Hooked On Cheese: Interview With Sweet Grass' Jessica Little

The following is Hook's interview with Jessica Little, Co-Owner of Sweet Grass Dairy in Thomasville, Georgia. Jessica and her husband Jeremy are award-winning cheesemakers who are dedicated to the stewardship of their land – a multi-generational farm – and to the treatment of their animals, acknowledging that these standards contribute to the production of the highest quality cheese available. They run a robust, multi-faceted operation that includes a retail shop, a restaurant and even a summer camp for kids. Their cheeses are now world-renowned and are carried at some of the top cheese shops in the country.

The topic of this interview: running a family dairy in America today.

Raymond Hook: What makes Sweet Grass Dairy different from other American cheese makers?
Jessica Little: The biggest distinguishing feature of SGD is our location. We live in an environment in which it never snows and we have year-round water. Our cows never have to be in barns and they can eat grass all year. Our milk is distinctly different because of the characteristics of South Georgia.

Secondly, I personally think that Jeremy [Little] approaches cheesemaking a little differently than most other cheesemakers. My mom [Desiree Wehner, SGD's original head cheesemaker] looked at it very scientifically as well as artistically; Jeremy comes from a food background and he looks at it from a food perspective. He makes cheeses for specific applications. For example, he really just wanted an awesome grilled cheese sandwich and voila, Georgia Gouda.

You have sold SGD cheeses to lots of great retailers and restaurants. Which one made you think "wow" the first time?
I was wowed when you [Raymond] first wanted to carry the cheeses at Star Provisions in Atlanta, in 2006, and I am still wowed by the number of great retailers and restaurants that have ordered and served our cheeses. There is something so rewarding about standing in front of an amazing cheese counter and seeing your cheese for sale. Zingerman's, Whole Foods in NYC, Eataly, Rainbow Grocery, Murray's, etc. As far as restaurants go, we are seriously honored to be a part of any cheese menu. Charlie Trotter's, Blackberry Farm, Per Se, Inn at Little Washington, The White House, Publican Quality Meats, The Dutch, Rolf and Daughters, Husk, Highlands Bar and Grill, Seeger's, Old Ebbitt Grill, Empire State South....I wish I could list every restaurant that supports us.

Last year, your retail shop was chosen as one of top five specialty retailers in the US. What makes your shop unique?
For starters, it is both a specialty retail shop and a wine bar. We have thoughtful selections of craft beers, wines, cheeses and charcuterie from around the world. The cheese shop has a warm, neighborhood atmosphere in which we want our customers to not feel overwhelmed by hard-to-pronounce cheeses; we want to be approachable. As Ari Weinzweig [co-owner and founding partner of Zingerman's] says, we try to offer the service of limited selection. We have already done the hard work of searching for small, likeminded producers, so no matter what the customer selects, it will be flavorful and have a great story. The shop is special because of our community.

Other than SGD cheese, what is most popular at the shop?
Creminelli charcuterie, Beehive Cheese Company cheeses, Capriole cheeses, Roots and Branches crackers, Emily G's jams, Pine Street Market salamis, Cypress Grove cheeses, Rogue Creamery cheeses, Zingerman's candy, Olive and Sinclair chocolates, Georgia Olive Oil, Kinloch Plantation Pecan Oil, Sheffield pecans and our house made pimento cheese.

How often do you get asked, "You make cheese in South Georgia?"
Believe it or not, I was asked this question constantly for about the first five years – even by people in our own community. Now, I hardly ever hear it anymore. Though this past year, I did have a few people at the Fancy Food Show in NYC think that we were from the country of Georgia until they heard me speak.

At your retail shop, what is the percentage of American cheese you sell versus cheeses from the rest of the world, and why?
We probably sell 65-70% American versus imported cheeses. I love both old world and new world cheeses and try to have a mix of both at all times. There are so many exciting things happening in this country that it would be hard to not do more American cheeses, and I find that our customers are more comfortable buying cheeses from places that they have visited or lived. It is almost like American cheeses are more familiar now, which was not the case when I first started working in cheese shops fourteen years ago.   

You just opened a restaurant that was made possible from your success as a cheese maker. How do you honor cheese at your restaurant?
We have cheese throughout the menu in different applications, from sauces to salads. We also have our eight cheese selections on the menu and the dessert menu. Four of our cheeses are Sweet Grass Dairy specialty batches like the Lovely, the Clayburne, the large format Green Hill and the Asher Blue Reserve. The other four cheeses are non-SGD offerings that we are really excited about sharing with our guests.

What are contemporary American cheesemakers doing right?
So many things.... I am so happy to see more and more American cheesemakers and their inspiring cheeses. I love seeing traditional cheese recipes with new world flavors such as Marieke's Gouda from Holland's Family Cheese in Wisconsin and Alpha Tolman from Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont. Right now in the South, there is a fun culture of sharing and promoting each other. It is so awesome that we have not become too competitive. I think we can credit great southern cheesemakers Alyce Birchenough of Sweet Home Farm and Judy Schad of Capriole for being open and helpful to the rest of us. Because they took the time to teach us so much – and still do, when we need help troubleshooting – we pay it forward with future cheesemakers.

What's the most exciting cheese you tasted in the last month?
I really, really like the cheeses from Baetje Farms in Bloomsdale, Missouri. Their Miette and Bloomsdale both blew me away. We also just had some Sternschnuppe from the Bavarian Alps on New Year's that was really, really delicious.

What's next for SGD?
We are really excited to build our new production facility this year. And as we previously discussed, our restaurant opened in December of 2013, so we have many, many kinks to work out before I can breathe a sigh of relief. We also launched The Larder at Sweet Grass in October of 2013, which is our new mail order company. I am so excited to share not only SGD products but also some of the really amazing products from the Cheese Shop with customers from around the country. Onward and upward!

Additional reporting by Madeleine James.