Open your rind to this women-powered cheese CSA

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This story originally appeared on CityWideStories.com, a Philadelphia-based online publication focusing on the doers, makers and change-makers within the region, and spotlighting voices that aren’t always heard. Follow them on FacebookInstagram and Twitter for daily updates.

Losing your job is always a tough moment. A few years ago, it happened to Alex Jones when the nonprofit she’d been working for lost an operating grant. Walking away from the office after getting the news, she grabbed her phone. 

“I called my therapist, and then I called Sue and Stef,” she recalls.

That’s Sue Miller, farmer and cheesemaker of Chester County’s Birchrun Hills Farm, and Stefanie Angstadt, small-batch cheesemaker at Valley Milkhouse in Berks County.

Sue Miller, Stefanie Angstadt and Alex Jones, the trio behind Collective Creamery

The three women had known each other for a while. Jones had been selling Angstadt’s cheese at the Clark Park Farmers’ Market; as she continued her market gigs, as well as freelance writing work, Jones kept in touch with the cheesemakers.

One day, they had a proposal: Did she want to partner with them on a new artisan cheese venture?

Both Miller and Angstadt had been witnessing diminishing returns in the farmers’ market business. Participating requires a lot of overhead, including staff to run the stands and travel costs. And the markets can be unpredictable: A couple weeks of rain can seriously depress your earnings.

Jones, Miller and Angstadt brainstormed a new revenue model. A cheese truck? “Cheese towers” for weddings? How about community-supported agriculture (CSA) for cheese?

They’ve written a check to us and given their faith to us. It’s a nice format to be encouraged to experiment a little more, break out of my routine, and try some new things.Stefanie Angstadt, Valley Milkhouse

A CSA model, usually applied to fresh fruits and veggies, connects consumers directly to producers. Clients pay the farmer up front, at the start of the season, and receive regular deliveries of food straight from the farm.

The CSA idea won out. In 2016, Jones, Miller, and Angstadt launched Collective Creamery, “a women-powered artisan cheese share subscription.” Operated under the business umbrella of Valley Milkhouse, the shares also feature cheeses from Birchrun Hills and guest cheesemakers.

The trio began with 28 subscribers, and they’re now up to about 75 throughout Greater Philadelphia. According to Jones, they currently have the capacity to grow that by at least another 50 percent.

The attitude was, “Let’s try this thing and see what happens,” recalls Jones, the self-described “city mouse.” While Miller and Angstadt are busy farming and making cheese, the Philly-based Jones runs Collective Creamery’s administrative side.

Making cheese at Valley Milkhouse / photo: Cynthia van Elk

Angstadt started her business in 2014 after completing an apprenticeship at a goat dairy and taking a cheesemaking course. She doesn’t not run a dairy farm, but instead buys milk fresh from other producers, mainly Spring Creek Farms in Berks County. It’s a little like being a winemaker without a vineyard, a common setup.

“We go to the dairy farm every day for fresh milk,” she says. “We especially like it warm, straight from the udder.”

She pours the fresh milk into a vat at her creamery, and adds cultures and rennet, the enzyme that curdles the milk. Essentially, cheesemakers are “teasing out the solids, the fat, and protein in the milk,” she explains.

The next stage of cheesemaking is to shape the milk’s burgeoning solids (curd) into wheels that are pressed under weights to express more moisture (whey). What happens after that depends on factors like the length of time you leave a cheese to age, and under what conditions (a process called affinage).

Forming molds at Valley Milkhouse / photo: Cynthia van Elk

Valley Milkhouse specializes in fresh, soft-ripened cheeses, aged for just a few weeks in a cool, very humid environment. But another favorite is Lady’s Slipper, a harder tomme-style cheese that’s washed with local cider lees (the yeasty sediment after cider is filtered and bottled). This produces a unique color and flavor.  

Collective Creamery currently offers three subscription tiers. There’s the bi-weekly Petite Cheese Share, which includes two varieties (about one pound total), the bi-weekly Artisan Cheese Share, which includes three varieties of cheese (about a pound and a half total), and the Monthly Cheese Share, which is an Artisan Cheese Share, plus a half-pound of Pennsylvania’s famous Conebella Farm raw milk cheddar.

Prices range from $26 to $46 per pick-up, but subscribers pay the entire season’s amount when they sign up, in one or two payments. The spring-summer season runs May through September.

In the fall-winter season, Collective Creamery can deliver shares to customers’ doors, depending on their region, but in the spring-summer season, customers pick up at designated locations.

When customers put their trust in Collective Creamery and pay up front, things get interesting for everyone. Most cheesemakers craft five or six core styles in the course of a year, but the CSA model has allowed the partners to try up to 12 cheeses a year.

It’s a nice way for people to directly support local cheesemakers.Stefanie Angstadt, Valley Milkhouse

“The CSA has been a wonderful source of creativity for me as a cheesemaker,” says Angstadt, who had become accustomed to serving a conservative cheese palate (think simple feta or mild cheddar). She soon realized that CSA customers “really want big cheeses.” The bolder the better. “People have really come out of the woodwork in support of good strong stinky cheese.”

In this way, Collective Creamery and its customers directly support each other in ways that lead to innovation and enjoyment on both sides.

“They’ve written a check to us and given their faith to us,” explains Angstadt. “It’s a nice format to be encouraged to experiment a little more, break out of my routine, and try some new things.”

The idea of a cheese subscription isn’t new — there are a growing number of large companies offering subscription cheese boxes. But unlike most other services, which source cheeses from all over, Collective Creamery customers get their cheese directly from the producers.

“It’s a nice way for people to directly support local cheesemakers,” explains Angstadt. “We want to have as direct a relationship as possible with folks.”

photo: @kenzicrash

And the benefits for their foodie customers are huge. If the Collective Creamery partners are experimenting with a new cheese variety (soaking the curds in beer, for example), subscribers are the first to taste it. That means special previews or one-of-a-kind batches you won’t get anywhere else. Collective Creamery also partners with small cheesemakers from Virginia to Vermont that only supply stores and restaurants in their immediate area, meaning that this CSA is Philly’s only chance to taste those cheeses without a long road-trip.

Subscribers learn about what’s happening on the farms where the milk is sourced, alongside in-depth descriptions of the cheese, and pairing guides. Collective Creamery even has its own podcast, where cheese-philes can dive deep into the art form with local experts.

Not everyone is going to have the means for or the interest in a cheese share, Jones says, though they keep the price points as low as they can, and “of course we want everyone to be our customer and have a chance to try our cheese.” And for subscribers, “it’s more about values than income brackets. There are people who will spend their food stamps on a nice piece of artisan cheese.”

photo: Cynthia van Elk

They also have subscribers who are vegan for ethical reasons, but decide to reintroduce a little dairy through the CSA, because of its dedication to healthy, sustainable farming practices.

“I can’t imagine buying milk from a farm that wasn’t treating their animals well,” says Angstadt. Spring Creek Farms is a grass-fed, organic dairy that’s been operating for five generations. It’s an ethical standard as well as a product standard. “If the cow’s stressed, the cheese isn’t healthy…the cow needs a nutritious diet.” 

She calls cheese “a direct expression of milk.” It’s a sensitive, time-honored process with simple ingredients.

“There’s no better way to test the quality of milk than turning it into cheese,” she insists.

Collective Creamery’s 2019 subscriptions are now open. Find out more here.

Lead image: Aging cheeses at Valley Milkhouse / photo: Cynthia van Elk

ALAINA JOHNS is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer and the Editor-in-Chief of BroadStreetReview.com, Philly’s hub for arts, culture and commentary. You can visit her at her blog, where fiction need not apply

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Region: Southeast

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