- Tell us a bit about you
My name is Sophie Williamson, I own/run a small dairy in Sheffield and only went into production at the end of September 2017. It still feels really weird to say my profession is now a cheesemaker.
I have a degree in computing and a masters’ degree in cyber security and that has really been my career. I am a mum of two children who are a big part of my life. I was given a one day cheese making course at the School of Artisan Food at Welbeck as a Christmas present. From a simple one day course at the Artisan Food School and the fact that I love cheese, things grew from there. I went on some more courses, handed in my notice and after 3 months of research, in June 2017, I moved into my unit, built my make and maturing rooms room plus sourced the other equipment I needed.
Cheese making is such a huge subject, very broad, so much to learn, very challenging and complicated and that is what sparked the interest; it is a life time journey, you can carry on learning for a very long time, it is a challenge not for the faint hearted.
I love cheese and I love working for myself. The business is still very new, I need to do a whole trading year to understand the different trading seasons and how the different seasons affect the milk. Currently, there are no other cheesemakers in Sheffield although there are a massive number of microbreweries and really nice successful small bakeries. I thought being a cheesemaker would be an interesting business and one that I would enjoy. I also wanted to have a job that I enjoyed, then it does not feel like work.
If I was not making cheese, although I wasn’t really enjoying my job, I worked for a big national company in cyber security, I would probably would have got another IT job with a different company.
- What do you make and why?
Little Mester is a small surface ripened soft cheese. I developed this particular cheese as it is the sort of cheese I enjoy and frequently by myself. It is also a quick to market cheese. For me it was crucial to get the business started, getting the revenue in and making the business work. Where I make a soft cheese, I can tell quickly that all is ok, but if I was making a hard cheese, it is really difficult to say, ‘let’s see in 3 months or 6 months’ because you can’t sell that stock and you don’t know it is going to be ok and you may have to start over again.
My cheese is called Little Mester, and in Sheffield people say they like the name of my cheese which shows that they understand what it mean. Iona: what does it mean?
Sheffield is famous for knives and cutlery, when I was growing up here in Sheffield and around, every knife I would see said, ‘made in Sheffield’. Sheffield folk are very proud of this heritage. The way the industry grew, was through self-employed craftsmen who were called ‘Little Mesters’ who finished the grinding and sharpening of the knives. There are still a couple left working today in the area where I am making my cheese. It is a real artisan craft, so a Little Mester means an artisan or craftsman. The women who polished the cutlery were called Buffer Girls.
My cheese is small, so the word ‘little’ also works, and Mester is a term that local people are familiar with in a nostalgic and supportive way.
- Tell us about your dairy: where is it, what do you have in it, favourite bits of kit, things you would like to change (if anything) or something that would make your life better/easier
My dairy was just an empty light industrial unit with a tall ceiling, so I built a make room out of cold store panels in order to meet the hygiene requirements. With hindsight, I think I would put more drainage in the floor as I have only one drain point and I didn’t realise how wet the floor would get the amount of cleaning required!
Picture left, Sophie and part time make-helper, Greg, filling moulds.
In the front part I have counters and can sell cheese from there and doors that open out. I am not a shop but I would like to develop the retail side a little more. It is a really nice space, quite cosy, I have a sofa, so people can come and hang out, and I created a little library book area. We do wine and cheese evenings, and offer a little tour of the make room and explain things to people. People love eating cheese but they don’t really know how it is made.
I bought a round, double jacketed 500 litre vat from a former mozzarella maker which I use to warm the already pasteurised (but not homogenised) milk in. Then I decant it into 2 smaller plastic 180 litre vats on wheels to work with. I have just ordered a third one, so the most I can process is 500 litres in one go. I may be better off getting a vat that is more oblong as my big round vat is too deep. I found it really hard sourcing equipment and very expensive.
I have draining tables, a commercial pot washer (that I love), a Hobart, not huge but fantastic, would not be without it. Anything I buy now, I ensure that I buy it in a size that will fit into the pot washer.
- How has the dairy industry changed since you started making cheese and what advice would you give to anyone thinking of being a cheesemaker
It is quite hard when starting up a cheese making business, you can feel a little isolated when you work by yourself. It would be nice to talk to other cheese makers, to ask why is this happening, what is happening here, what would you do? My background is not dairy so I don’t have those connections; coming in to a new industry, developing these contacts and the knowledge is quite hard. My advice is, if you are going to do this, go and work for another cheese maker and learn everything, or start younger so you can get the experience and can develop a network; I have read lots of blog posts about people setting up which has been helpful – and perhaps I should do one myself!
It has all been a bit of a rollercoaster: massive highs when people say really good things about the cheese and then something will go wrong and you have to pick yourself up and continue but you must hang on to those high moments. I have not really experienced this in other jobs, so you must be prepared for that. I just hope it all carries on and settles into a manageable small business; I don’t want to conquer the world, I just want to make a decent living to support myself and my children.
Picture left, Sophie with part time make-helper, Greg.
You need to have a good relationship with your milk provider. I have a good relationship with the farm where I get the milk, called Our Cow Molly, a well-known and respected farm in Sheffield who pasteurise and sell milk in to the city. They also make their own ice cream and have their own shop which is open to the public, from Weds to Sunday. I think it is fantastic as they try and get the people from Sheffield to see the animals and see the countryside, I really like that, as I can’t help feel that there is quite a lot of negativity around the dairy industry, so I think if farms are open, that will help.
You have to get a good farm, where mutual support and respect for each other’s businesses. For me, it is not just about providing milk – they also support me by pasteurising and delivering my milk to me. Initially I pasteurised myself, but it took so long and was so hard to monitor, so now they pasteurise it but not homogenise. It costs a little more but saves a good deal of time. I did think of doing raw milk cheese, but decided that the potential risk was too great and I wanted to be able to sleep at night without additional worries!
Starting a cheese business is really hard, I don’t know if it is harder making beer or bread, but it is really challenging trying to work out what is happening on a week by week basis when trying to get a consistent product – so you have to be really committed and prepared to constantly question and learn and not being disheartened, it is not for the faint hearted…. It is essential to get other money coming in, for example, I do a big monthly market where I am based called Peddler’s Market which is a music/street food event, cheese wedding cakes, and cheese and wine evenings additional ways of supplementing my income.
- Where can we find your cheese?
In Sheffield, I have over 25 shops selling my cheese plus 4 restaurants using it as an ingredient. I recently gained a wholesaler so they can distribute beyond Sheffield.
- Favourite cheese making music?
We listen to radio 6 in the dairy which has a real variety of music on, more music, less chat. This is Greg’s choice, the guy who helps me on my make days, nicer than my same old tunes.
Name: Sophie Williamson, Sheffield Cheese Masters
Thank you so much for your time, Sophie, a really interesting, up close look at starting a cheese making business with lots of great insights. Enjoyed our chat – thank you!
If you are a small cheese maker or know someone who is and would like to be featured in our blog, please get in touch! Coming next, Simon of Weardale Cheese and Larry, Galway Goat Farm.