Sweet Grass Dairy brought home five top awards for its artisan farmstead cheeses from the 20th Annual American Cheese Society Conference
held this summer in San Francisco, California.

(details below).

Gourmet Cheese
In The Deep South

By Doc Lawrence

Thomasville, the lovely South Georgia town known as the city of roses, seems to be part Florida. Nearby is the Florida border with the Sunshine State’s capital, Tallahassee, the next stop. They share a common culture in many ways, but Thomasville now has a new and exciting identity. Just a few miles north of town is the dairy farm called Sweet Grass, and it is as different and distinctive as any place in the south. For those who love gourmet cheeses, it’s nearly paradise.

Gourmet magazine’s fabulous Michael Green and a superbly talented local professional named Raymond Hooks guided my first introduction to the cheeses produced by Sweet Grass owners Desiree and Al Wehner during a wine and cheese pairing hosted by the High Museum Wine Auction. Green, a globally recognized wine commentator, introduced each wine, while Hooks, representing Sweet Grass, led us through the cheeses, with both explaining the logic of each pairing. What caught my eye and later my palette was the unique names of each delicious cheese: Georgia Pecan Chevre; Holly Springs; Georgia Gouda; Thomasville Tomme and others, all either goat or cow’s milk based. After a chat with Raymond, I was on my way to Sweet Grass.

Sweet Grass is refreshingly off the beaten path, and a true family farm. Desiree and Al combine their energies and cheese making experience with the youth, vitality and imagination of daughter Jessica and her husband Jeremy, along with the spiritual assistance of two-month-old Aidan (who has courageously posed in an FSU jersey —his dad’s alma mater—in a hotbed of unwavering Georgia Bulldogs.)

There are two
herds of goats at Sweet Grass, the adults who give milk and the young ones who soon will. “There are 96 goats here along with sheep, lambs, cows and chickens,” Desiree revealed, adding, “Our milk cows are kept in a separate farm in another nearby county.” She explained that while Sweet Grass wasn’t technically organic (“we rarely use insecticides - only to prevent health hazards to our animals), it‘s as near as you will find to a farm that eschews processed food, additives, preservatives and genetically modified food. Jessica observed, “Cheese making is one of the last true artisan processes in this country.”

Some prestigious restaurants and gourmet stores have heard about what’s happening in Thomasville. Park 75, the acclaimed restaurant in Atlanta’s Four Seasons Hotel, hosted a chef’s table recently for a group of veteran wine and food writers and the cheese served with wine by Executive Chef Kevin Hickey was from Sweet Grass. Whole Foods and Star Provisions are now carrying it. The Epicurean, the gourmet food and wine store near Emory University, offers these incredible cheeses. Restaurants include respected locals like Seegar’s, Bacchanalia, The Dining Room, City Grill and Joel plus Norman’s, the world-famous restaurant in Coral Gables, Florida and 11 Madison Avenue in New York City.

The Wehner family set out on their mission in 1993. After 25 years of traditional dairy farming, they found a better way to farm. Their cows live outdoors, get exercise and enjoy grazing lush pastures year round. The goats happily browse woods, fields and pasture. They maintain sustainable, biological farming practices that nourish the soil life. “Our aim,” said Desiree, “is to handcraft fresh, semi-ripened and naturally aged goat and cow cheese that is unique and delicious. Happy animals produce happy milk and happy milk makes the best cheese.”

At Sweet Grass, I learned that the average life expectancy of a dairy cow in a conventional system is about two years after entering the milk cycle. Milk producing cows at Sweet Grass, enjoying lives free of sickness and the cruel stress of barn confinement, have an average life expectancy of about 10 to 12 years. Desiree reminded me “it’s impossible to make good cheese from bad milk. We choose to have the highest quality milk. Happy cows and goats make the best milk.”

The dairy farm and buildings are nestled in a bucolic paradise. Rye grass and red clover blanket peaceful pastures. Muscadine vines are omnipresent, and the leaves are delicacies for the goats (look for some Georgia Muscadine Cheese on a menu someday) and the goats follow you around, lovingly rub up against you and can find their way into your pocket and will nibble away at a dollar bill if you’ve got one loose. There is an overwhelming feeling of joy everywhere.

I left Sweet Grass after observing Jessica, holding newborn Aidan, stirring one of the vats of raw milk at the inception of the cheese making process. It provided a brief and unforgettable glimpse back into an ancient industry which, when done correctly, requires personal care if the product we consume is to have taste and genuine value. That’s precisely what Sweet Grass gives the world.

I left, vowing to return. That night, I paired Georgia Pecan Chevre—every bite is an out of body experience—with a bottle of Jim Sanders’ Pulgny Montrachet. A marriage made in heaven. The meaning wasn’t lost. Two Georgia inspired or produced products combining the best traditions of the old world with today’s taste preferences.

I slept peacefully that night in Thomasville.


from San Francisco!

The American Cheese Society Competition, sometimes referred to as the Super Bowl of American Cheesemaking, is very rigorous with over 200 of the best American cheesemakers from across the country entering over 400 different cheeses. Georgia’s Sweet Grass Dairy, which has been producing cow and goat milk cheeses for just three years, received five top-placing awards. This brings their total to 11 awards since 2001.

Sweet Grass Dairy took first place for both their Clayburne and Fresh Chevre cheeses. Clayburne won first place in the cow’s milk cheddar aged less than 12 months category and Fresh Chevre took first in the fresh goat’s milk cheeses category. The Clayburne is made in the traditional old English style by hand-milling the curds and wrapping the 40 pound blocks in bandages. The Fresh Chevre taste is a direct result of the diet of the goats – sweet clover, lush grasses, and earthy woods.

Other top recognition received by Sweet Grass Dairy includes second place awards for their Botana in the cheddar made from goat’s milk, aged less than 12 months and for their Lumiere, in the Farmstead cheeses, open category made from goat’s milk. The Velvet Rose, a relatively new cheese for Sweet Grass Dairy, also received an award with a third place medal in the soft ripened cheeses made from cow’s milk.

Desiree Wehner and Jeremy Little, the cheesemakers, are dedicated to providing old-world style cheeses that highlight the rich, high quality milk the goats and cows produce. The rich milk comes from rotationally grazed animals that never receive growth hormones or unnecessary antibiotics. The soil remains the cornerstone for maintaining biological and sustainable farming practices which results in the high quality foodstuffs. The quality of the cheeses is directly attributed to the care of the land and the health of the animals. “We have a passion for great food and for what makes food great–farming in a manner that sustains the soil and therefore all life that comes out of that soil,” says Little.

Visit the Association's webpage for more information: www.americancheesesociety.org

Read Doc's article about Sweet Grass Dairy (above)

Follow the arrow to Doc's story about a famed Atlanta restaurant which serves magnificent cheeses from Sweet Grass Dairy

Pair South Georgia cheeses with North Georgia wines? Follow the arrow . .

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