“You don’t want to disturb the milk,” Genevieve O’Sullivan said as she slowly poured the white liquid into a plastic container. “That would break the fat molecules. Pour it like you pour champagne.”
A few in the room giggled. This was the first time the class participants were touching the cow and goat milk that would — after much stirring, some extra bacteria and about an hour of work — become cheese.
It would be delicious, fresh cheese actually made in Washington, D.C. — a small regulatory feat. Though small-batch and legal for the cheesemaking participants to take home, it was a symbolic step for Sona, the restaurant, wine bar, retail shop and soon-to-be-creamery on Capitol Hill. Sona hasn’t actually made cheese, or at least the large-scale production that owners Genevieve and Conan O’Sullivan, a husband and wife duo, have wanted to do since opening in January . After all, “the creamery is the heart of this business,” she said. They have aged cheese in their two cellars and have made small batches, like in the class held on a Wednesday night in late October.
Sona is the only current establishment in D.C. that is (close to being) an operating creamery. According to various news articles and documents, the District was, unsurprisingly, abounding with dairy production early in the 20th century. As mass production of milk and consumer habits changed, so did the dairies. Now, business owners look to the D.C. Department of Health for guidance and regulations; there is no Department of Agriculture here.
Sona expects to be a productive creamery “after the holidays,” hopefully in time for the restaurant’s one-year anniversary at the end of January, Genevieve O'Sullivan said. It’s a frustrating wait, but she said it goes with their slow-and-steady approach. “How do we do this in this city for the first time and get it right?"
Sona is part of the stream of artisanal cheese stores, cheese counters and even cheese-forward food trucks that have grown in the area recently. People have always loved cheese; Washingtonians are not unique to that. It’s how locals are purchasing and familiarizing themselves with cheese that is new and evolving.
Creative Cheese, Growth in D.C. Cheese is really a “creative business,” said Tim Lake, Right Proper Brewing Company's cheesemonger and leader of the brewhouse’s cheese program. The brewery launched its retail counter this spring, offering pairings for beer and pounds of cheese from places such as New York’s Vulto Creamery and Pennsylvania’s Pipe Dreams Dairy, available for purchase, along with signature T-shirts.
Why choose cheese for Right Proper? “Cheese is a logical pairing with house-made beers,” Lake said. The carbonation in beer “helps move everything along” on your palate, notably the “delicate and rambunctious flavors” that come with Right Proper’s beer in particular, he said.
Josh Kramer, formerly the cheesemonger at Blue Duck Tavern and an alumnus of the now-closed Cowgirl Creamery in the District (Lake was a Cowgirl cheese man as well), says cheese and craft beer taste good together, but also share similar trajectories with consumer habits.
“It’s not just interest in cheese eating, but it’s also there’s an actual exponential explosion of American artisan cheesemaking that has happened all over the country, analogous to craft brewing but on a different scale,” he said.
Righteous Cheese opened in Union Market in 2012. The Big Cheese food truck has been rolling since 2010. Cleveland Park’s Ripple launched a grilled cheese bar in 2012. A walk through the Dupont FreshFarm Market on a Sunday yields numerous dairies and creameries, such as Keswick Creamery from Pennsylvania and Clear Spring Creamery from Maryland. There are also the mainstays, such as Bowers Fancy Dairy Products, otherwise just known as the Eastern Market cheese counter, which has been operating since 1964.
It’s been a gradual move back to the city, Kramer said.
“Most of the retail places are in the suburbs and that’s where the bigger audience for that stuff is,” Kramer said. “There is Arrowine [Cheese and Spirits] and Cheesetique; there are a lot of locations out in the suburbs. All of the new places are in the city, which is where people are moving. I think especially something that I am interested in is that a lot of the new places are either hybrid restaurant-retail or brewpub and retail and restaurant. Either way, they are really neighborhood-focused.”
Eastern Market was the reason the O’Sullivans, from Washington state, chose to open Sona where they did after scouting throughout the city. It’s also where they call home. “We wanted a historic market because it is truly active year-round,” Genevieve O'Sullivan said. “Plus, we already have regulars.”
The regulars are the “real treat,” Kramer said, pointing to his time at Cowgirl and also other cheese counters in the Mid-Atlantic.
“[The customers say,] ‘I don’t know a lot about cheese and I would love to try whatever.’ You can guide them through tastes a little bit at a time and over a course of two years, they have a really nuanced palate and they are really excited about what’s new and they are really eager to become fans of new farms and buy new stuff,” Kramer said. “That’s the best-case scenario for everyone, right? That’s what farms want, that’s what chefs want.”
That’s what Sona wants: Genevieve O’Sullivan answered a slew of questions during her cheesemaking class, ranging from types of bacteria used to the type of salt to add to cheese. The O'Sullivans hope to hold two or three classes a month once the cheesemaking gets operational. The class made a 20-minute fresh cheese out of cow and goat milk and paired various wines with other cheeses, such as Lundeen’s Pinot Noir from Oregon with Abbaye de Belloc, a French Pyrenees sheep's milk cheese. Genevieve said she would love to explore making other cheeses, even holding a half-day cheddar class.
“Always use sea or kosher salt,” she explained. “Iodized salt will kill your cheese. What does it mean to kill cheese? It won’t grow, it won’t live, it won’t mature.”
It is information like that, Kramer said, that matters. “If you’re just buying [cheese] from the store without someone selling it to you, it’s like wine or anything else, it’s too hard to figure that stuff out on your own,” he said. “That personal interaction is what makes all the difference”