By Lorrie Baumann
Cheese is complicated, which is one of the things that Liam Callahan, the cheesemaker at Bellwether Farms, likes about it. “These are my cheeses. I feel like I have license to change them. If it interests me, I can do that,” he says. “I don’t want to do anything that’s less good; everything is in an effort to improve them. I still find that challenging.”
He won a sofi Award last year for his Whole Milk Ricotta and another sofi Award this year for his Blackberry Sheep Milk Yogurt. His Fromage Blanc took a second place award at this year’s American Cheese Society Awards. That’s another thing he likes about his business: “After all these years of Fancy Food Shows and several times being finalists…. It feels good that people still respond to it, that they like the packaging,” he says. “I still get satisfaction from that kind of recognition. I take it with a grain of salt, but it’s great to get some recognition.”
Callahan grew up in San Francisco and didn’t become a farm boy until after he was in college, when his mother, Cindy Callahan, won a long-running argument with his father, a physician, about getting out of the city. “Once we were out of school, she managed to win the tug of war,” he says. They found Bellwether Farms, a 34-acre property within commuting distance from the city, and it didn’t take them long to decide that they were going to need some animals to eat all that grass. “By the end of the first summer, the grass was over six feet tall,” Callahan says.
Then, three years in, the family had about 100 sheep grazing on the farm when a visitor from the Middle East remarked that they could be milking them. “Everyone in the Middle East that has sheep are milking them,” he told the family, as Callahan recalls. “We thought it was a crazy idea at first. We never realized that some of our favorite cheeses were sheep’s milk cheeses. We had never looked beyond the wedge of cheese.”
That question came up as Callahan was finishing school in the spring of 1990, and Cindy asked her son if he thought he might like to learn how to make cheese. “It sounded interesting, sounded challenging. I was able to see something for the work I had done. I felt like I was working with and for the family, which was unusual at the time,” he says. “Once we started it, there was so much to learn. It appealed to me because I’ve always had a scientific analytical side, but there’s a lot of it that’s beyond analysis…. It’s amazing – you never can know it all in this.”
The FDA’s recent heightened scrutiny of raw milk cheeses is one of many issues that’s making it harder to make good sheep milk cheeses these days, Callahan says. “That’s something that adds to the cost of doing business: recordkeeping, additional lab work,” he says. “It’s an expensive move for a HACCP program to be implemented and maintained. That’s really tough for the smaller people. It’s tough for everyone. When you’re a one-person or a two-person operation, it takes a full-time person to be the liaison to the regulatory side of the industry.”
He points to current uncertainties surrounding how cheesemaking is regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that are frustrating him. Most of the code under which his operation is regulated is subjective, he says. “The key phrase is ‘in a sanitary method’ or ‘well-maintained,’ and there have been differing opinions of what that means,” he says, citing last year’s controversy over aging cheese on wood boards as an example.
While it’s possible to almost completely eliminate the risks of consuming cheese, that would come at a price, according to Callahan. “Somewhere at the back of everybody’s mind, we’re worried that that’s where it’s going to go. For a lot of products, it wouldn’t do good things to the product,” he says. “It’s like fresh fish versus canned fish or a smoked fish versus canned fish. They’re both preserved, but by taking it to a further step with the canning, you completely change it. It’s no longer the artisan, traditional smoked fish. It’s the same thing for cheeses.”
Those uncertainties and the greater scrutiny that’s being directed at raw milk cheeses may end Bellwether Farms’ production of raw milk cheeses, Callahan says. “People like our raw milk cheeses, and we can’t meet the demand for them, but they are growing at a slower pace than our other products, and as it grows to be a smaller part of what you do, you start asking yourself if the risk, you start thinking about whether you’re going to have a problem,” he says. “Raw milk cheeses present a bigger risk, and it impacts everything you do because people hear that. It damages the brand.”