By Matt Reese
It has been a long road to get to making cheese “approachable” for Scott and Andrea Siefring-Robbins of Hamilton County.
Both share a family history including dairy production and a passion for good food. With breweries springing up in urban centers around the state showcasing their production process for customers to see first-hand, it seemed like a similar business model could be used for cheese.
“The light bulb hit for us when we were on a wine trip in California. We visited a cheesemaker and we had never seen cheese so approachable. It was a rural environment and people were visiting the manufacturing location and retail shop. It occurred to us we could do a version of that in an urban environment in Cincinnati,” said Andrea Siefring-Robbins, owner of Urban Stead Cheese. “We wanted to highlight the craft that goes into the cheese industry and, behind that, the dairy industry. We are making world-class artisanal cheese, providing an educational platform and helping people understand why they should choose artisanal cheese. We are makers and this satisfies our goal for entrepreneurship too.”
For their business, the couple sought out an existing structure near their home in Cincinnati to gut and refurbish as a production facility and retail cheese tasting room.
“We bought the building in 2016. We had searched based on the specs for what we wanted. We wanted to invest in the city of Cincinnati and were looking for something around 10,000 square feet. We wanted parking for customers, employees and the milk truck. We wanted to be in a neighborhood. We wanted a vacant building. We did not want to build new. We wanted to do this with as little of a footprint as possible. This 8,300 square foot space met all of the requirements for that,” Robbins said. “It was an old medical clinic that sat vacant for 10 years. There was still medical equipment when we bought it. There was no HVAC, no plumbing, no electric. We bought the shell.”
They tried to re-use as much as possible in the renovation and facility construction. Urban Stead received Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Silver Certification for their efforts. “It’s our goal to be a good neighbor and to be thoughtful about every decision we make — it’s what we call operating by our mission of Cheddar for the Better,” Robbins said. “It’s ultimately about making the best cheese we can, but doing so in a sustainable and environmentally friendly manner.”
As they moved forward with the facilities, they began to learn the ins and outs of cheese production. Scott spent two years learning to make cheese, including time in Vermont working with a cheesemaker. They also worked with the Ohio Department of Agriculture and local health authorities to meet all regulations. The facility is subject to biannual inspection from the Ohio Department of Agriculture, local health department regulations and regular U.S. Food and Drug Administration inspections.
At the same time they got to work finding the most important part of their supply chain — the milk. Of course, good cheese starts with good milk, which they get from Bohl’s Jerseys in southern Highland County, about 45 miles away. They had to figure out how to transport and handle the milk properly as well.
“We are licensed milk haulers and samplers — we had to take a test through ODA. Getting the milk is a big process. The big milk trucks are not going to come drop off 6,000 pounds here, so we knew we had to buy a milk tank and a truck and trailer to pull it. Getting all of that was interesting. We got the tank in Wisconsin. Then we had to get a bulk tank to hold milk here after we get it. That was critical for us,” Robbins said. “Our cheese vat holds 3,000 pounds of milk and we operate in those increments. We have to clean our tank no more than 24 hours prior to picking up milk. On Saturdays, Scott cleans and sanitizes the milk tank on the truck and bulk tank for our Sunday milk pick up. We leave for the farm on Sunday morning and get there between 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. If we get 9,000 pounds, it takes about an hour and a half with sampling and cleaning. We test every load for antibiotics and we have to get two samples, one for temperature and one for antibiotics. We bring a pump to the farm and bring it back with us to pump into our bulk tank using food grade hoses. We have 72 hours to process the milk once it hits our facility.”
Along with the milk, Urban Stead cheeses only have three other ingredients: salt, cultures and enzymes.
“We work with a couple of suppliers for enzymes and cultures. We use two different enzymes to coagulate the cheese. Cultures are bags of good bacteria that helps us make the cheese. One looks like dip and dots. Another one is freeze dried and it looks like powder. It needs to be kept at 40 to 45 below zero in a cooler onsite. It is very expensive to have it shipped so I order for 2 to 3 months at a time to have enough on hand to give us a safety net for a worst case scenario,” Robbins said. “For salt, what you don’t want is good cooking sea salt. We want the purest salt. We use non-iodized salt in 50-pound bags. We go through a lot of salt. It is a critical ingredient for its preservation of the cheese.”
With all of the ingredients on hand, the cheese making process can begin. On Tuesdays, they are typically making cheddar.
“Less than 1% of cheddar in the world is made the way we make it. At 7 a.m. we start with heating for pasteurization, then we cool down the milk, add culture, add coagulant, cut the curd, cook the curd, and drain the whey. At this point, the curds are now spongy like cottage cheese,” Robbins said. “Then we are left with curds and we do the cheddering process, which knits the curds together. They are stacked on themselves and the proteins knit together over 2 hours to look kind of like boiled chicken. Then we rip it apart through a curd mill that makes curds again and we decide what to keep as cheese curds and then what to keep for cheese. For the cheese, we take 25 pounds of curds and press them together for a wheel overnight.”
Urban Stead produces white cheddar aged in a cheese cloth coated with rendered pork lard to create a moisture seal and feed the molds while still allowing moisture and air movement in and out of the cheese.
“We age our Street Ched cheddar for at least 12 months in temperature and humidity-controlled aging rooms that we hold at 54 degrees and 90% humidity with air flow,” Robbins said. “Cheese releases ammonia as it ages so you need air exchange. The air is flipped twice an hour. We need different environments for aging different cheeses. Quark, which is spreadable like cream cheese, is not aged.”
The weekly schedule is built around making cheese.
“There is some hurry up and wait with cheese and we don’t do things easily. On Monday through Wednesday we are making cheese and we process on Thursday and Friday. We get the first day’s milk into the vat and begin the process with pasteurization,” Robbins said. “On Monday we make 3 cheeses. Quark takes 3 days to make and Camembert, which is similar to Brie, is made in two days, but then ages for 25 to 40 days. We also make Gouda, Tomme d’ Evanston and fresh cheese curds.”
The first batch of Urban Stead cheese was made in February of 2018 and they have made over 125 batches of cheddar since then. Their cheese is marketed retail through their tasting room, at catered events and regionally through What chefs want!, a wholesale distributor.
“There has been a lot of on-the-job learning,” Robbins said. “Pre-COVID we were moving 700 pounds a week wholesale and the first week of the COVID shut down we dropped to 35 pounds. We just re-opened our tasting room again in July with a full bar. Even with our tasting room closed, we have done retail the entire time with curbside pickup and to-go cheese boards. Wholesale orders have been good and people are ready to get out, but sometimes we are having to say no to orders because I don’t have enough people to do it. Finding labor is a real issue right now.”
From the locally sourced milk to the hand crafted end product, there are quicker easier ways to make the cheese, but Urban Stead wants to solely focus on the best ways, while being transparent in the process, and, ultimately, approachable.