The story behind Sheffield Cheesemasters
PUBLISHED: 00:00 15 February 2019 | UPDATED: 11:40 15 February 2019
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A Sheffield cheese-lover proves that where there's a will, there's a whey.
Meet Sophie Williams – the toast of the town when it comes to artisanal cheese. After a successful career in IT security, she decided to set up her own cheese-making company in her home town of Sheffield in 2017 and, just 18 months later, has been named one the UK’s top new producers at the Great British Cheese Awards, impressing a tough judging panel of chefs, cheese experts and food writers.
But let’s not skip straight to the cheese course (tempting as that may be). Instead, let’s head back to the start to find out how she used her entrepreneurial talents to become the cream of the crop.
It began, perhaps not surprisingly, with a deep love of cheese. She was – and still is – absolutely crackers about the stuff. And she’s not alone. We munch our way through about 600,000 tonnes of cheese in the UK every year (between us, not each), which equates to about 10kg per person, most of which is good old cheddar. But while most of us are happy to feed our addiction via the deli counter, Sophie decided to go her own whey.
‘Many of my friends thought I was crackers when I told them what I was planning to do,’ she said. ‘But I had seen lots of people turning their hobbies into careers and Sheffield is home to plenty of microbreweries and bakeries, so I thought, why not cheese?’
She began with a week-long cheese-making course at The School of Artisan Food, which is part of the Welbeck estate in Sherwood Forest. After mastering the basics, she then continued to develop her craft by devoting evenings and weekends to creating recipes and, after endless hours of experimentation, finally unlocking the flavour and texture profile of her own ‘perfect cheese’.
‘It was a steep learning curve for me, not only in terms of mastering the art of cheese-making, but also developing the skills needed to succeed in business,’ said Sophie. ‘To my surprise there was quite a lot of microbiology involved when it comes to creating cheese, and it requires a stable environment to produce a consistent product.’
Once she was happy with her recipe, she approached Launchpad, Sheffield’s ERDF-funded support initiative for new entrepreneurs, which helped her explore the viability of her idea and build her confidence for the next step.
‘Working with Launchpad helped me to explore whether the idea of becoming a cheesemaker was viable and whether there was a market for the product,’ she explained. ‘The team also helped me to develop the vital skills needed to succeed in business and was instrumental in sourcing suitable premises and negotiating the all-important lease.’
Once everything was in place, Sophie teamed up with city-based dairy Our Cow Molly to source the milk she needed to make her cheese dreams a reality.
Her first product, a rich, soft cheese called Little Mester, drew on the Steel City’s rich industrial heritage for inspiration. It proved an instant hit with customers at Sheffield’s Peddler Market, which specialises in street food, craft beer, live music and art.
With further help from Launchpad, she then tentatively set up the city’s first dedicated, purpose-built cheese production plant.
Her company, Sheffield Cheesemasters, now produces more than 350 cheeses a week at its Neepsend premises, each carefully crafted and left to mature for a month.
With a number of new recipes in development, Sophie has set her sights on sharing her foodie passion with regular cheese and wine tasting events, tours of the production process and cheese-themed quizzes.
‘Everything has happened so quickly that I can hardly believe my first batch of Little Mester was made only last year,’ she said.
‘I didn’t start off as a farmer. I don’t have land. I don’t even have a cow. But I do have an unwavering passion for making unique cheeses with the best local produce.
‘I’m an urban cheesemaker making quality artisan cheese at the heart of the city.’
To find out more, visit sheffieldcheesemasters.co.uk.