FOOD

Ancient History

Creamery prospers despite tragedy, relocation

By Christine Hyatt

In 2006, when the Obringers moved to what was a defunct cow dairy in Scio, they established Ancient Heritage Dairy with the intention of raising sheep.

Clockwise from top left: Willow Creek, Isabella and Hannah. ##Photo by Christine Hyatt

As the first sheep dairy in Oregon, Ancient Heritage’s path has not always been smooth, but as the Obringers have continued to push forward, growing their brand and attracting attention from cheesemongers near and far, the second generation is now taking the lead, with the opening of an urban creamery in Southeast Portland.

The family started with a flock of East Fresian sheep and a small herd of cows. Kathy Obringer crafted both ripened and aged cheeses in limited space and a single aging cave. Her husband, Paul Obringer, focused on marketing; meanwhile their older children worked with the animals, and their youngest, Hank, learned the craft from his mom.

After Kathy’s untimely death in 2010, the venture was at a crossroads; their rented farm in Scio was too hard for the dry-weather loving sheep. In turn, Paul and his sons moved relocated to the high desert of Central Oregon, where the animals would fare better.

With Portland investors backing their creamery renovation in Madras and a local cow dairy nearby to source the mixed milk cheeses, Paul took up the cheesemaking mantle.

An urban creamery was always part of the plan, and that dream was realized in 2015 when their new facility opened in the historic Weatherly building on S.E. Seventh and Main streets in Portland. Appropriately enough, the building once operated as a wholesale dairy business and manufactured ice cream, butter and cheese.

If you happen to be in the area during the week, you can see cheesemakers coaxing vats of creamy sheep milk into curds and whey inside a pristine “make” room that is visible through the large glass windows.

Hank Obringer (left) and Bethany Keuter. Photo by Christine Hyatt

Hidden from most views is the magic that happens in the three distinct aging caves onsite, a luxury most small cheesemakers can only dream of and one of the big hurdles of elevating a small cheese business.

After making the decision to relocate the creamery to Portland, Paul and Hank partnered with a nearby dairy farm to produce milk using the flock they had established first in Scio and later in Madras.

 “The milk has to be pristine so it can travel into the aging process and taste good a year later,” says assistant general manager Bethany Keuter.

Unfortunately, the Oregon dairy could not produce the consistent, quality milk and the relationship fizzled.

Today, the company relies on a commercial sheep dairy in Wisconsin to supply enough high quality milk in volume the creamery needs to be successful. While not ideal, this arrangement allows the operation to focus on cheesemaking rather than animal husbandry.

Being in the city also provides another distinct advantage: a rich pool of culinary-trained people. Before his recent retirement, Paul trained current cheesemakers Kevin and Taylor. Both have worked restaurants around town and food people.

“These are the sorts of people you want making cheese. They have a palate and understand salt levels, what time is going to do to the product, all those sorts of things,” says Hank, who serves as general manager and director of operations.

The adjacent restaurant, Renata, uses the cheese in their menu and has a private dining space with a window view into one of those magical aging caves, providing a synergistic view into the world of the food on the plate.

Though the creamery does not have a retail shop on the premises, a small cheese kiosk can be found next door at Alma Chocolate, making it an ideal place to stop and taste the flavors of Portland. 

Ancient Heritage’s award-winning slate of romantically named cheeses includes the soft-ripened Adelle; Hannah, an aged cow-sheep blend; Heritage, an all sheep-milk aged cheese; and Willow, a fudgy, rich cheese decorated with a grape leaf on top. All are a delicious expression of sheep milk and traditional cheesemaking techniques.

Overcoming obstacles and uncertainty while growing a business is not easy for any business, let alone an artisan creamery. The Obringers should be commended for their hard-earned success and undeniably delicious cheese, too.

For more about Ancient Heritage, visit www.ancientheritagedairy.com or call 971-229-0950.

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