Losing your job is always a tough moment. A few years ago, it happened suddenly to Alex Jones, when the nonprofit she’d been working for lost an operating grant. On that first walk away from the office, after getting the news, she grabbed her phone. “I called my therapist, and then I called Sue and Stef,” she remembers. That’s Sue Miller, farmer and cheesemaker of Chester County’s Birchrun Hills Farm, and Stefanie Angstadt, small-batch cheesemaker of Valley Milkhouse (in Berks County, about 20 miles north of Miller’s farm).
The three women had known each other for awhile—Jones had been selling Angstadt’s cheese at the Clark Park farmers market, and as she continued her farmers 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 seeing diminishing returns in the farmers market business, which requires a lot of overhead, like staffers to run the stands, and gas and travel costs. And as outdoor gatherings, farmers markets can be an unpredictable revenue stream: a couple weeks of rain can seriously depress your earnings.
Jones, Miller, and Angstadt brainstormed an additional revenue model for local cheese. A cheese truck? “Cheese towers” for weddings? Or how about a community-supported agriculture (CSA) concept for cheese?
A CSA model, usually applied to fresh fruits and veggies, connects consumers directly to nearby producers. Clients pay the farmer up front, at the start of the season, and receive regular deliveries of food right from the farm.
The CSA idea won out, and Jones, Miller, and Angstadt launched Collective Creamery, “a women-powered artisan cheese share subscription,” in 2016. It falls under the business umbrella of Valley Milkhouse, but also features cheeses from Birchrun Hills and guest cheesemakers. They began with 28 subscribers, and now they’re up to about 75 throughout the greater Philadelphia area. Jones says 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,” Jones says. “I’m kind of like the city mouse,” she adds. Miller and Angstadt are busy farming and making cheese, and the Philly-based Jones runs Collective Creamery’s administrative side.
Angstadt’s days are different. She’s unique among most Pennsylvania cheesemakers, she says, as someone who does not run a dairy farm, but instead buys her milk fresh from other producers, including Spring Creek Farms in Berks County, her primary supplier.
“We go to the dairy farm every day for fresh milk. We especially like it warm, straight from the udder,” Angstadt says. And the process begins.
She pours the fresh milk into a vat at the creamery, and adds her cultures, plus rennet, the enzyme that curdles the milk. Essentially, cheesemakers are “teasing out the solids, the fat, and protein in the milk,” she explains.
Angstadt started her business in 2014. Why cheesemaking? “I followed my gut,” she laughs. She completed an apprenticeship at a goat dairy, and took a cheesemaking course at Penn. Miller is one of her prime mentors.
The next stage of cheesemaking is to shape the milk’s burgeoning solids (curd) into wheels that are pressed under weights that 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).
Valley Milkhouse specializes in fresh, soft-ripened cheeses, aged for just a few weeks in a cool, very humid environment. But another favorite is Angstadt’s Lady’s Slipper, a harder, longer-aged tomme-style cheese that’s washed with local cider lees (the yeasty sediment after cider is filtered and bottled). This gives a unique color and flavor that has earned the cheese its own following.
Collective Creamery currently offers three subscription tiers. There’s the alt-weekly Petite Cheese Share, which includes two varieties (about one pound total), the alt-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.
The prices range from about $26 to $46 per pick-up, but subscribers pay the entire season’s amount when they sign up, in one or two payments at the start of the season. 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 their shares at designated locations.
The CSA model has allowed the cheesemakers an unusual degree of experimentation and flexibility. 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, Angstadt says, but the Collective Creamery model has allowed the partners to try up to 12 cheeses a year.
“The CSA has been a wonderful source of creativity for me as a cheesemaker,” she says.
The idea of a cheese subscription service isn’t new—there are a growing number of large companies offering subscription cheese boxes. So what makes Collective Creamery different? Unlike most other cheese-share services, which come from shops that 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,” Angstadt says.
And the benefits for the customer are huge. If the Collective Creamery partners are experimenting with a new cheese variety (think soaking the curds in beer, for example), subscribers are the first to taste it. That means special previews, or even one-of-a-kind batches you won’t get anywhere else. Collective Creamery also partners with many small cheesemakers from Virginia to Vermont that serve stores and restaurants only in their immediate area, meaning that this CSA is Philly’s chance to taste these cheeses without a long road-trip.
“We want to have as direct a relationship as possible with folks,” Angstadt says. 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 expert local producers.
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,” she adds. “There are people who will spend their food stamps on a nice piece of artisan cheese.” Or people 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 who wasn’t treating their animals well,” Angstadt says. Her Spring Creek Farms supplier 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.”
The CSA had some surprises for Angstadt, who had become accustomed to serving a conservative cheese palate (think simple feta or mild cheddar). But her creative process got a big boost when she realized that CSA customers “really want big cheeses.” In other words, the bolder the better: “people have really come out of the woodwork in support of good strong stinky cheese.”
So Collective Creamery and its customers can 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,” Angstadt says. “It’s a nice format to be encouraged to experiment a little more, break out of my routine, and try some new things.”
Collective Creamery’s Spring-Summer 2019 subscriptions are now open. Find out more here.