Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese
Jen and I were meant to visit three more cheesemakers, but we were already two hours behind. Too much talking and tasting. Gunn’s Hill would round out our day.
The drive up the lane is all fairytale: rolling green pastures, even the friendly farm dog running up to greet us.
Shep Ysselstein, 34, is the next-generation cheesemaker. He grew up on his grandparents’ farm right next door, run by his parents now who still milk the cows he uses for his cheese.
Ysselstein is a perfect combination of business prowess, youth enthusiasm, tradition and craft.
“It’s interesting with Gunn’s Hill,” says Jen. “The consumer witnessed no growth period. Ysselstein made three cheeses his first month. Right away they were all excellent, and he still makes each one the same.”
One of those cheeses, 5 Brothers, took the gold for best firm cheese at the 2013 Canadian Cheese Grand Prix just in Gunn’s Hill’s second year. The next year, Ysselstein won the 2014 BDC Young Entrepreneur Award $100,000 grand prize for his small business. With it he built a 2,000-squarefoot, climate-controlled curing and aging extension to his current building so he could double his annual production of cheese to 60,000 kilograms.
Ysselstein grew up milking cows as one of five brothers working on his parents’ huge dairy and beef cattle farm. He never really thought he’d farm himself. In fact, he went off to do a business degree in Iowa. “I wanted to be far away from the farm so I couldn’t get called home to milk on the weekends.”
In his last year of school, he went on a road trip with roommates to Thunder Bay where he happened upon Thunder Oak Cheese Farm. He recalls thinking that if it can work in Thunder Bay, it can surely work in southern Ontario.
Yet, school ended and Ysselstein returned home to milk cows. “I did that for two years, by myself, just me and the cows, and thought, I don’t want to do this forever.” He had the entrepreneurial spirit. He enrolled in a few cheesemaking courses at the University of Guelph and then at the University of Vermont.
As a placement during school, Ysselstein had worked in a dairy in upstate New York. They needed an extra hand so he returned to help them out. As luck would have it, through a farmer there he learned of a cheesemaker in Switzerland who wanted an apprentice.
“I got to make cheese the same way they did 500 years ago. Milking cows when they are out in pasture in the alps. Making cheese by hand,” Ysselstein says. The romance of it all struck him.
He lined up a job with Vancouver Island’s Natural Pastures cheese company to learn the ropes at the factory before coming home to Oxford County to commit to a business of his own. He bought 12 acres of land right beside his family’s farm and began practising his recipes.
With a $250,000 loan from a community development fund, Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese opened its doors in 2011, offering three cheeses made in the Swiss Alpine style. Two of them do have the signature holes we associate with Swiss cheese –called “eyes.” You can see the cheese being made through the large picture windows in the cheese shop.
5 Brothers is a handcrafted, washed rind cow’s cheese that combines traits from Gouda and Appenzeller. It is creamy with a touch of sweet and zing.
Handeck is produced using the same methods as a typical Swiss mountain style cheese and is a nod to Ysselstein’s early training. The firm nutty cheese is named after the alp in Switzerland where Ysselstein learned his craft, and it just won Best Farmhouse Cheese at the Canadian Cheese Grand Prix.
The third is a young buttery cheese called Oxford Harvest, modelled after a littleknown Swiss cheese called Mutchli. To keep up with customer demands for “always something new,” Ysselstein blends this cheese with cumin in one version, garlic and chives in another. Every Friday it’s Curd Friday at the dairy storefront with cheddar curds offered in bulk. Poutine tonight!
From the beginning, Ysselstein’s then girlfriend, now wife, Colleen Bater, ran the company with him, in addition to her job as a teacher. A business mind herself, she looks after the marketing end with an active Facebook page: “How many cheese wheels in our aging room!? Lori Chesney guessed 10,500; the actual number is 10,399! She wins a wheel!”
Not all those wheels are strictly Gunn’s Hill’s. Ever the smart businessman, “I wanted to maximize capacity at the dairy so started making cheese for other people.”
In 2012, local farmers had an excess of sheep milk and no one to buy it. With no cheese-making experience, they asked Ysselstein for help. Crossroad Farms Sheep Milk Gouda was born as a partnership product.
Then, Ysselstein started producing cheese for an Amish co-operative, Hope Artisan Dairy Co-op in Alymer. Due to strict beliefs around the use of electricity, Shepherd’s Harvest sheep cheese and Elgin Buffalo Gouda is made by Gunn’s Hill on their behalf.
Now with cheese in more than 300 locations across Ontario, Ysselstein and Bater are busy, to say the least – especially now that they have a child, Willem.
Ysselstein divides his day in three: baby time all night; cheesemaking in the early morning – sometimes with baby onboard; and running the booming business in the afternoon – also baby onboard.
In the shop, you can peek into the dairy through the viewing windows. Ysselstein invites us to taste a bit of his current favourite. “Last night I ate a whole wheel of this for dinner,” he says.
That’s Brigid’s Brie, the very one my neighbour, Jen, brought over that night in my back porch. Named after his wife’s mom, Brigid is the patron saint of dairy farmers. Jen says it is the best Ontario Brie she has had.