The founders of Spring Gap Mountain Creamery escaped city life to find a tasty gourmet niche.
When Penelope Sagawa and Jurgen Schelzig began making raw milk cheese back in 2009, they had no idea “raw milk” would become a hot topic in West Virginia seven years later.
They couldn’t know that raw milk, which some claim is healthier than pasteurized milk, would spawn such a devoted following that lawmakers would have to pass a much-debated bill for West Virginians just to drink the stuff, but not yet sell it.
Sagawa and Schelzig weren’t motivated by trends or debates. No, at first, they simply could not afford pricey pasteurization equipment—so raw milk cheese it was.
The couple would leave behind their 9-to-5 office jobs in Washington, D.C., most Fridays to go on scouting missions, looking for a little house they could use for weekend getaways. They would head out anywhere within two hours of the city—northern Virginia, western Pennsylvania, Delaware. They ultimately bought a parcel in Paw Paw, West Virginia for two reasons: It was cheaper than the rest and their instincts told them to do it. “It’s different from those other places in that it’s hilly and very lush,” says Sagawa, who grew up in Hawaii. “It just had a really nice feeling. You know how sometimes you look at a place and it feels right?”
The 32-acre plot of land had a house and not much else. “We came out on the weekends to do DIY fixes,” Sagawa says. “We were just gonna fix it up. We’d leave the office Friday and drive out here and spend the weekend, and Sunday evening we’d go home. After six or eight weeks we thought, ‘You know, it’s really nice here, and we don’t so much love our office jobs …’”
The couple quit their jobs without much of a plan and moved out to the countryside. “It was totally out of the blue,” Sagawa says. “We didn’t do any of the stuff you are supposed to do.” They knew they needed to support themselves, and they quickly began ruling out ways to do that. “It was process of elimination,” she says. “We don’t have any farming experience. And with crops, if your crop fails, you’re done. If your hogs die or your chickens don’t lay, you can’t really make it.”
Eventually they landed on cheese. “We both love food and we love to cook,” Sagawa says. “It just seemed like it was something we could manage.” They took a few cheesemaking courses, read a lot, and did their research. After realizing how expensive pasteurization equipment is, they learned raw milk cheese could be legally sold as long as it’s aged for just the right amount of time and kept at just the right temperature.
This year, the seventh year since taking that wild plunge, their company Spring Gap Mountain Creamery made about 25,000 pounds of cheese. They’re one of just a few cheese makers in the state, and their product is quite popular among the D.C. farmers’ market crowds to which they still mostly cater.
Their tangy creations, aged at least 60 days, are made from milk brought in from Hedgebrook Farm in Winchester, Virginia, where a small herd of Jersey cows is raised on pesticide-free pastures. The cows aren’t given any hormones, Sagawa notes.
When they first started, Sagawa and Schelzig had a few small 70- and 80-gallon food kettles picked up from a military surplus auction. They would stand over them and stir the milk by hand, a labor- and time-intensive process. “We didn’t really know where this was going to go, so we didn’t really spend a lot on equipment,” Sagawa says.
It wasn’t until two years ago, when their business passed the five-year mark, that they let themselves believe maybe they had a success on their hands. They bought a 600-gallon automated vat. They’re now in the process of investing in a pasteurizer, a churn, and a separator.
Their seven cheeses, including the rich West Virginia Blue, the smooth Sophie’s Select—named after their dog—and their bestseller, a sharp cheddar called Shenandoah Surprise, are sold at farmers’ markets around the D.C. metro area. They’re also available at a few select retailers in West Virginia: Farmer’s Daughter in Capon Bridge, Potomac Highland Food and Farm Initiative in Davis, and the Round Right Farm CSA in Terra Alta. 304.947.5414; springgapmtn.com
written by Kris Wise Maramba
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