Sheep Dairy Creating Chic Cheese
Family-owned business relocates to Madras
Creamy, buttery sheep's milk cheese is being produced in Madras at the Ancient Heritage Dairy, which relocated from Scio last fall.
Owned by Paul Obringer and his sons Neil and Hank, Ancient Heritage was Oregon's first sheep's milk dairy to produce artisan cheeses.
"Sheep's milk is high in butterfat, and higher in protein and minerals," said 26-year-old Neil Obringer, explaining the allure of the cheese, which is sweeter than goat's milk cheese, without the tang or "goaty" taste.
Neil Obringer said the family got into the cheesemaking business in 2005. They lived on a small farm in Estacada with sheep for his mother's spinning and weaving, cows and goats.
"My brother and I were sensitive to cow's milk, so we had goats and grew up milking goats," Obringer said.
His mother Kathy Obringer was working as an artist, and his dad did marketing for a publishing company, when they decided to try something different.
"They both had worked in the restaurant business in the past, and remembered a fantastic Greek sheep's milk feta. Mom experimented and found recipes, and that was the start of the whole thing," he said.
His parents took an artisan cheesemaking course at the University of Wisconsin, then used their savings to purchase a cow dairy facility in Scio and convert it for sheep-milking and cheesemaking. They also raised a few cows to make blended cow-sheep milk cheeses.
Their quality products soon built up a reputation among cheese aficionados at farmer's markets and on their website.
Two years ago, Kathy Obringer died of a heart condition, but Paul and sons Neil, now 26, and Hank, 19, kept the business going. An older brother left the farm to became a firefighter and their sister took a job in Corvallis.
As business increased, the Obringers realized they needed to buy their own place where they could expand and grow their own hay, instead of purchasing it. On the scale they were growing, it also made more sense to start purchasing the cow's milk they used.
"The east side (of the Cascades) was ideal because it has dryer conditions, which are better. Sheep prefer dry and cold," Neil Obringer said.
"Another reason we located here is the Poland Dairy. We were specifically looking for places close to organic dairies, and Poland's is the only one in this area. We talked to Jos (Poland) and he was interested, and it's been a great relationship so far. His milk is superb," Obringer said, noting they are moving toward being organic.
They purchased an 80-acre farm on Northwest Elm Lane, with 50 acres of orchard grass pasture and 20 acres of alfalfa, and moved there last September.
"We put all our energy into building the milking parlor and cheesemaking facility, and still plan to put up a barn," Obringer said.
This spring, they started producing cheese again at the larger Madras creamery, with good reviews.
"A Portland food critic said our cheese over here already tastes better than what we were making in Scio," commented Paul Obringer.
Ancient Heritage Dairy operates with 100 ewes, which are a mixture of two dairy sheep breeds -- East Friesan from Germany and Lacaune from Southern France. While sheep dairies are unusual here, they are more common in the Midwest, France and Greece.
Sheep's dairies have a narrow profit margin, since sheep give much less milk. When milked, sheep give one pint to one quart; goats give one gallon; and cows give six to seven gallons a day.
Sheep are also seasonal. "They produce milk from January to October, compared to cows, which milk all year long. So, it's hard to break even," Neil Obringer admitted.
The advantages of sheep's milk include more protein, minerals and butterfat, and more cheesemaking material. "Sheep's milk has 20 percent solids, while cow's milk only has 12 percent solids," he said.
And then there's the taste, Obringer described, saying, "It's a sweet, creamy, buttery cheese, that has a toasted hazelnut flavor and mixes well with cow's milk."
The process begins in the milking parlor. The sheep graze on lush pasture, then come into a pen at milking time because they know a treat of grain awaits.
They take turns running into stanchions on a raised milking platform, where their utters are washed, then milked by vacuum machine, while they eat the grain.
Right now, they are only giving 10 gallons of milk a day, compared to 50 gallons a day in the spring when they freshen. The Obringers also purchase cow's milk from Poland Dairy every other day for the blended cheeses.
The fresh sheep's milk is put in a refrigerated storage tank until they're ready to use it.
In the separate creamery, everyone must put on rubber boots and step in a footbath before entering. "Cheese is all about making sure everything is clean," Obringer noted. Even the tank where cheese molds are washed and bleached is in a separate wash room.
Next, is the logically named "make room," where Obringer says "cheesemaking magic happens."
There is a 230-gallon stainless steel tank used to create hard, aged cheeses out of raw milk. The tank only heats milk to 105 degrees (pasteurization requires 145 degrees for 30 minutes).
For the hard cheese to comply with USDA regulations, it has to age 60 days or more to create an environment where pathogens won't grow. The Obringers age it 90 days.
There is also a 70-gallon pasteurization tank they use to make soft cheeses, and a freezer to hold high quality cheese cultures from Wisconsin and Europe. The Obringers utilize French and Spanish recipes to create their cheeses.
Paul Obringer explained the cheesemaking process. First cultures are added to warm milk, and it is allowed to work anywhere from 15 minutes to 23 hours, depending on the type of cheese.
Next, rennet is added to set the solids, and the curd is cut and stirred to help the whey separate out, he said.
For soft cheeses, the curd is the consistency of yogurt when it is ladled out of the tank with plastic pitchers and poured into racks of small, round molds. The racks are flipped over for four days as whey drains out, and then the cheese rounds are taken out of the molds and placed on stainless steel racks in a high-humidity area to develop.
With hard cheeses, the curds are placed in larger molds and pressed for a day to dry them out. By then, the cheese starts binding to itself.
Neil Obringer added, "It's kept in a 70-degree environment to allow the cultures to develop flavor and texture. Once it's the correct acidity, we move the cheeses into the walk-in and put them in a salt brine, which slows the acidic culture."
After 12 hours to one day in the brine, they wheels of hard cheese are put on racks to age.
Adjacent to the make room is a large packaging area with three walk-ins on one side. The first walk-in contains racks of their soft bloomy-rind cheeses, Adelle and Valentine. In the high moisture environment, a white penicillium mold grows on the outside of the cheese (similar to Brie).
"Adelle is a huge product for us and has sold very well. Mom developed it in Scio," Obringer said, noting they are currently making 300 pieces of it a week.
The velvety Adelle is made from a mixture of sheep and cow's milk, while the Valentine is created with 100 percent sheep's milk.
The second walk-in, which is kept at 50 degrees, contains the brine tank and racks of aging Hannah and Heritage cheeses. Their signature Heritage cheese is an all-sheep-milk, natural-rind cheese, which is hard on the outside and softer inside.
Made from a Spanish mountain recipe, the Heritage cheese won a second place award in 2009 as the best tasting cheese in the sheep's milk category from the American Cheese Society. It was also served at the White House in 2011 during a luncheon featuring Northwest foods, prepared by a Portland chef.
Their wheels of Hannah cheese also won an award in 2011 at the Good Food Awards in San Francisco. A fourth-a-wheel of Heritage sells for $40.50, while the same amount of Hannah sells for $36.
In the third, high-humidity walk-in is their new Juniper cheese, and other all-cow's-milk, washed-rind cheeses.
"The washed-rind cheeses are softer and more elastic, and are inoculated with a bacteria that turns them a bright, golden color and adds flavor and texture," Obringer said.
The last room is the transition room, where the market-ready cheese is stored in coolers. Once a week, a truck from their distributor Provvista Specialty Foods arrives to pick up the cheese for delivery in Oregon, Seattle and elsewhere.
They also have some small direct accounts, like Murray's Cheese, a gourmet cheese shop in New York City, and sell online at www.ancientheritage.com. Obringer still takes cheese to the Portland Farmer's Market every week, where it is very popular.
Locally, Ancient Heritage Dairy cheese is available at Great Earth Natural Foods in Madras, and Newport Market in Bend.
Printed on each label is the dairy's motto: "Raised with respect, nourished to nourish you," and the farm certainly reflects that, with sheep lounging in a pasture under scenic Mount Jefferson.
And the Obringers enjoy their own product, nibbling on slices as they hand out samples to others.
The dairy is still a work in progress. Now that the creamery is completed, they can shift their focus to improving the exterior of the buildings, growing forage and updating the website.
"We love the people and the climate over here," Paul Obringer said, adding, "It's nice working with my sons. We all enjoy farming and we all enjoy cheesemaking."