Connersville’s Jacobs and Brichford Farmstead Cheese earns acclaim for its artisan products.

By Robin Winzenread Fritz | Photography by Josh Marshall

»Traveling on State Road 1 through the rambling Whitewater Valley south of Connersville, it’s fairly easy to miss the nondescript building housing Jacobs and Brichford Farmstead Cheese. No signs mark the location, and even the cows that produce the milk aren’t pastured on the premises. But when you step inside the white and stainless-steel interior, it’s clear. This isn’t a barn. It’s a creamery, and stacked high upon the shelves in the aging room lay dozens of 25- to 30-pound wheels of awarding-winning artisan, farmstead cheeses that find their ways onto plates from Oregon to New York.

“We have a waiting list for the first month or so’s production,” says Matthew Brichford, co-founder and cheese master, of his Ameribella cheese, a buttery yellow, semi-soft cheese made with raw milk from his specially bred, grass-fed cows.

“It’s a washed rind cheese,” he says looking over the day’s batch, “so every day it gets wiped with a brine. The salt helps kills bacteria, and it also flavors it, and it just keeps the surface of the cheese moist.

“We usually make two cheeses at a time,” continues Brichford, glancing at dozens of plastic molds holding future wheels of Everton, a Gruyere-style cheese with a firmer, but still creamy texture. “Gruyere is like a sophisticated cousin of Swiss. It’s cooked to a higher temperature so it doesn’t have the holes in it, and it’s drier than Swiss. Swiss has kind of a brassy flavor. This is more muted.”

Muted or not, that hasn’t stopped Brichford’s American version of Gruyere from drawing acclaim. His Everton cheese earned a Good Foods Award in 2014 while his Ameribella earned the same honor this year. Brichford enters his cheeses in three to four contests a year with a two-fold purpose.

“The whole thing about being in contests is to get noticed,” he explains. “That’s one thing that we’ve found. And you need to enter competitions in order to get criticism about your cheese.”

Turning close to 2,000 pounds of fresh milk a day into cheese is rewarding to Brichford, but running a creamery was not his first agricultural career choice. Life with his wife and partner, Leslie Jacobs, first began on the Hoosier Homestead family farm in 1981 raising beef cattle and planting row crops. For the first 10 to 12 years, he raised Galloway beef cattle while farming crops on roughly 350 acres.

But crop farming lacked appeal to Brichford, and in 1995 he decided to expand to include a dairy. Initially that dairy housed a cross of Jersey, Normande and Tarentaise cows who were fed both grass and grain, but Brichford eventually switched to grass only with an eye toward producing a better product.

“I’ve always been grass-based, but I also used to be grain, and I quit that probably about 10 years ago. The health of the animal is quite a bit better,” says Brichford regarding the switch. “It means lower production, but the health of the animal is better. And it imparts a flavor to the milk that, if it’s done right, makes a big difference in the cheese.

“I like grass farming,” he says, regarding the 440 acres he currently keeps in pasture for his herd. “I’m a grass farmer first. When it comes to grass-fed, that’s where it’s at. That’s what it’s all about, sustainable agriculture. And it generates a lot of sales.”

But it hasn’t always been that way. Though Brichford set out to offer a better product with his dairy, he says he was never rewarded for selling grass-fed only milk, and he was killing himself in the process. His dairy operation had expanded, but lack of dependable help led to long hours, and his days off were few and far between.

“It’s work, building everything you do, designing a cheese plant, making the cheese, and marketing the cheese is a whole other career, but I’ve always been a big cheese fan.” —Matthew Brichford

“I’ve always been seasonal, which means we start milking in March and quit in December,” Brichford says, “and we would milk twice a day. I got up to 240 head, and we ran into labor problems. I have a good parlor and we can milk a lot of cows through it — if you have good help — but it’s difficult to find dairy help around here. Trying to find any farm help is a real challenge.

Matthew Brichford

Matthew Brichford

“I can milk 16 at a time,” Brichford continues, “so we were milking 240 a day, twice a day and I was doing most of the milking myself and farming. … “I was just working too many hours. That last year I hired 19 people, and none of them lasted more than three days until the last two, and they were only part-timers. They came out and did my evening milking, and that probably kept me from falling over dead that year. So I sold down to 50 cows and kept shipping to the co-op and started building the creamery.”

That was in 2007, and for the next four years, Brichford researched the fine art of making cheese while planning and building his cheese plant. From the beginning, he set out to do it right, taking classes on cheese making and working with the Indiana Board of Health to build a clean facility in which to craft his farmstead, artisan cheeses, all while continuing to manage his smaller dairy.

“We have a real clean plant,” says Brichford of his creamery, which opened in 2012. Cleanliness is of upmost importance for any creamery, but he is especially careful as he makes all of his cheese from raw, unpasteurized milk. Indiana allows the sale of cheese made from raw milk provided the product is aged under the right conditions for at least 60 days before it’s sold to the public. Waiting for 60 days allows any lethal pathogens to develop and be discovered through testing, which Brichford does regularly in his on-site laboratory.

“You can kill people and make them sick for the rest of their lives with that stuff,” says Brichford of food-borne pathogens such as listeria, “so you have to be very careful.”

His cheeses are classified as both artisan and farmstead because they are not only made in an open vat by hand — earning the artisan label — but also are made from milk produced by his cows on his land, earning the farmstead designation as well.

Jacobs and Brichford Farmstead Cheese offers three cheeses, Ameribella, Everton and Briana, a semi-firm, smear-ripened cheese. Brichford is currently developing a fourth, which should be available this August. Adair, a creamy, semi-soft French variety with a Scottish family name, is his newest creation.

Brichford sells his cheeses online through the creamery’s website, jandbcheese.com, and through distributors and retail locations around the country. Leslie and daughter Maize help to market their cheeses, while daughter Miah now manages the daily milking. A third daughter, Eliza, is entering a Ph.D. program in psychology and neuroscience at the University of Illinois.

“It’s work, building everything you do, designing a cheese plant, making the cheese, and marketing the cheese is a whole other career,” Brichford says. “But I’ve always been a big cheese fan.”