Sebastopol cheesemaker brings British style to Sonoma County
Organic local milk with a dash of “proper” British style has yielded some delicious cheeses at The Barlow.
These delectable products, all from a small purveyor named Wm. (that’s a British abbreviation for “William”) Cofield Cheesemakers, are unlike any other cheese being made in the region — a rare and unusual treat that has titillated foodie fans both near and far.
The shop is a cut off the old block from cheesemaker Keith Adams, who makes all the cheeses himself on site in Sebastopol.
“We’re small but mighty in the world of cheese,” said Adams, 58. “Between wine, beer, gourmet food and produce, Sonoma County has an embarrassment of riches. It’s nice to know people consider our cheeses among them.”
Specifically, Wm. Cofield creates three specific goodies: the complex, Stilton-inspired Bodega Blue; the lush, cloth-bound aged McKinley Cheddar; and the squeakiest cheese curds this side of the Mississippi River. The shop also carries about 15 other cheeses from local purveyors at its retail counter, which is open to the public every day.
The counter also sells charcuterie from The Fatted Calf in Napa and Journeyman in Healdsburg.
Cheeses are available in minimum quantities of a quarter pound; most cost $30 or less. They also are sold at Oliver’s Markets, Oakville Grocery in Healdsburg and Molsberry’s in Santa Rosa, to name a few.
Adams never intended to become a full-time professional cheesemaker.
He grew up in Davis, but moved to Minnesota after a short career in the financial services industry. Following a stint as co-owner of a local chain of bagel stores, Adams worked in a job in publishing for three years, then decided it was time to follow a burgeoning passion and start an artisan cheese business.
In 2008, Alemar Cheese Co. was born. The first cheese Adams made was a Camambert-style soft cheese named Bent River. Over the course of a few years, this cheese brought Adams’ one-man, small-town operation to the attention of connoisseurs and critics well beyond Minnesota. Some food writers said it was the best Camembert outside of Camembert. (That’s in France, for those of you scoring at home.)
Eventually, Adams added other cheeses to the Alemar lineup and installed his daughter, Alexandria, at the helm. She still runs the shop today.
Keith Adams had other plans.
About six years ago, harboring a desire to return to California, Adams dreamed up the idea of making British-inspired cheese in Sonoma County. He studied cheesemaking in England. He researched the Sonoma County cheese scene. Then he leaned on an old friend, Rob Hunter, to make the leap.
The two had been college roommates. Hunter, whose family has property in Kenwood, is the former winemaker for Markham, Sterling, and, for the past 12 years, Bennett Lane Winery. Together, they found local Jersey cow farmers who would sell them milk, lined up a 3,000-square-foot space at the back of The Barlow, and in 2017 they got the operation rolling.
The “jewel box” of a production facility now cranks out hundreds of pounds of cheese each year.
While weathering the pandemic has been tough, Adams said the biggest challenge for his business was surviving the 2018 flood that decimated The Barlow and caused the departure of Zazu, the neighboring restaurant from chefs Duskie Estes and John Stewart.
“Fortunately, all the cheese was safe, but we had 10 inches of water in here and we lost power for 15 days,” he said. “It took us five weeks to get back to production after all that.”
Keeping British style alive
There’s a lot of history in the name, Wm. Cofield.
William is Adams’ father’s name and Cofield is his mother’s maiden name (and Adams’ middle name). Both men have considerable British heritage. They also both really love British-style cheese.
This British vibe characterizes every aspect of the Wm. Cofield experience today. As you wander toward the shop past the Blue Ridge Kitchen (which occupies the former Zazu space), the first thing that grabs your attention is a sign in the shape of a cow with a Union Jack on its flanks.
Inside, the first thing you see is a glassed-in kitchen with 800-gallon vats for making cheese.
As you approach the case and counter, to your left you’ll spot a window with a view of the aging room. This is where the cheddar is wrapped in muslin cloth and gets its flavor. Wheels of cheese sit roughly six months for the regular McKinley, 12 months or more for the cheese Adams calls the “Big McK.” Both cheeses are made with milk from a cattle herd in Two Rock Valley on the outskirts of Petaluma.
“The secret to great cheese is great milk,” said Adams. “One of the reason we’re able to do what we do is because we have access to the best milk in the country right here in Sonoma County.”
In addition to the McKinley cheeses, Adams also makes a Stilton-style blue that is sweet and salty but never cloyingly so. For these, Adams “rubs up” each 6-pound wheel, a technique that breaks the exterior rind into a butter-like consistency through a process that resembles frosting a cake. This cheese isn’t always available, but Adams said he just finished a new batch that will be released for sale early next month. Adams cuts all portions of this and the cheddar on an old-school tray with a piano wire.
Perhaps the most popular product at Wm. Cofield is the fresh cheese curds. These come in a bag and are perfect for frying or eating atop French fries in a poutine. Curd connoisseurs say the sign of a good curd is if it squeaks in your mouth when you chew it. Not surprisingly, these squeak like a mouse every time.
In and around Sonoma, other cheesemakers have taken notice of what Wm. Cofield is doing.
Sheana Davis, owner of the Epicurean Connection in Sonoma, said Adams has revolutionized the local cheese scene with styles and flavors that were new to just about everyone.
“Keith has been a great addition to our cheese community because he is making styles of cheese that we have not seen here until he arrived,” said Davis, who admitted her husband is “hooked” on air-fried versions of Wm. Cofield curds.
Looking forward, Adams said he’s just about to enter his busy season —most cheese shops sell one-third of their product between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.
Adams was clear to note that The Barlow is open with face-covering requirements and certain other COVID-19 safety precautions in place. He added that while visitors cannot currently sample cheese as they used to while they are in the shop, a visit still would afford them a sense of what the Wm. Cofield operation is all about.
“My hope is that people walk away with an understanding about the dedication and integrity we have toward making the best cheese possible,” he said. “This is a business, but it’s also a passion.”