As dawn breaks above the green pastures in Sweet Springs, Missouri, curious cows pause outside the milking parlor before Aaron Hemme calls out to his herd: “C’mon ladies, let’s get to work.”
Michael Hemme joins Aaron in the milking parlor, where the brothers will spend the next two hours or so milking their Holstein, Brown Swiss and Jersey cows, whose milk will soon be crafted into fresh cheese. It’s 5am, and the cows are just beginning their day, but next door, a third Hemme brother, Nathan, has already spent two and a half hours in the “make room,” where pasteurized milk begins its journey from cream to curd.
Outside, the fourth brother, Jon Hemme, is busy tending the heifers and later the corn, soybeans and other crops, which provide feed for the cows as well as additional income for the farm. This is a typical morning for the Hemme brothers, who, after returning to work on the farm following college graduation, founded Hemme Brothers Creamery in 2016 with their father, David.
Since making their first sale three years ago, the family has specialized in crafting both fresh and aged small-batch artisan cheeses. Today, their product lineup includes cheese curds (which come in 10 flavors), Cheddar, aged Cheddar, smoked Cheddar, black pepper Cheddar, espresso Cheddar, fresh German-style quark and most recently, fresh mozzarella. A quality product is important, but the way David sees it, you have to know how to sell it, too. For him, it’s easy – it’s all centered around a photo of the Hemme family that hangs in the creamery’s lobby.
“It’s all about the story,” David says. “Not making up a story but telling yours. That picture… That’s the first thing you see, and that’s our story.”
Their story has captured the attention of shops, wineries and restaurants around the state, which stock and serve the cheese. It’s a staple in breads at Ibis Bakery in Kansas City and on cheese plates at Les Bourgeois Winery in Rocheport, Missouri, among many other venues. The creamery is one of many across the country that's bringing heritage cheesemaking traditions back to American cheese boards.
David says his palate has broadened since opening the creamery as well. “This morning, I had a cracked corn artisan wheat bread [from Ibis Bakery] with some quark and peach jam. Who would have thought that’s what I would have eaten just five years ago?”
As the creamery’s head salesman, David spends most of his week on the road, taking cheese to sell at farmers’ markets and distributing to restaurants and wineries across the state. “I tell people, ‘You’re looking at the CEO, CFO and assistant janitor. If you want to find out something, call me,’" he says. “And if I don’t know, the head cheesemaker/lead janitor, Nathan, will know.” It’s a completely new role for David, after having spent nearly 40 years as a dairy farmer.
David says this sort of change, and the ability to wear many hats, is one of the only constants on a successful farm. His family has farmed for seven generations in the same township. The decision to open a creamery was purely economical, one that was sealed with a lid on the first jar of quark, which harkens to the family’s German heritage. The quark is tangy – sort of like Greek yogurt – spreadable and delicious. In 2017, the cheese was awarded first prize by the American Cheese Society in the category of Fresh Unripened Cows’ Milk Cheese.
“Some people might think that we're just curious, or wanted to be artisans or something, but no, it was 100 percent financial,” Michael says. “Commodity milk prices were crap, and they stayed crap for a while.”
The recent dip in commodity milk prices in America has resulted in the closure of many small dairy farms across the state and nation; during the mid-2000s, there were 10 dairies within a 15-mile radius of the Hemme farm. Today, the Hemme operation is one of just two nearby.
“Our opinion is, your typical commercial agriculture, where you’re just commodity-based, is basically a race to the bottom,” David says. “You do more and more for less and less, and then you have all this increase in size. There’s always been price volatility, and you can live with that as long as you understand it. But now, there’s so many other factors that are out of your control.”
So three years ago, with David at the helm, the family decided to take what they could into their own control. Instead of increasing herd size, they chose the valued-added route and opened the creamery. The family will gladly share the secret to their success: High-quality milk makes high-quality cheese. If you take a look at the nutrition label on any package of Hemme Brothers cheese, you’ll find a very short list of ingredients and no preservatives or other additives.
“Our cheese is [made with just] pasteurized cow’s milk, salt, culture and rennet,” David says. “We don’t add anything, and we don’t take anything away.”
Käsekuchen is traditionally made with quark.
Together, the family has worked to breed cows whose milk has a solid balance of production volume and butterfat, which is the main ingredient in all the farm’s cheese. The combination of Brown Swiss and Jersey breeds bring in high butterfat content in the milk, while Holsteins ramp up production volume. The butterfat makes up a small portion of the actual milk product, but a large portion of the sales.
“Our milk will run about 4.5 percent fat,” David says. “It will make up about 65 percent of our milk check. The other 95.5 percent of that volume that we’re taking to town is only about 35 percent of our check.” Just 15 to 20 percent of the milk produced on the Hemme farm is used to make cheese; the rest is sold as commodities, ending up in gallon jugs in stores around the region. The equipment the Hemmes currently use can only handle this fraction of milk, but by 2023, they hope to use all of the milk for cheese production – 300,000 pounds per month.
With no previous background in cheesemaking, the biggest adjustment for the family has been perfecting the work and artistry involved in the craft. To learn the nuts and bolts, the Hemmes hired St. Charles, Missouri-based cheese consultant Neville McNaughton. Known to many as “Dr. Cheese,” McNaughton taught them the ins and outs of operating a creamery, from the cheesemaking process to business planning and structure. Today, Nathan manages the process alongside the creamery’s other cheesemaker, Tony Gifford.
After the consultation, the brothers got busy designing a building that could house the operation, and over a cold winter, built it themselves. It took about a year and a half to really feel comfortable with the different production processes, Nathan says, and he’s still learning. On cheesemaking days, which run Monday through Friday, Nathan works 12-hour stretches. The processes are as different as the cheeses. Some, like mozzarella, are ready in 24 hours, others are smoked, and Brother’s Keeper, an aged Cheddar, rests in the facility's walk-in cooler for about 12 months.
Although different in design and flavor, each cheese starts with the same milk from the same cows, cared for by the same family – a tradition the Hemmes hope will continue on in their name.
“My family has never been perfect, but when you live in the same community since 1848, you’ll find that your name is everything,” David says. “My grandsons will be the eighth generation, and the way it looks, if given half an opportunity, their future will be right here.”
Hemme Brothers’ cheese is available at several farmers’ markets along the Interstate 70 corridor, including in Lenexa and Overland Park, Kansas, and Columbia, Missouri. You can find the cheeses in retailers in St. Louis, Columbia, Branson and Hermann, Missouri, plus at wineries and meat shops. Although Hemme Brothers doesn’t yet have its own retail shop, you can purchase the cheese in many locations around the state – including Schnucks and Hy-Vee grocery stores.
Hemme Brothers Creamery, 16728 Arcadia Ave., Sweet Springs, Missouri, hemmebrothers.com