Small But Mighty

In 2008, Sarah Marcus started Briar Rose Creamery, in Dundee, OR.

Briar Rose Creamery has accomplished big things in Oregon.

In 2005, Sarah Marcus was hired at Cowgirl Creamery in San Francisco, CA, as a cheesemonger, working at the city’s historic Ferry Building.

“I was born into a food family. My mom was a food and travel writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, so I was raised visiting cheese factories and other craft producers and hanging out on farms,” she says. “So, I always had an interest in local food.”

Her curiosity led her to wonder how cheese was produced, and Marcus started experimenting with making cheese in her kitchen, knowing that all the diverse varieties she saw in the grocery store had to be made differently.

“I threw myself into this curiosity and that eventually led to my job with Cowgirl,” she explains. “By getting that first job, I was able to hone my palate and learn what is good cheese, because I really didn’t know any other way to do it. They took me under their wing and showed me the cheese world.”

Marcus wanted to do more than just sell cheese, and expressed an interest in making cheese, so Cowgirl gave her an internship and helped her get some classes — and the science of cheese making — under her belt.

She took a short course in cheese making at Cal Poly State University, and after it was done, Marcus started her internship at Cowgirl’s Port Reyes, CA, facility, and took in everything she could.

“I was like a fish to water and just loved it,” she says. “I started working at other creameries, went to England and studied there for a while, working at Ticklemore Cheese in Totnes, Devon, and then went to North Carolina and studied at Goat Lady Dairy.”

Cheese Connoisseur Briar Rose Creamery’s Fata Morgana is a feta-style cheese.

At each creamery that she worked at, Marcus found they all had their own unique style and business outlook — though all were small and family-owned.

“They had a strong core value on just making great cheese,” she says. “None of them had animals, and that was a key takeaway for me. You can’t do everything well, so you should focus on what you love, and for me, that was obviously cheese making.”

Plus, she was warned that if you work the animal side of the business as well, it would be tough to ever get away.

Eventually, Marcus felt like she had learned enough to do things on her own, and she started looking for a property.

Birth of a Business

In 2008, Marcus and her husband, Jim Hoffman, found the perfect space in Dundee, OR, and started Briar Rose Creamery.

“I knew this day was coming essentially from the first day I started working at Cowgirl,” she says. “I had this vision of doing artisan cheese production in San Francisco, but I knew that would be hard.”

Hoffman had family up in Oregon, so on a visit, the couple started looking for property — though it took more than a year to find the ideal home.

“We purchased 12 acres in the hills of Dundee, and most of our neighbors are wineries and vineyards,” says Marcus. “We are surrounded by a big, diverse agricultural community and there’s a lot of dairy farming in the area, yet we’re only an hour from Portland, so we have that big metropolitan area. It all made sense.”

Early on, customers were found with old-fashioned salesmanship — Marcus would make the cheese, and her husband would market and sell it, taking samples to local chefs and grocery stores to find business.

“It was very organic the way we found new customers,” she says. “We also got a push at farmers markets, and our booths at these really helped our momentum.”

Social media has helped spread the word even further. Marcus has always been something of a shutterbug, and the business began when Facebook and Instagram were taking off.

“I posted a lot of pictures and shouted to the hills about our amazing cheese, and showed the menus it was on, and cross-promoted the businesses that helped us,” says Marcus. “Being here surrounded by so many wineries, our product goes really well with their wine, so we started to get on the menus of many of them.”

Briar Rose Creamery also has its own farm store, so customers can buy directly from the shop.
The company employs between six to nine people year-round, depending on the season, with extra hands hired for the farmers markets.

And she took the previous warning to heart, and has never worked with dairy animals, opting to get her milk from relationships with small family farms.

Christine Hyatt An assortment of Briar Rose Creamery cheeses.

“I help support them by highlighting the qualities of their milk,” says Marcus. “Currently, I work with two different dairies, and it’s all cow’s milk. I did work with goat’s milk early on, but in 2015, started transitioning. By 2018, it was 100% cow’s milk.”

She works with Perrin Family Farms near Woodburn, OR, getting organic Ayrshire cow’s milk, and a Guernsey dairy near Silverton, OR, called Abiqua Acres.

“To make great cheese, you’ve got to have great milk from happy, healthy and relaxed animals,” says Marcus. “They eat well, have lots of room to roam, and are never given any growth hormones.”

Award-Winning Cheese

Food & Wine recently named Briar Rose Creamery one of the 50 best cheesemakers.

One of Marcus’ favorite things is getting to highlight the herds she works with through her individual cheese flavors, and she’s a great believer that her milk is first-rate.

For instance, the Ayrshire cow’s milk helped Marcus create the Fromage Blanc, characterized as “buttery with hints of straw, citrus and vanilla ice cream.” This won Briar Rose Creamery a Good Food Award in 2019.

“This is my everyday table cheese; it’s just a nice, rich, spreadable cheese,” says Marcus.

The Guernsey is high in butter-fat content, and that luscious milk helps for the creamery’s Butterbloom and Fata Morgana varieties, both made with pasteurized cow’s milk and microbial rennet.

“The milk itself is a bit sweeter,” says Marcus. “It’s something about the glazing, and it tastes almost like ice cream out of the udder. It’s amazing to play with those sweet flavors that come through.”

The Phoebe cheese, a semi-soft cheese rubbed with brine and made with organic Ayrshire cow’s milk, is a seasonal variety available only in autumn and winter.

“It’s made with French Spruce bark, which really changes how it ripens,” says Marcus. “It’s very custardy, and has flavors like pine, rosemary and toasted almonds. It’s definitely one of my favorites.”

The Callisto cheese has a unique backstory. Marcus got the recipe wrong, as originally it was supposed to be a Taleggio cheese, but it was firm, and had a chewy texture. Hints of sour cream, preserved lemons, brown mustard and roasted sunflower seeds all come out, and it’s become a favorite for many, especially those making fondue.

For the company’s aged cheese, Marcus creates each wheel with a delicate hand, letting the rennet work faster so she can cut the curds in approximately an hour.

“With some cuts with our cheese harp — a cool cheese-making tool — we start the process of separating the curds and whey,” she says. “After spending some time in molds, the curds get introduced to salt and are ripened in our aging rooms, from a few weeks to several months. All cheeses are pasteurized.”

Overcoming Challenges

Being a small business owner, Marcus notes Briar Rose Creamery has faced many of the same issues that all small businesses go through — especially when you’re talking about the financial side of things.

“You need to make sure the bills are paid on time and meet payroll, there’s the challenge with hiring people and retaining them. This is the common story of every small business and where the headaches come from,” she says.

When COVID-19 hit, it added some more challenges, though the company wound up making the most of a bad situation.

“We actually did really well,” says Marcus. “We adapted and pivoted and focused more on farmers markets and boosting up our retail side. We cut down our tasting room and created more of a front porch mentality, selling through a window that still exists today. We presented cheese on a tray and had a guided cheese tasting. After the initial shock of it all, the farmers markets were up and running, and we moved a lot of cheese that way.”

A Passion Continues

Almost 20 years into her dream, Marcus is as passionate about cheese making and the industry as she was when she first started.

“It’s the people,” she says. “Whenever I get a chance to hang out with my friends at the American Cheese Society Conference, it just fills my heart with joy. I just love the cheese community. Being able to have my own business and working with the land through all seasons, scratches my creative itch and it’s science and art all blended together.”

Over the past two decades, Marcus has continued to travel the world, visiting cheesemakers in Spain, England, Portugal and France among others, and she loves meeting people with a common interest.
“It’s a wonderful community,” she says.

Looking ahead, Marcus envisions Briar Rose Creamery growing slowly and steady.

For instance, in 2023, she added another draining table, which has helped her make about 30% more cheese, and all of that is moving.

“The demand is there and the distributors are holding up their end and getting our cheese out into the world,” says Marcus. “We make 30,000-35,000 pounds of cheese a year, but that’s nothing compared to some of the larger companies. I’m very proud of the fact that we have gotten numerous awards since we opened the doors and happy at where we are.”

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