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Artisan cheesemaker Shep Ysselstein walks the Swiss-inspired cheese walk

Before Shep Ysselstein talked the talk associated with a nationally-recognized Swiss-inspired artisan cheesemaker, he walked every step of the walk in the very country and alps harbouring his adopted craft.

For four formative months, Ysselstein immersed himself in Switzerland’s traditional alpine cheesemaking world, rising early in the morning to milk a 30-head herd in outdoor stalls, vacuum-pumping milk into a bucket and transferring it from there to a can prior to transporting it to the cheese-making shop. In the afternoon he’d return to the meadow, rounding up cattle to repeat the procedure.

Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese founder Shep Ysselstein
Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese founder Shep Ysselstein learned his craft in the mountains of Switzerland, immersed in traditional Swiss cheesemaking techniques and procedure.

“I got to experience every aspect of Swiss cheesemaking in a very real way.”

Ysselstein went full out, participating in the annual fall alpine cow parade, a Swiss tradition whereby cattle are herded down the mountains from summer grazing sites to winter village-based housing, the cattle wearing special bells for the occasion.

“A lot of times they’ve been passed down for generations,” said Ysselstein, who donned enough traditional herder garb during the passage down the mountain (brown pants, embroidered bright-red vests draped over the back with flowers and wreaths) to fool a passing tourist or two.

“I was like, I’m actually Canadian,” he smiled.

Ysselstein returned home to Oxford County home with the passion to meld his new-found knowledge with farm-fresh milk sourced through his own family’s dairy-farming operation. His grandfather and namesake emigrated to Canada in the 1950s, working, renting and then buying a farm near Gunn’s Hill (north of Burgessville/south of Woodstock) in 1968, son John and wife Helen following in his founding footsteps. Their sons John and Shep continued that tradition, John taking over dairy operations while Shep (junior) began producing cheese under the Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese brand in August, 2011, with milk from his brother.

5 Brothers is inspired by the hard cow’s milk cheeses
5 Brothers is inspired by the hard cow’s milk cheeses produced in Switzerland’s northeast Appenzeller region, made here in Canada by Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese maker Shep Ysselstein, who sources fresh milk from his brother John’s dairy operation farming operation.

The biggest misconception Shep faces - and admittedly initially faced in his own mind - around Swiss-inspired cheesemaking is the breadth and depth of variety it encompasses beyond the one with holes which holds pre-eminence in the minds of many consumers.

“That was very attractive to me,” says Ysselstein who launched with three varieties which still remain central to the business a decade in.

5 Brothers is inspired by the hard cow’s milk cheeses produced in Switzerland’s northeast Appenzeller region; Oxford’s Harvest pays homage to Mutschli, a little-known semi-hard full fat creation; and Handeck, a drier, rich hard cheese with origins in the tradition of Gruyere, reputed to be the most popular Swiss cheese in that country and throughout Europe.

“A lot of what we do is still based on those,” says Ysselstein, who also began producing curds which are wildly popular in the area. “Every Friday is fresh curd day still.”

His launch coincided with an expansion in the speciality cheese market says Ysselstein, a consumer trend open to local, unique and more flavourful options.

“All these markets started to grow and they have a lot in the last ten years.”

He sees the broader dairy products market breaking down into two main categories, higher-volume production with low cost as one end-goal, and alternatively, more hand-made, unique and distinctive products.

“There is a good niche for that too, but it seems like it’s one or the other.”

In 2013, Gunn’s Hill 5 Brothers won the Canadian Cheese Grand Prix (a national competition sponsored by the Dairy Farmers of Ontario) Firm Cheese award, adding credibility to Ysselstein’s vision and efforts.

“That helped us grow rapidly,” says Shep, who also relies on old-fashioned word-of-mouth, promotions and social media efforts coordinated by his wife Colleen Bator.

“She is significantly more creative and a lot better with words than I am,” he smiled. “That seems to work very well for the people who are buying our type of cheese.”

Ysselstein is content to focus on cheesemaking for an operation that has grown to include ten employees.

“I still enjoy the physical nature of making cheese, solving problems and trying new things.”

Roughly 20 per cent of Gunn’s Hill cheese is sold onsite at its 445172 Gunn’s Hill Road location, with the balance going to cheese shops, speciality food stores, grocery stores and restaurants. Christmas is a particularly busy time of year, given the popularity of gift baskets which Ysselstein attributes to a growing emphasis on unique and quality consumables.

“People have so much stuff these days.”

COVID’s onset did result in a ‘blip’, but given cheese is food and thereby deemed essential, the largest challenges came via uncertainty and establishing related protocols.

“Now we have kind of figured out how this thing works, it’s more or less business as usual.”

The Gunn’s Hill line has expanded over the years to include offerings such as ‘co-pack’ (made and produced onsite) goat (Shepherd’s Harvest) and buffalo (Buffalo Bliss and Elgin Buffalo) cheeses with milk from Aylmer’s Hope Artisan Dairy Co-op, and Crossroad Farms Sheep Milk Gouda. Ysselstein’s original Oxford’s Harvest also features additional flavoured (garlic and chives, jalapeño, dill or cumin) options as well as those married with the flavour from Woodstock’s Upper Thames Brewery’s Dark Side Chocolate Stout (Dark Side of the Moo), Palantine Hills Cabernet Merlot (Tipsy) or seasonal beers from Beau’s All Natural Brewing of Vankleek, Hill (Beaus).

Ysselstein has also developed Brigid’s Brie, a traditional softer Brie named in honour of his late mother-in-law and the patron saint of milkmaids and dairy farmers.

“We want to still do what we’re known for, but introduce new types so people can enjoy the cheese they know, but also have an opportunity to try something new.”

In conclusion, Ysselstein sees similarities between artisan cheesemaking and craft brewing, in the sense excitement can be generated through new offerings.

“If they find it and like it and go for it again, that’s how you get ahead.”

However, at the end of the day, his focus will always remain ensuring the same level of quality and craftsmanship goes into an evolving product line, balanced with deep respect for what established the company in the first place, ‘new’ combined with an ongoing effort to get better.

“I’m always trying to improve, the cheese, the business, what we do, making it better all the time. It’s always good to grow in terms of next level.” 
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