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Perrystead Dairy brings creative cheesemaking to Kensington

Yoav Perry embraces American mash-up culture to mix and reinvent cheeses unburdened by the conventions of European traditions.

Yoav Perry is trying to tame the ocean inside the aging room of his new cheesemaking atelier in Kensington. But the salty brew of local seaweed infusing the filtered sea water brine for Atlantis, his latest experimental creation at Perrystead Dairy, was unexpectedly pungent on the early wheels.

“I really thought I understood what this cheese was going to do to me and my aging room,” he said, shaking his head at some troublesome early prototypes. “I wanted this to be light and beachy, not fishy and full of iodine.”

Perry eventually came up with the fix, adding yeast to the cheese’s surface before any of the seaweed-infused brine, a move that allowed the three-pound rounds to develop a fudgier consistency, and the kombu’s effect to swell through the rich curds with a deep marine umami rather than the previously brackish twang. The finished cheese now has an earthy but balanced savor to its seaweed-speckled orange and white rind that’s reminiscent of mountain tomme, but with the subtle savor of surf. Is this the world’s first tomme de Jersey Shore?

“Maybe, but I’m not going to call it that!” says Perry. He objected not only to the overly broad nature of the tomme category, but also the baggage of defining his cheese with European terms. “I’m interested in making new styles of seasonal American cheeses. I don’t want to make an Italian or French cheese. I don’t want to make a camembert and just give it the name of a local creek.”

Yes, the Israeli-born Perry jokingly concedes a mild aversion to French terms ever since he got kicked-out of Alliance Française as a child because he couldn’t master the proper accent. But his obsession with creating originals stems from the freedom he sees in American mash-up culture to mix and reinvent cheeses unburdened by the conventions of European traditions, which often dictate precisely how products are made.

Perrystead’s latest hit, a complexly creamy cube with a wrinkly rind called Intergalactic, is a perfect example.

“I take a (vegetarian) thistle rennet that’s usually used for sheep and goat’s milk cheeses in Spain and Portugal, but then use it with cow’s milk,” says Perry. “I coagulate it with a slow fermentation in molds like a Loire goat, and then age it with cultures like an Italian robiola. You could never mix these things into one in these very protective European regions. To put it concisely, Intergalactic is a regional American mutt.”

Considering Perrystead only opened its doors this spring, after Perry inserted two prefabricated rooms with cheesemaking equipment and an aging cave into this former musical instrument warehouse, the level of difficulty on his early products is daunting because there is not roadmap for original recipes. Just trial and error and well-honed instincts.

But Perry, 48, a former digital designer who previously ran an online purveyor of cheese equipment to 700 producers around the world, is putting his vast knowledge of processes, fermentation and cultures to use like a mad scientist unleashed upon the dairy arts. Whereas most cheese manufacturers will use no more than a dozen different cultures to affect the development of their cheeses, Perry said, he practically cackled with glee as he led the way to a small glass deep freezer where he holds 125 different cultures.

“I love blending them and look at them like colors on a painter’s palette,” he said. “They each have subtle differences and you can combine them in different ways to create some interesting cheeses. They’re really magical. You design a cheese and imagine what it’s going to taste like two to three months down the road, and then you send them out (into the aging room) to do your bidding.”

Things haven’t always turned out as planned — especially in the beginning, when a condenser problem forced him to toss 150 pounds of cheese. More recently, a handling error ruined another 165 wheels.

“A new cave never works as well as an older cave that’s gotten used to the microflora that builds-up on the walls and shelves,” he said.

Finding reliable employees has also been a challenge. Finding public interest in his cheese has not.

“He started with really complicated cheese and I was worried folks wouldn’t understand it, but everybody has really taken to it,” says Ann Karlen of Third Wheel Cheese Co., which distributes Perrystead’s cheese locally. “For my customers, there’s a lot of excitement about buying hyper-local cheeses. And people are really excited about the experimentation.”

At the same time, Karlen says, Perry is also keenly aware his cheeses must also taste good in an accessible way, a trait she attributes to his business savvy and experience with marketing and design.

“He didn’t start out (on a farm) milking cows and saying, ‘Now what do I do with this milk?’” she said. “He set out to open a creamery in the city to make cheese for a sophisticated crowd.”

Perry has especially embraced his location in the heart of the Kensington-Fishtown maker corridor, where artisan foods from coffee to beer, spirits, bagels and pickles are being made within the nearby blocks, and the landscaped patio in front of his creamery hosts a Foodmaker’s Market Pop-up twice a month.

It is currently the only certified dairy making artisan cheese within Philadelphia’s city limits. And renowned cheese author Tenaya “Madame Fromage” Darlington says that Perrystead’s unusual status as a city-based creamery has broader implications.

“It creates a cool access point for city cheese lovers to taste a piece of the countryside, and it raises awareness about the dairy industry in Pennsylvania — an industry where many small farms have been forced to shutter due to low milk prices,” she said. “If we’re going to maintain a small-batch, grass-fed artisan cheese scene in the United States, we need more people like Yoav Perry to build up the dairy community and help make it more visible.”

The fact that Perry moved here with his wife and daughter from New York specifically to start this creamery is also a validation of Philadelphia’s continued appeal as an affordable, accessible destination for creative food entrepreneurs.

“We were so done with New York, where the numbers didn’t make sense,” said Perry. “But this is a fantastic town that actually has a cheese scene and high level restaurants. We’re right off I-95 on the Northeast corridor and surrounded by incredible farm land and world class dairy farmers. The numbers here totally make sense.”

Perry even got the help to buy production equipment with a $126,039 state grant to support the Pennsylvania dairy industry, and the creamery, in turn, gets its weekly deliveries of milk from Bucks and Montgomery counties.

Perry’s current challenge has been to pace the growth of what is still a very small start-up that presently only brings in 75 gallons of milk each week. He found immediate success with his Real Philly Schmear, a fantastic whole milk riff on cream cheese whose blend of cultures fosters a bright tang and fluffiness that has a satisfying richness compared to the waxy texture of the industrial competition.

But as orders poured in from around the country after a glowing feature in Food & Wine for the Schmear which is, as the label notes “actually made in Philadelphia,” Perry quickly realized his conundrum. The creamery’s limited production capabilities are better spent on a cheese like Intergalactic, which, after a light aging, is worth almost twice a much.

The Schmear, which requires little to no aging, can still be a valuable asset to the growing company, but is the kind of low margin cheese that must be produced at higher volume. Perry’s in the process of finding a solution to increase production.

In the meanwhile, Perry’s imagination is still running wild, aging cheeses splashed in dry cassis wine from an importer friend, washing rounds in local ale brewed with WildBrew Philly Sour yeast (created by University of the Sciences), among multiple other collaborations. The Real Philly Schmear, in fact, began as a collaboration with Kismet Bagels.

Perry has also been collaborating with a local millworks to make bands of Pennsylvania black walnut to eventually replace the traditional spruce bark that is currently wrapped around the aging rounds of his next seasonal cheese. Plans for bottle-fermented yogurt and kefir are still in the works.

Perry, whose facility is not open to the public beyond the occasional patio pop-up markets, has also been dreaming of novel ways to increase availability of his products. That includes plans for a cheese vending machine to soon be installed out front to give cheese obsessives 24/7 access to their favorite Perrystead curds, stored on refrigerated trays that will essentially work like a sandwich machine.

“But it won’t take cash — just Apple pay,” says Perry. “Because this is Philly, after all. I don’t want people to blow it up and be covered with melted cheese.”

Perrystead Dairy, 1639 N. Hancock St.;