A small creamery attracts visitors from around the world
Every year, Tom Merriman hangs two new maps in the tiny salesroom of the Sandwich Creamery (http://www.sandwichcreamery.com). One is of the U.S., the other of the world. By the end of the year, the maps are covered with stars representing the home states and countries of his customers. The range of Sandwich Creamery’s customer base is surprising, considering that it’s on the way to nowhere. Located in the shadow of Mount Whiteface in North Sandwich, New Hampshire, you have to be looking for the Sandwich Creamery to find it – but people do look.
Sandwich Creamery was established in 1995, with construction of the house and barn. Merriman experimented with various cheeses before beginning to make cheddar in 1996; he started making ice cream two years later. Since then, production of both has more than doubled.
Starting with cheese
After studying with a master English cheesemaker while living in Europe from 1989 to 1993, Merriman brought his craft home to New Hampshire. He acquired four Jerseys, the breed he had shown as a kid growing up on a farm in Rye, New Hampshire. He built a house and barn with an attached cheese room on his 18 acres. When he first made his signature cheddar, Merriman was one of only two artisanal cheesemakers in New Hampshire; now there are at least a dozen.
When Merriman started, small-scale cheese- making equipment was not easy to come by. He searched ag bulletins and notice boards in rural markets and placed his own classified ads until he found a 1965 model 150-gallon bulk tank on a farm near Barre, Vermont, and a 1956 low-temperature (145 degrees Fahrenheit), 100-gallon pasteurizer, also in Vermont. Both pieces are still in use and operating at maximum capacity. Two walk-in freezers and a walk-in cooler are the only equipment that’s been added.
Merriman notes that since he began his business, there’s been a major change in the availability of equipment for making farmstead cheeses. Small-scale equipment (for processing 15 to 500 gallons) is now widely available via the Internet.
Milk: Scoops, Gertie and Meadow Brook Farm
Previously, Merriman milked his own Jerseys, supplementing their production as needed with milk from another Jersey farmer. Now his two remaining Jerseys, Scoops and Gertie, graze contentedly in a pasture near the barn, enjoying a well-deserved retirement, and Merriman buys milk from Meadow Brook Farm in Bristol, New Hampshire. The farm’s Jersey x Holstein cows produce milk that has a slightly higher butterfat content (over 4 percent) than Merriman’s former milkers. Merriman picks up 100 gallons about once a week as needed. It takes about a gallon of milk to make 1 pound of cheese and about 10 quarts of cream to make 18 quarts of ice cream. All Sandwich Creamery milk is pasteurized, except the milk used for the occasional batch of raw milk cheddar.
Merriman, together with his wife, Lisa, and her daughter, Charly, make cheese year-round, taking only a week off in November and a short break during mud season when the road to Sandwich Creamery can be a bit problematic. In summer, three additional employees are added to the staff. Summer employees are usually college students, and they’re sometimes joined by interns.
Cheeses soft and hard
Hard, semisoft and soft cheeses are all made at Sandwich Creamery. The original and mainstay cheese is a farmhouse aged cheddar made using the open vat method. It matures slowly and is usually sold at 4 to 6 months, although it can be aged for up to 24 months. The smoked, aged cheddar is seasoned over a maple fire for a minimum of 24 hours. Maple smoke gives aged cheddar a robust flavor. Jersey Jack, a creamy-textured relative of cheddar, is a mild cheese often served melted in Tex-Mex dishes.
Among the soft cheeses is brie, perhaps the best known of France’s cheeses. Unlike imported brie, Sandwich Creamery’s brie contains no preservatives and thus will ripen naturally. Coulommier is also made at Sandwich Creamery. Mild when young, the cheese grows nuttier and a bit tangier as it ages. Merriman also makes garlic, horseradish and boursin soft-spread cheeses.
Caerphilly, one of the more unusual cheeses, was first made in Wales in the early 1800s and is soaked overnight in a brine bath. Welsh miners are said to have consumed it for salt replenishment, as their hard work resulted in profuse sweating. Sandwich Creamery’s customers enjoy the clean taste and firm yet moist texture of the cheese.
Ice cream is for fun
Sandwich Creamery’s second product line began not by design, but with the chance find of an old ice cream machine. Merriman restored the machine and began using it to make ice cream that’s so good people would find their way down the one-lane road to the creamery at 1 a.m. for an ice cream fix. Now Sandwich Creamery makes 30 flavors of ice cream. In summer, Merriman and his crew make all 30 flavors every week. They also make several flavors of sorbet so lactose-intolerant and vegan visitors can enjoy a treat.
“We’ve gotten more efficient in our ice cream production,” says Merriman. “We keep ingredients for all 30 flavors in stock all the time.” At first, Merriman didn’t make any chocolate ice cream, because he felt there were already several good choices on the market. Now he makes six varieties of chocolate ice cream.
Summer employees enjoy experimenting with new flavors, and every year they try something new. Some, like s’mores and mint chocolate made with Junior Mints, become permanent additions. Others, such as hummingbird (based on a Southern cake recipe featuring pineapple, bananas and pecans in a cinnamon base) and PB&J were one-batch wonders. “I keep trying to cut back the number of flavors, but we just keep adding more,” says Merriman.
Salted caramel is one of the new flavors for 2014. Time will tell whether it will join the all-time most popular flavors: vanilla, black raspberry chocolate chip, ginger, mint chocolate chip and tipsy turtle (chocolate with caramel and nuts).
Ice cream is made and sold year-round at Sandwich Creamery, but the peak ice cream season runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Although ice cream has a shelf life of four to five months in a good freezer, Merriman doesn’t stock up in anticipation of summer. “Make, fill freezer, deliver, repeat – that’s our routine,” says Merriman. Ice cream now accounts for 65 percent of Sandwich Creamery’s gross sales.
Beyond 20 miles
Like Europe’s artisanal cheeses, Merriman’s were first available only within a 20-mile radius of the creamery, and Merriman, who delivered them, became “The Cheese Man.” Twelve years ago, Sandwich Creamery made about 1,800 pounds of cheese and 3,000 quarts of ice cream. Annual production has grown to approximately 4,000 pounds of cheese and 6,000 quarts of ice cream. Although Merriman himself still delivers much of the cheese and ice cream to local markets, co-ops, farmstands and scoop shops, distribution has expanded in New Hampshire to markets from the seacoast city of Portsmouth to Hopkinton, located west of Concord, and points in between. Merriman sometimes needs a little delivery help from the U.S. Postal Service. He uses ice packs to keep cheese cool during shipment.
In the early years of Sandwich Creamery, Merriman noticed that customers were returning not only for ice cream and cheese, but also to see the animals. Kids and adults alike enjoyed the experience, and sometimes they even brought picnic lunches. Taking cues from his customers, Merriman has made meeting cows and calves, sheep and lambs, chicks and chickens part of the Sandwich Creamery experience. Now there are picnic tables and extra chairs near pastures and pens.
In step with the times
Noting that Sandwich Creamery has never had a salesperson or marketing specialist, Merriman says, “We were lucky to have started at the same time as the buy local movement. We were looking for a local market at the same time the market was looking for us.”
Sandwich Creamery’s reputation is also a factor in its success. Without the endorsement of its customers, how many would have found the path to such an out-of-the-way place?
Kathleen Hatt is a freelance writer and has been a frequent contributor to Farming since 1998. She resides in Henniker, New Hampshire.