For Jan and Trevor Brandon, the transition from hobby to professional cheese making was practically unavoidable. They had become too good at it and the right people were taking notice. Popularity has become an issue more than once for the unassuming cheese lovers.
Early fans included local winemakers who felt particular varieties of the Brandon’s cheese were perfect matches for their wines. Just which cheese in particular kick-started their successful transition to cheese makers we won’t say, as they have previously made unpopular attempts to move away from it due to the time and effort involved in its production. Time and effort that Jan and Trevor would rather spend exploring their craft and new flavours. Every two years they travel to Europe, both for inspiration and to continue to learn about cheese making. Trevor says there is no point fiddling around in Australia trying to invent something without learning a few things in the places where they’ve been making cheese for thousands of years. Jan says it offers them an important perspective on their cheese making. They bring back ideas and try new things, something they are enjoying ever more. Trevor returned from one trip so taken with a particular French cheese that he spent about eighteen months trying to “nut out” the smell and flavour.
Customer feedback is also important and they use it to inform their experiments with new varieties. The feedback, though, seems to be overwhelmingly positive. The cheeses have won multiple awards, however Jan and Trevor find the competition process too much hassle. Again, a winner like the Misty Valley can become too popular after receiving such recognition leaving them struggling to keep up with demand. And it is important to remember that this is a relatively small family business that grew out of a hobby. When their children moved out of the Red Hill house they built many years earlier, they converted it into a bed and breakfast. They started making cheese and taking it to gatherings with local friends, including winemakers with whom they exchanged produce. It wasn’t for sale – that is until interested buyers literally came knocking.
The business has changed, but it’s still in the family. Jan and Trevor are still the face of the brand and do most of the selling, but their son Bourke provides all the sheep’s milk from his Gippsland farm, delivering it weekly. Sheep’s milk cheese is now the focus, but they source goat’s milk from other farms as well. They are one of the few cheese makers to produce table cheese from sheep’s milk. Half the sales are through the cellar door, which is open on weekends and public holidays, as well as daily from 27 December until the end of January. On busy days, they’ve had as many as 600 people pass through. The cheese is available on the peninsula and Melbourne at various farmers and community markets, as well as a handful of deli’s. Demand for their products has come from as far as a French chef on Hamilton Island.
The fact is, Jan and Trevor live and breathe cheese, essentially being a home-based business means they have the time to give the cheese the attention it requires – such as turning at 9pm, as is required on a make day and something that other companies might leave to shift workers or not bother with at all, leading to a “wonky” end product. The ethos of Red Hill Cheese is providing the essential cheese experience. Alcohol is not available on site, tastings focus solely on the cheese. This doesn’t detract from the experience, but enhances it. Trevor says visitors quickly become thoroughly engaged in the experience, asking questions and talking about the intricacies of the cheeses. They’ve dedicated themselves to this (now professional) hobby, and purity is at the heart of both the product and the experience.