Travel U.S. Highway 19 through the South Georgia community of Thomasville. Just a few miles north of town, you'll see a small green and white sign at the west side of the road. It marks an unpaved driveway leading through trees. You've found the home of Sweet Grass Dairy, one of the nation's pre-eminent artisan cheesemakers.
The drive leads you through meadows dotted with chicken tractors. At the end is a two-story family home with a trampoline in the backyard and an herb garden planted in the sandy soil. Across the drive is a nondescript metal building.
“This?” you think. “This is where they make that wonderful cheese?”
Yes. The house is the family home of Jessica and Jeremy Little, and the building across the way is where they and their cheesemakers turn thousands of gallons of milk from pasture-raised cows into their six core cheeses: Asher Blue, Thomasville Tomme, Lil’ Moo, Griffin, pimento cheese and Green Hill.
The latter is so popular, Jessica Little said, “This is the cheese that will send my children to college.” They make up to 4,500 rounds of Green Hill each week.
The Littles simply cross the drive to go to work each day, to a plant that’s in operation six or seven days a week. It’s part of a network of family businesses begun by Jessica’s parents, Al and Desiree Wehner.
The Wehners were conventional dairy farmers who, in the early 1990s, decided to put their cows on pasture in a system of rotational grazing. The cows move from area to area, the grass regenerates, the soil is enriched, and the milk from the cows is rich in butterfat and protein.
The Wehners and their three children continue in the dairy business in one way or another. For example, son Kyle started Dreaming Cow to make yogurt from the grass-fed milk of the cows at the family's Jumping Gully Dairy.
The Littles make cheese. Desiree Wehner started making cheese in 2000. By 2002, the Littles had joined her, and, in 2005, they took over Sweet Grass Dairy and made it their mission to handcraft and sell delicious cheese, and “cultivate an inspired American food culture.”
Whenever he’s asked what cheese is, Jeremy Little responds, “A way of preserving milk.”
In their manual, “The Sweet Grass Dairy Way,” the Littles explain how cheese is made: “Milk is warmed. A starter culture is added. A coagulant is introduced to solidify the milk into a large curd. The curd is cut and stirred to allow whey extraction. The curd is heated, and sometimes pressed to remove more whey. The curd is molded and shaped into cheese. Salt is introduced. The cheese is matured, or aged, in a controlled environment.”
Walking through the plant, Jeremy Little referred to cheesemaking as a science experiment. Cultures, salt and rennet turn milk into cheese. How much and what kind, how the milk is treated, how the subsequent result is handled, the airflow and the humidity determine the final result. He looked at a wheel of Asher Blue and said, “It’s my favorite to make. It’s such a diva. But, when it’s right, it’s awesome.”
That wheel rested with 95 others, each hand pierced top and bottom to inoculate it with the culture that streaks its creamy-crumbly interior with blue.
Pimento cheese might feel like a stepchild in such sophisticated company, but Sweet Grass Dairy uses its Thomasville Tomme as the base.
“What tells the story of cheese in the South? Pimento cheese,” Jessica Little said. “We wanted to make the best pimento cheese. We wouldn’t skimp on the ingredients. So, we use our Thomasville Tomme, Duke’s mayonnaise, piquillo peppers and pimetón from Spain. Now, we find our pimento cheese is an ice breaker. It’s a gateway for talking about local cheese.”
The cheesemaking plant is not open to the public, and you can’t buy their cheese there. For that, you’ll need to go to the Cheese Shop in downtown Thomasville. It’s both restaurant and shop, featuring the family’s cheeses, but also products made nearby at places such as Blackberry Patch and Savannah Bee Co., and others from farther afield, such newly raised Iberian hams from Bluffton’s White Oak Pastures, and Prosciutto Americano from La Quercia in Iowa.
The tables are full, with customers enjoying a pint of local beer, a charcuterie board, or a plate of deviled eggs made with eggs from the little family chickens. And, the front is filled with shoppers stocking up on the full range of Sweet Grass Dairy cheeses.
Read more stories like this by liking Atlanta Restaurant Scene on Facebook, following @ATLDiningNews on Twitter and @ajcdining on Instagram.