MONROE, Wis. – Demand is outpacing supply for sheep-milk cheese as more consumers nationwide experience its unique taste. Cheesemaker members of the Sheep Dairy Association of Wisconsin have done an excellent job of marketing those cheese products. Many of them provided samples of their success to sheep-producer members at a recent gathering at Ms. J and Co. near Monroe.
“Having the producers and processors together is a real plus,” said Dave Thomas, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor emeritus of sheep management and genetics.
The Sheep Dairy Association of Wisconsin was formed by sheep producers, cheesemakers and cheesemongers to keep Wisconsin the dairy-sheep industry’s leader. The association promotes the industry and provides educational outreach at numerous events including June Dairy Month breakfasts.
Tony Hook, owner of Hook’s Cheese Company in Mineral Point, Wisconsin, provided samples of his company’s “Little Boy Blue.” It’s a blue cheese made from sheep milk produced in southwestern Wisconsin.
Hook’s Cheese started in 2009 making Little Boy Blue – its first sheep-milk cheese. The company won first place for that cheese at the American Cheese Society Competition in 2011, 2014 and 2016. Little Boy Blue also won second place at the same society’s 2012, 2017 and 2019 competitions.
“We started making sheep-milk cheese because we wanted to branch out from making just cow-milk cheese,” Hook said. “Naturally it will take time to grow the (sheep-milk-cheese) market. Most individuals in the United States don’t realize there are a number of very good sheep-milk cheeses produced in Wisconsin. And many individuals don’t even realize there are milking sheep. Since sheep don’t produce a lot of milk, sheep-milk-cheese producers must charge a higher comparable price for their cheese. So it takes a lot of sampling to get customers to try it and buy it.”
Hook forecasts growth for sheep milk in the cheese sector. He’s just a cheese producer, he said, but he believes demand for sheep milk also will grow – albeit at a slower place – in the yogurt, butter and ice-cream sectors.
“I’m sure the product would be great; we just need companies that will step up and produce those products,” he said. “Sheep milk is an easy milk to work with and it makes a great-tasting product.”
Patty Koenig of Carr Valley Cheese provided samples of “Cave Aged Marisa.” It’s a natural-rind sheep-milk cheese that’s aged in open-air caves. Carr Valley Cheese has won several awards for the cheese, most recently earning gold at the 2019 World Cheese Awards event. Carr Valley Cheese has cheese factories in La Valle, Fennimore and Mauston, Wisconsin. Cave Aged Marisa is made at the Mauston location.
Carr Valley Cheese has been making sheep-milk-cheese products since 1998. Sheep milk’s increased butter fat, protein and yield make great-flavored cheeses, said Sid Cook, the family-owned company’s master cheesemaker.
“We’ve seen a growing number of people who find sheep-milk cheese easier to digest and that’s a growing segment of individuals purchasing those products,” he said. “It has a unique flavor that’s clean, sweet and slightly grassy.”
Europe has long dominated the sheep-milk-cheese industry; the United States is the largest importer of European sheep-milk cheese.
“But with recent trade regulations and more consumers wanting to purchase locally, we’re seeing huge demand in domestic sheep-milk products,” Cook said. “I think that will only continue to grow. Our sheep-milk cheeses have won numerous national and international awards, and that drives people to try them as well.”
Consumers are becoming more knowledgeable and passionate about the products they buy, he said. They’re also interested in affinage – the practice of ripening cheese – as well as new flavors and milk types because they want something different. Carr Valley Cheese makes a sheep-cream butter that has become popular.
Of the Dairy Sheep Association of Wisconsin, Cook said, “It’s a courageous, passionate group of farmers and cheeses lovers who feel sheep-milk cheeses need recognition.”
Data on sheep-milk production and consumption are difficult to find at both national and state levels. The Dairy Sheep Association of America doesn’t have specific data and indicates the market is constantly changing. The Center for Dairy Research on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus is currently working with a market analyst and plans to share market information in the near future.
But there’s growing excitement about the sheep-milk market.
“I think having domestic sheep-milk cheeses easily accessible for the average consumer makes a big difference,” Cook said. “If customers are able to purchase affordable, high-end cheeses at their local grocer, we know after trying a sheep-milk cheese they’ll be life-long customers.”
Lynn Grooms writes about the diversity of agriculture, including the industry’s newest ideas, research and technologies as a staff reporter for Agri-View based in Wisconsin.