Local foods: Kokoborrego Cheese Company

Shelley Mann, Columbus Alive

Lisa Sippel and her brother, Ben Baldwin, are constantly working to convince skeptical customers they'd like sheep's cheese if they just gave it a try.

"People make the goat face at me a lot," Baldwin said, talking about those who don't care for the distinctive, pungent taste of cheese made from goat's milk. Sippel and Baldwin's sheep's milk cheese, on the other hand, is sweeter and nuttier - much closer to familiar cow's milk cheeses.

Once people try a sample, they're usually converts. The first batch of their Kokoborrego sheep's milk cheese has been so popular it's nearly sold out for the year.

Consumer education has been just one hurdle for the fledgling Kokoborrego Cheese Company, the newest branch of Sippel Family Farm. With help from Sippel's husband, also named Ben, the siblings are running the very first sheep dairy in Ohio.

The Sippels bought their farm in Mount Gilead, about an hour outside of Columbus, on a whim eight years ago and originally focused on produce. They decided to branch out into cheese because, for one thing, it's a more shelf-stable product. Heavy rains can ruin a corn crop, but it doesn't affect the cheese supply.

These small-batch artisan and farmstead cheeses are made using sheep's milk as well as cow's milk from a neighboring farm. So even when their sheep's milk cheese runs out, you can still buy Kokoborrego cow's milk cheeses at local markets.

The Sippels equipped their farm with a milking parlor for the sheep and a cheese room, where the temperature and humidity are carefully monitored as the cheeses age. Eventually they'd like to dig out a proper underground cheese cave.

"A cave will more naturally regulate its temperature without a cooling unit," Baldwin said. "Underground caves are between 50 and 55 degrees and have 80 to 85 percent humidity. Here we have to do artificial things to achieve that."

The siblings have lots of aspirations, including being able to offer sheep's cheese year-round, but for their first year they focused on the one sheep's cheese they knew they could do well: tomme. The sweet, nutty cheese is aged for three to four months.

"There's not a lot of instant gratification with cheesemaking," Baldwin said. "You can't really celebrate until several months later."

Photos by Jodi Miller

Kokoborrego Cheese Company