In early 2007, Texas cheesemaker Susan Rigg, owner of the microcreamery River Whey Creamery, was working at a bookstore in San Antonio. At the time, she had no idea that less than ten years later she would have award-winning cheese, but big dreams often start with humble (or crumbly) beginnings. When faced with her future career path, Susan shared, “I hired a life coach and spent a year making the decision about what I really wanted to do with the second half of my life.”
While still at the bookstore, Susan discovered some information about the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). After a week-long culinary boot camp, journaling, and exploring her options, she realized she could definitely see herself as a chef, but she knew she did not want to deal with the grueling demands of running a restaurant.
Before the Cheese
She enrolled at the CIA in San Antonio. By the time she graduated culinary school (at the Hyde Park, New York location), she had whittled her options down. “What I did find is that I like processes that take a long time– fermenting, brewing, curing meats, making pasta by hand– and so dairy stuff kept coming up,” Susan said. For a business class assignment at the CIA, she had to write a business plan. At the time, her mom in Napa Valley had just discovered a scrumptious goat’s milk butter. “We have lots of goats in Texas, but nobody does it,” Susan noted, and so she developed a plan for a company she called Texas Nanny Goat Butter Company. The plan was so good, her instructor told her that he would be interested in investing if she ever decided to launch it.
In the end, that concept proved to be far too expensive. “I would have to charge eighteen dollars per pound of butter, so I kept looking at it and made things at home like butter, kefir, and cheese. I just kept going.”
Once Susan settled on the concept of cheese, the next big decision was to determine whether she should buy a piece of land and maintain her own animals, to sell cheese as a byproduct off the herd, or to get a creamery and hire someone for herd management. “I’m a chef at heart, but it’s that chef-y creativity that drives me,” she said cheerfully. The deciding factor came after spending a weekend with goats on a ranch and mucking out stalls. “No, I’m not doing this,” she laughed. “The animals didn’t drive me, it was the flavor profiles, textures, and pairings; I was super excited about all that.”
Learning the Trade
After graduating from the CIA, Susan went to work for Humble House Foods, making cheese and selling it at the Pearl Farmers Market in San Antonio. She worked hand-in-hand with cheesemaker Luis Morales who said, “Susan was an extreme professional. She taught me as much about business as I taught her about cheese; it was one of the most even tradeoffs I’ve ever had.” As for her cheesemaking prowess, Morales added, “She was a natural, she really was! Susan is very Type A so she likes to have control, and be in control, and you have to have that kind of drive for cheesemaking because it’s very precise.” Morales continued, obviously very proud of his protégé. “Most people don’t have the patience and care that is essential to making good cheese, but Susan was born to make cheese. That’s why she’s doing it and winning awards.”
When Susan was finally ready to launch her own business and discovered Four E Dairy Farm, a family-owned Jersey cow dairy farm located in the rolling hills of Lavaca County in Moulton, Texas, she knew they were the perfect fit for what she was trying to accomplish. “It was hard to find the right [farm] for us. It was very important that we do it as sustainably as we can, and you absolutely cannot make world-class cheese unless you start with world-class milk,” Susan stated confidently. She spoke blissfully of the importance of the butter fat content in milk and the creamy yellow hue as it is slowly poured into the vat. “I want to bathe in it; it smells so good,” she said.
Four E Dairy has been in Texas since 1865. These fourth generation farmers are known for the great care they provide their animals. They maintain a small herd and let the cows milk naturally with no hormones and no pushing, which has resulted in cows that live ten years on average, something that is practically unheard of in the industry. “Gigantic dairy farms push the animals to produce as much as possible. The cows’ backs, hips, and spines eventually give out. It’s not good for the animal,” explained Susan, who uses Four E’s raw milk to make River Whey Creamery’s cheeses.
Susan officially procured her license to make cheese in October of 2014. She ages her cheeses in a man-made cave with specifically designed chambers using controlled heat and humidity. The company sold their first cheese that December at the Pearl Brewery Farmers Market. “The Pearl has always been our home market and will continue to be. We believe in what the complex is about. It’s a producers-only market,” said Susan.
Oh, the Cheese!
River Whey Creamery currently produces three different fine aged cheeses, including Keystone, Caldera España, and The Welshman. Additionally, it makes two creamy fresh cheeses called St. Clements and Midsummer Surprise.
Keystone is River Whey Creamery’s cornerstone cheese. It is a strong northern Italian-style rubbed with Sandy Oaks’ Texas olive oil during its time aging in the “cave.” Susan recommends using this one with pasta, quiche, or breakfast eggs.
Caldera España is Susan’s nod to the high plains of Spain. Naturally, this cheese uses Four E’s local South Texas, raw, Jersey cows’ milk instead. River Whey Creamery ages the cheese for three months and then smokes it over Texas pecan. This creamy delight is perfect for grilled cheese sandwiches or as the star of a charcuterie plate.
The Welshman was developed in honor of Susan’s Welsh heritage and the country’s well-known hard, crumbly white cheese. Caerphilly, originating in the town by the same name. It was made by the wives of Welsh miners in an effort to replenish the fluids lost at work. This tangy cheese is reminiscent of cheddar and pairs well with just about anything.
Midsummer Surprise is Susan’s summer cheese, made with a fromage blanc base, Tahitian vanilla, sea salt, and organic ginger. It is spectacular with crackers or added to a salad or veggie dish.
St. Clements is Susan’s award-winning fresh cheese made in the winter with organic oranges, lemons, and Holdman Honey’s Texas honey. This past summer (2016), St. Clements won first place at the American Cheese Society Judging and Competition in the category for “Soft Unripened Cheese – Flavor Added.” This year’s competition included a whopping 1,843 different cheeses in 21 categories. Susan entered all of her cheeses into the competition with the assumption that Keystone might be the big winner. She was happily surprised when St. Clements was named. “I was absolutely stunned,” she beamed. “To win anything would have been astounding, but first place is like skyrocketing.”
The Future of River Whey Creamery
If the success Susan and her team have seen in such a short time is any indication, River Whey Creamery is on its way to becoming an industry darling and household name, at least in Texas, but likely beyond. “Our company is looking to grow and build a facility, and we’ve only just made it past the two-year mark,” said Susan (referring to this past October’s anniversary). River Whey Creamery is also preparing to introduce a new cheese, currently unnamed and simply titled “RWC4,” which will be some kind of alpine cheese “using cooked curd. Because the curds are hotter, you get a nice, smooth texture that’s sweeter on the palate.”
If you are looking to sample River Whey Creamery’s cheese, check the website to find a store near you. Susan is currently in discussions with some larger retailers. The goal is to distribute her cheese and inspire the world one wedge at a time!