Sue Miller is a busy lady, and the pandemic has made her all the more so.
If the Birchrun Hills Farm co-owner and operator isn’t making cheese or selling it at one of five farmers markets, she’s breaking down wheels into wedges, packing them up, and shipping them off to clients. Add to that a new side hustle: leading virtual cheese tastings.
When COVID-19 shuttered restaurants in March, Birchrun Hills went through the same pandemic pangs as wholesalers of all stripes, from bakeries and small farms to fish and meat suppliers. Restaurant sales accounted for 75-80% of the Chester Springs farm’s regular business — and for a dairy farm, the hit is especially hard.
“We’re going into the fifth year of this dairy crisis,” said Miller in late August, as the price for milk continues to drop. Her family had recently received $7 below the cost of production for every 100 pounds of milk they sold.
As a result, “the pressure on the cheese businesses has become really, really intense to make up for the low price of milk and the lost restaurant business.”
Enter virtual cheese tastings. Miller has led tastings at restaurants, wineries, and breweries in the region over the years, so she and her family, husband Ken and sons Randy and Jesse, decided to test the waters on virtual tastings.
“We had a pretty supportive response immediately in our region with people who already knew about our cheese,” Miller said. “And then we started doing a lot for corporate tastings or for corporate events, and that cheese has gone all over the country.”
HR divisions from tech companies, law firms, and the like have arranged for Birchrun to send out boxes of cheese to as few as six or as many as 100 employees. The guided tasting might take place in between Zoom meetings or at the end of the workday. For some of the folks they’re reaching, it’s the first time they’ve had handmade cheese from a small producer. It can lead to surprises.
“I can’t tell you how many times I have somebody who’s like, ‘Well, I like mild cheddar, like Kraft cheddar.’ And they’ll first open that cheese and you can see them on the Zoom and they’re like, ‘Whoa, that smells,’” She calms them: “‘Alright, let’s just sit with this aroma for a minute. Don’t freak out, have something else with it, and then let’s circle back to it.’ And I can’t tell you how many times I’ll get off a tasting and they’re like, ‘I can’t believe it, but that Red Cat is my favorite cheese.’”
Along with the cheese, Birchrun Hills includes tips on assembling a cheeseboard for when the time comes. Some arrive to the Zoom tasting prepared with an elaborate spread, while others haven’t even unwrapped the hunks of cheese. Miller forages through her own fridge to build her board (“I’m fortunate because I’m shopping at farmers markets”), and many guests do the same. She’ll offer suggestions, sparking new ideas in tasters' heads as they go along.
“I can see people getting up and they’re like running into the kitchen,” she said. One of her favorite curveball accompaniments to cite is kimchi, which complements Birchrun’s Red Cat, an assertive, savory washed-rind cheese that’s aged 60 days or more. “Almost on every Zoom, there’s like three people that are kimchi eaters and they get up right away.”
Besides wine and beer pairings (or kombucha and tea for early-afternoon sessions), Miller also recommends small cheesemakers, shops, and farmers market that tasters can check out close to home, even if they’re dialing in from other parts of the country. And she walks tasters through styles of cheese, how they’re made, and why they’re important. The goal is to give customers tools to “access cheese where they are.”
But this is a different experience from cheese tastings you might have in a restaurant or at a cheese shop, where the selection is assembled from various makers. It’s less global, more local.
“What’s really unique about us," Miller said, "is that we made all [the]cheeses. [They] really represent our milk. We fed the animals, they were born on our farm.”
Anyone can sign up for a tasting, which starts at $60 plus shipping and provides enough cheese for a couple. (The amount of cheese is generous, Miller said. “How disappointing would it be to just get enough cheese for one tasting?”) She usually includes Birchrun’s fromage blanc, Blue Cat, Red Cat, the Camembert-style Little Chardy, and Alpine-style Equinox. Customers can add crackers and more cheeses if they wish. Some have even asked for charcuterie.
Tastings last an hour or so and are capped at 20 people for the general public. To reserve a spot or set up a private tasting, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I’m grateful that we’re empowered to be able to do this,” Miller said. “We just have to keep our nose to the grindstone and keep hustling and see what’s needed out there and try to fill that because, at the end of the day — I know this sounds crazy — cheese really makes people happy.”