Published in the Nelson Mail 12.12.18
Artisan cheesemaking is a growing part of the boutique production community in New Zealand. A relatively recent addition to this sector are Sue & David Barrett with their Thorvald sheep milk cheese and yogurt operation based in the former Neudorf Dairy facility on Neudorf Road in Upper Moutere. They’ve taken a business that has had a number owners over the last 12 years and given it a damned good shake.
They’re no strangers to hard work, they bought Stoke Fruit & Vege in 2004 and expanded with a second store in the Montgomery car park called Nelson Fruit & Vege in 2008.
In 2005 Dave met Craig Harrington and “we talked about going into partnership to expand the craft beer brewing business.” They teamed up early ‘06 when craft beer was in its relative infancy but struggled to find anyone who would pour their beer in bars.
Craig had earlier set up a small outlet in upper Queen St to help get his beer to market and it was working well so the partnership decided to open their own brand of community pubs. “We still owned the vege shops, so when Ron from the Milton St Fish & Chip shop phoned me and asked if I wanted to open another one in his property next door, I replied, not fruit & vege but it would make a great wee tavern. We ended up buying the building from Ron and so began Sprig & Fern.”
Long story short, we all know how successful the Sprig & Fern model has been and it obviously took a lot of time and energy to get there while also running and expanding the fruit and vege business. “There was a lot going on, Sue and I had three kids including two young babies, a 5ha life sentence block with glasshouses and grapes, the fruit & vege shops, a half share in the brewery and three taverns – life was pretty busy.”
In 2009 they sold the fruit and vege shops which are now Benge & Co stores and at the end of 2013 they sold their half share of the brewery. Then in mid-2015, while working on another business, Dave looked at the Neudorf Rd factory via a friend, Kristy Giles of Appleby Farms Ice-cream fame, and ended up buying it. “The property came on the market and when Kristy mentioned it to me, I had other ideas, but a chance meeting with Julie Brownlee, the former Neudorf Dairy’s shepherd, and cheese was on the table.”
“Call it serendipity, fate, karma or whatever but at about the same time I met a young French cheesemaker, Francis, who had been with Wangapeka Dairy. He was looking for work, I needed a cheesemaker, we had the sheep milk via Julie – the rest is history.
“To top it off, my father had been a cheesemaker in Denmark before my parents immigrated here in the 50’s. Thorvald was his middle name so the company is named in honour of my parents.”
Dave is using his entrepreneurial and marketing experience to follow in his father’s footsteps. He’s upgraded the factory with additional cheese and yoghurt making equipment and re-equipped the sheep milking sheds.
“Over the years and under various ownership some the equipment had been sold off but the building was in great condition and mostly functional. Several years on and after a lot of hard work (and money) by Julie and her partner Nathan, Francis and myself, our efforts are bearing fruit, so to speak.”
“We thought of artisan cheese being where craft beer was when we started, and our philosophy is to have a point of difference”, in this case it was artisan cheese and sheep milk.
Julie and Nathan raise and milk the sheep, they have a flock of about 1200+ and milk about 400 – 500 at any one time, “for a young person she is hugely talented and delivers a fantastic product to us to make cheese with.”
“The sheep are essentially 100% grass-fed and Julie ensures she can milk all year round, “As far as I’m aware we are the only sheep milking operation in the country that milks all 12 months of the year.”
However, Dave did tell me the drought at the end of last year badly impacted on milk production and “there are times it hasn’t been possible to get enough sheep milk for our production needs,” so they developed a relationship with Raine Farms and have added cow’s milk products to their dairy range.
“We greatly value our relationship with Oaklands. The whole milk from their A2 cows is exceptional and their commitment to reducing waste via re-fillable glass bottles is well known. They have similar animal welfare values to us and they don’t feed their herd palm kernel.”
To avoid confusion, the cow’s milk products are sold under a different brand, Little River Estate, so customers know that Thorvald products are only made from ewes milk. And to avoid further confusion Little River Estate has nothing to do with the settlement on Banks Peninsula.
Dave says cheesemaking isn’t an easy game, “you only have to look at the number of small artisan cheesemakers that have started and closed over the years to understand that. It’s extremely difficult to compete with the ‘big-boys’ and imported cheeses from Europe where many farmers are subsidised.”
While he has a background in building successful brands he says the hardest thing for them is education. As much interest as there is in sheep milk, there are plenty of people who still screw their noses at the thought of sheep milk products. “They often don’t realise some of the world’s great cheeses like Roquefort, Pecorino, Manchego and even feta are traditionally made from ewes milk. But when they try it, they’re usually quite surprised it doesn’t taste overly ‘sheepy’ and are often converted.
“We’re still at the stage we can’t make enough, well we can, but we seem to be selling it earlier than we’d like to. Cheese is a bit like wine – age doesn’t matter unless you are a cheese. I could give you a cheese today and the same cheese 10 days on and you’d swear they were two different products, because essentially, they are. We do our best to age them so they’re ready to eat but still have a reasonable shelf life – no easy feat.”
Sue and David had toyed with the idea of a factory shop at Neudorf Rd for the last couple of years, but when they got a call from Wangapeka six months ago asking if they’d be interested in buying their shop at the Grape Escape complex on McShane Rd, Richmond, they jumped at it.
Open 7 days right next to the increasingly popular Farm Fresh fruit & vege outlet, it’s been re-named The Junction and with fresh bread, local cured meats, FYO Oaklands milk and more, it’s not just about cheese. Make sure you drop in for free samples and to experience some stunningly good cheeses, yoghurts, cream cheese and sour cream all made from sheep’s milk or cow’s milk containing the A2 protein.