Curds Her Way
Even seeing most of her first batch of cheddar cheese go bad didn’t discourage Alise Sjostrom.
With help from her family and funding from a Kickstarter campaign, Sjostrom started Redhead Creamery, her artisanal cheese-making business, in 2012. In the beginning, “we knew we had to get a lot of cheese made and aged,” she recalls. But when she couldn’t sell it all, “we ended up throwing out three-quarters of the cheddar about two years after it was made because it started to rot. We learned a lot in terms of how much to make and when to make it.”
With all the production challenges Sjostrom faced in launching Redhead, challenges that included engineering and plumbing a production facility from the ground up, “we were just determined that it had to work.”
And it has, nearly a decade after Sjostrom and her husband, Lucas, returned to Jer-Lindy Farms—her parents’ dairy operation near Brooten in Central Minnesota—to pursue and fulfill her dream. Sjostrom was (and is) driven and entrepreneurial, and she has a keen sense of marketing. “We enjoy people, and we enjoy sharing with them what we do,” she says.
Redhead currently offers eight or nine different cheeses at any one time, as well as cheese curds. Most are varieties of cheddar and brie, along with specialties such as Redhead’s own St. Anthony, a “whiskey-washed” farmstead cheese. Sjostrom also produces seasonal varieties at different times of the year. This holiday season, Redhead will be selling several flavored cheddars, including one infused with hard cider produced by Milk and Honey Ciders in St. Joseph. Another is a “s’mores” cheddar “that is unique,” Sjostrom says, chuckling.
These varieties are just one of the things that makes Redhead Creamery’s cheeses distinctive in the market, Sjostrom believes. “On the day we’re making cheese, we’re collecting the milk right out of our milking parlor, still warm, and taking it into our pasteurization tank from there,” she says. “We’re not ‘standardizing’ the milk.”
That milk “is what it is on that day,” she adds. Its fat and protein content fluctuates with the seasons. This time of year, for instance, Jer-Lindy’s cows are savoring the cooler temperatures, resulting in higher-fat, higher-protein milk. Throughout the year, “we’ll notice subtle differences in how our cheese tastes, even though it’s the same recipes, the same cultures,” Sjostrom says.
Another distinction, she adds: “We’re doing everything by hand. We’re using our creativity and having fun with what we’re making. We’re putting our heart into it, and you can taste that.”
And since Redhead Creamery’s launch, more and more people are liking that taste. Customers can purchase Redhead cheese online, at its shop at the farm, and in numerous supermarkets and specialty shops in Minnesota and other states in the Upper Midwest. In the metro, Redhead works with Illinois-based Fortune Fish & Gourmet’s Twin Cities operation, which distributes Redhead cheese to Lunds/Byerly’s, Kowalski’s, and other higher-end supermarkets. Restaurants are another significant customer base.
But when Covid hit, many of those wholesale customers shut down, some permanently. It would provide another test of Sjostrom’s resilience.
A ‘Difficult, Rewarding’ Business
That resilience and her drive are rooted in her family and the farm where she grew up. Her parents, Jerry and Linda Jennissen, instilled in her and her three sisters a love of the dairy business.
“My parents started dairy farming in the mid-‘80s, just in time for the farm crisis,” Sjostrom says. “They know what it takes to get through the lows in order to get to the highs.” Dairy farming is a labor of love, with plenty of labor. “It’s a difficult life choice and career,” she adds. “But it’s also extremely rewarding. It’s in our blood. We love what we’re doing.”
The Jennissens milk about 200 cows, which makes Jer-Lindy an average-sized dairy farm in Minnesota. Redhead uses about 10 percent of the milk Jer-Lindy produces. Nearly all the rest goes to Bongards, the Chanhassen-based farmer-owned cheese cooperative.
Sjostrom’s dream of becoming a cheesemaker, then, was entirely natural. That vision came to her during a high school 4-H trip to Crave Brothers, an artisanal cheese business in Waterloo, Wisconsin. “It hit me in the head that this is what I was going to do,” she recalls.
At the University of Minnesota, Alise Jennissen developed her own dairy food quality program, then went to study at the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese. After graduation, she worked in the retail grocery industry to learn more about how cheese is distributed and marketed. For the next five years, she and her husband lived and worked in Vermont and Wisconsin. In 2012, the Sjostroms returned to Brooten and start a family, and a business.
Lucas Sjostrom himself grew up on a dairy farm near New Ulm that his parents still run. In addition to his work with Redhead, he’s now the executive director of the Minnesota Milk Producers Association, representing state dairy farmers at the State Capitol and advocating for their interests. He also is a farmer relations manager for the St. Paul-based Midwest Dairy Association.
In short, the Sjostroms are profoundly familiar with dairy’s ups and downs. And in March 2020, Redhead Creamery itself faced its biggest down.
A Toast to Cheese
Before Covid, Redhead’s business was 80 percent wholesale. That percentage plunged when the pandemic hit and restaurant sales dried up. “Our distributor didn’t have an order for us, and we knew we needed to do something quick,” Sjostrom recalls.
The week the state locked down, Redhead Creamery activated a delivery service that brought its cheeses to retail customers who preordered online. Even with the wholesale side of the business improving this year—Sjostrom estimates it’s about 60 percent wholesale—Redhead continues to operate regular delivery routes throughout the state, including the Twin Cities metro.
One of the big reasons why Redhead’s restaurant business has been coming back in 2021 is a new product: gluten-free battered cheese curds for deep-frying. Sjostrom sent samples to restaurants in the Fargo area last spring. “They immediately took off, which we weren’t expecting,” she says. “That really drove our restaurant sales quickly.”
Speaking of curds: Since 2018, Redhead Creamery has held its annual Curd Fest every June (which is National Dairy Month). “We wanted to celebrate all things cheese, all things dairy, but also the locally made, small-scale foods that are around us,” Sjostrom says of the inspiration behind the event. Curd Fest was cancelled in 2020, but it returned this year, attracting about 1,200 people who came to graze on cheese, learn about how Redhead crafts its wares, and listen to live music. Redhead Creamery also holds smaller events throughout the year, including tastings that pair Redhead cheeses with wine and beer.
Charting Redhead Creamery’s rise
(*Year to date; estimated to hit $700,000 by year’s end)
Sjostrom’s business current employs three people full time and six part time. That headcount doesn’t include Sjostrom, her husband, or her parents, who also have pitched in from time to time. Despite the pandemic, “we’ve grown over the past couple of years,” says Sjostrom, who’s now looking to hire a few more people.
At the same time, she says, “we need to continue to diversify.” Now Sjostrom and her husband have a new dream: a distillery that makes spirits from whey, a byproduct of cheesemaking. Whey contains lactose, which means it can be fermented and run through a still, creating a clear spirit.
Redhead Creamery is currently working with an area distiller “to help us get things figured out,” Sjostrom says. She’s hoping to build a small-scale distillery on the farm property, along with a tasting room where people can enjoy cheese and vodka-type spirits, both made onsite. There are four or five distilleries making spirits from whey in the U.S., including Copper Crow in Bayfield, Wisconsin. If the Redhead family gets the distillery cooking, it would be the first located on a U.S. dairy farm, one that’s producing its own fermentables.
“We’re also trying to figure out how we can use the water that would come out of the distilling process for proofing the alcohol,” Sjostrom says. Producing the spirit could then be “a completely closed process. We wouldn’t have to add or get rid of anything. It would be a very sustainable product.” Like the lessons she’s learned in her life in the dairy business, nothing would be going to waste.