Chester County cheesemakers have banded together to promote and sell their artisanal cheeses

Sue Miller of Birchrun Hills Farm in Chester Springs turns wheels of Equinox (an alpine-style cheese) in an aging room. Shes been making cheese for about five years. APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer
Sue Miller of Birchrun Hills Farm in Chester Springs turns wheels of Equinox (an alpine-style cheese) in an aging room. Shes been making cheese for about five years. APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer
Posted: April 12, 2012

Chef Patrick Feury unwrapped the disks of Yellow Springs Farm goat cheese and wiped them down with the gentle touch usually reserved for newborns and puppies. It's all part of his process of aging the product himself, something he learned at cheese school in Vermont last year. When he picks up the goods from the Chester County makers, they are two weeks young. He matures them for two to three more weeks. "Part of serving them is making sure that the characteristics are at their best," says the chef of Nectar, in Berwyn. "I can take them from a dry chèvre all the way to a Brie-like creaminess."

A chef putting this much care into a cheese plate is a rarity, especially because Feury runs the kitchen of an Asian-inspired eatery. His interest in cheese was sparked while training in Paris in the late '90s, but since he began to work with local cheese - all made within miles of the restaurant - he's downright smitten. "They are good products. I wouldn't serve them if they weren't."

Feury is doing more than babysitting and serving them at his restaurant. He's become the unofficial ambassador for the Chester County Cheese Artisans, a newly formed group of eight cheese producers who are hoping that their high-quality, diverse products will one day be as well known as Sonoma wine, Vermont cheese, or Maryland crabs.

Yellow Springs Farm, in Chester Springs, is a 20-minute drive from bustling Lancaster Avenue. What was, 150 years ago, a 200-acre cow pasture is now only eight acres. But thanks to the hilltop location hosting 50-plus floppy-eared, affectionate Nubian goats, it is just as charming.

Al and Catherine Renzi, who both stepped off the corporate ladder, bought the farm in 2001 and started raising goats a few years later. In 2009 they turned their attention toward curds and whey.

The couple keep their goats in near-athletic shape, with a targeted diet, careful breeding, and lots of love. "The best product is made in the field," says Al Renzi. "Milk is the first ingredient in cheese."

That milk goes straight from the goat to the farmhouse, which they've converted into a workshop with original stone, a tasting room, and a high-humidity aging cave. They produce a variety of grassy, creamy, well-balanced goat cheeses, some aged days (and flavored with honey from their bees), others firmer, nuttier and older.

Their Red Leaf, which is aged in sycamore leaves from the property, won a second-place award at the American Cheese Society Awards in 2010, while Nutcracker, semisoft, smooth, and nutty, took home first place the same year in the same category. Their ethereal, bloomy-rind Cloud Nine is a creamy pouf that goat cheese lovers could eat with a spoon.

Yellow Springs sells directly to restaurants, at farmer's markets, and most important to the bottom line, through a CSA, which provides members with cheeses from May through November.

The Renzis are not alone. Just minutes away, Birchrun Hills Farm, Doe Run Dairy, and Shellbark Hollow Farm are a few of the quality cheese producers in Chester County. It didn't take long for the Renzis to realize there was strength in numbers.

With support from fellow producers and local organizations such as the Chester County Economic Development Council and the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, the Chester County Cheese Artisans was formed. A website was launched about 18 months ago. "Al had the great idea of modeling a group after what's been going on in Vermont with cheesemakers," says Sue Milshaw, agriculture program manager at the development council.

Funding comes from a yearly workforce development grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry. While in its infancy, the group has a clear, twofold mission: to market directly to consumers and provide resources to the makers. They've brought in experts from Vermont and California to educate the dairy farmers on enhancing flavors and shipping logistics. They share networks, information, and occasionally rennet (the enzymes used in the production of cheese). As a group, they've participated in restaurant dinners, farm tours, and tastings at events such as Philly Beer Week. "They are not really competing against each other, they are competing against people going to the grocery store," Milshaw says.

Feury shares the vision of the group, pointing out that in Vermont, some of the cheesemakers are hours away from each other, while here, some are only minutes - or possibly a tour-guide-led bike ride over one-lane, creekside roads.

"There is no reason why Chester County can't be recognized on a national level," says Marilyn Anthony, of the sustainable-agriculture group.. "The quality of the product, and because it's indigenous, makes it all unique."

At Birchrun Hills, Sue Miller has been making cheese for about five years. She relishes her relationship with the artisan group and the chefs and owners from restaurants such as Alba, White Dog, Tria, Talula's Table and Talula's Garden, Victory Brewing Co., and Johnny Brenda's. For his part, Feury hosts dinners, continues his own education, and connects makers with cooks.

"It's tricky to manage," says Miller, as she flips just-formed rounds of curds at Camphill Village, a facility where she rents kitchen and cave space. She's referring to everything about her trade, from creating the best version of the tangy, mushroomy Birchrun Blue, to managing the cows and co-op, to getting her goods to markets and restaurants. "Banding together can get us more skilled labor, general awareness, events, tours, dinners. ... We all need to learn from each other," she says. "And we rely on the chefs. I need them to be brutally honest, even if that means it's not so nice."

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