Black Sheep Creamery
BY JENNIFER CRAIN
Early afternoon sunlight bounces off the white walls of the cheesemaking room at Black Sheep Creamery, making stacks of plastic buckets and the painted white cheese press glow. Cheesemaker Brad Gregory is standing at a stainless steel table, wrist-deep in fresh cheese curds. He and an employee are kneading salt into the batch, which will be pressed into molds and aged to create a full-bodied cheese they call, sweetly, Baasque.
Brad and Meg Gregory have been making sheep’s milk cheeses on their 130-acre farm near Chehalis, about 30 miles south of Olympia, for a decade—though it feels like a much older operation. The room where we’re standing, built in 1965, was originally the tank room for a cow dairy that operated through the mid-1970s.
This is primarily farmland, though, planted with hops in the late 1800s by a German immigrant. His 92-year-old son sold the land to the Gregorys in 1993. Brad and Meg moved back to their home state following a two-year stint on a prune and walnut ranch in California. When it folded, they made straight for Lewis County, Meg’s childhood stomping grounds, and cut their farming teeth growing peas, corn, barley, and fescue grass for seed.
Then they discovered that Andrew, their second child, needed an alternative to cow’s milk. After sampling milk at a Monroe sheep farm, they purchased three Rideau Arcott ewes and a ram in Idaho.
They managed the tiny flock’s first lambing season in 2001, milking the ewes and freezing the milk for Andrew to drink throughout the year. The rhythm was one they would heed for years to come: late-winter lambing, spring-to-summer milking and processing, fall breeding.
From the start, they felt like they were trying to catch the learning curve. The only experience they had was with what Brad calls “a couple of lawnmower sheep.” Their debut milking attempt took so long that Mopsy, for whom their popular Mopsy’s Best cheese is named, put her head down on a shelf in the stall and almost fell asleep. “We were not animal people then,” he says. “We’ve learned everything on the fly.”
Their learning curve steepened when Andrew outgrew his cow dairy sensitivity at age four. By then, their flock had grown fivefold.
“With fifteen animals, and a child that didn’t need the milk anymore, we tried to make cheese,” Meg laughs. “It was hanging all over the kitchen!”
The two set to work, researching all they could about the process. They came up with a plan: Brad, a former engineer, would become the full-time cheesemaker. Meg would continue her work as pediatric nurse, a job that supplied their medical benefits.
After attending a workshop in Vermont, the Gregorys began selling cheese in 2005 under the Black Sheep label. The name hinted at their status as the only sheep milk dairy in Washington at the time. There are still only a handful today.
Sheri LaVigne, owner of The Calf & Kid cheese shop in Capitol Hill’s Melrose Market, will tell you that the rarity of local sheep’s milk cheese is part of the appeal for her. So is the memory of her ten-day communion with the soft-eared sheep on Brad and Meg’s farm in 2010. Living on the farm and helping out, LaVigne discovered that the work, though satisfying the farm girl in her, could be solitary and, at times, tedious.
“I think like most things, it’s really easy to romanticize the life of a cheesemaker,” she says. “There are really beautiful parts of it—being up at dawn and going out to get the sheep in from the fields is just as idyllic as it sounds. But then you spend the rest of the 80-degree day inside a non-air conditioned little room, cleaning up milk. This cheese, this one little piece of evidence, is actually indicative of months and months of labor.”
Farmers work hard—and sometimes they pay another price for the craft and the love of land: loss. The Chehalis River winds through the county, passing just behind the Gregorys’ land. In December 2007 it rose uncontrollably, devastating farms all along its banks. Black Sheep was hit hard, overwhelmed with close to seven feet of water. They lost 75 of 100 sheep.
Meg and Brad don’t dwell on the experience, other than to remember the uncounted acts of kindness they experienced after the tragedy. Farmers donated ewes to them. Beecher’s Homemade Cheese ferried Black Sheep’s hard cheeses to Seattle and stored them in their own aging cave. Meg still beams when she recounts the number of people who showed up to help: there wasn’t a parking space available in front of the farm.
Today the farm is home to 80 ewes and a new cheese cave that’s built several feet off the ground. A number of seasonal workers help Brad create the creamery’s award-winning cheeses. During the milking season they produce plain and herb-spiked fresh cheeses and their aged sheep’s milk tommes. Year-round cheeses include custom-order ricotta, feta (they age it for a year), and their new sheep-cow blends—the soft-ripened Enchanté and a salty aged tomme called Adnatou. They stopped selling at all but the Chehalis farmer’s market last season, but Black Sheep’s cheeses are sold at shops throughout the region. When the fresh cheese season begins in late winter, their cheeses will be incorporated into menus at fifteen Seattle restaurants, including Dahlia Lounge, Terra Plata, and Lark.
Brad says they’re looking forward to changes in the coming year: Meg’s new venture into wool sales, the possibility of an all cow’s milk cheese, and their first season partnering with Helsing Junction Farm’s CSA program.
“We’re trying to make everything we do a little more efficient,” he says. “We’re trying to improve every year.”
Black Sheep Creamery’s cheeses are available at The Calf & Kid, DeLaurenti Specialty Food & Wine, The Cheesemonger’s Table, and Village Market Thriftway in Shoreline, as well as on restaurant menus such as Tilth, Palace Kitchen, Odd Fellows, Local 360, Ray’s Boathouse, and Serafina. blacksheepcreamery.com
Jennifer Crain is an Olympia-based writer with a soft spot for Emma, Brutus, and Jewel, Black Sheep Creamery’s guard dogs. See more of her work at jennifercrain.com.