Five Artisans: First Light Creamery
From goat to the market, these East Bethany cheesemakers handle all aspects of production and sales
At five on a Sunday morning, cheese makers Trystan and Max Sandvoss are already hard at work while the rest of us sleep in. The 104 goats that live with the brothers on their sustainably managed twenty-acre farm are eager for breakfast—and fifty-four of them need milking. Soon, it will be time to check on a vat of chevre that has been ripening overnight.
As the sun rises and the milking is done, the brothers move into the creamery. With stainless steel vats and work tables, this area must be kept meticulously clean—in contrast to the earthy meadows where the goats graze. The brothers taste the day’s milk and discuss which cheese it’s best-suited to become. First Light produces their creamy chevre with milk from their herd of goats, and, with milk from a neighboring farmer’s Jersey cows, they also make organic cream-top yogurt, organic cream-top milk, cheddar, jack, and cheddar curds. There’s also a feta made with both cow’s and goat’s milk.
The brothers started with all dry animals and built the creamery over the course of a year. “If you didn’t have a skill when you started, you need to develop it quickly,” Trystan says. That could mean anything from understanding the engineering of a milk vat to learning how to establish a relationship with the goats.
“Every herd has its own culture,” he says. The brothers keep that in mind as they work with the herd—it keeps the goats happy, and happy goats make better milk.
Afternoons often find one of the Sandvoss brothers on the road. “We do deliveries at least four days a week,” Trystan says.
The brothers do all their marketing and distribution themselves. That means that you’ll find Trystan or Max out sharing the story of the cheese they make while manning their farm market booth. They also personally establish their relationships with the bakeries, cheese stores, restaurants, co-ops, and local shops that carry First Light products.
The Sandvosses weren’t born into the alternately messy and exacting work that cheesemaking requires. After college, they worked freelance jobs, but they believe in the maxim “you are what you eat”—and one thing the brothers liked to eat was goat cheese. They began with apprenticeships in Washington state that taught them animal husbandry, cheesemaking, and marketing skills. After a careful search, the Sandvosses found the right spot to build First Light Farm and Creamery, not far from their mother’s home in East Bethany.
Now entering their third year, the Sandvosses have carefully overseen every aspect of beginning and growing their business. From converting a horse barn into a milking parlor and creamery to growing twenty-two dry yearlings and two milkers into a working herd of goats, they have crafted every detail themselves.
At lunch, students from the Sunday cheesemaking class gather in Trystan’s dining room to feast on seasonal dishes made with cheese and milk from the creamery. With the brothers’ busy schedule—often stretching sixteen hours a day, seven days a week—a meal like this is a rarity.
“We look forward to Sundays,” Max says.
On these days, the brothers welcome to their shop aspiring cheesemakers eager to try reproducing palatable results at home. “We have only a brief moment with our customers in the farmer’s market stalls and none in the stores,” says Max. “It’s great to get folks out to the farm to make friends and tell our story.”
It’s important for customers to understand how their cheeses are different, the brothers believe. And Trystan is an excellent storyteller. His passion is obvious, and the class is constructed so that there is plenty of room to share all the details about the brothers’ heartfelt endeavor.
A cheesemaker’s days have a rhythm to them, but they’re far from routine. One brother may start the cheese, and the second will pick up where he leaves off, so communication is important and flows naturally. Trystan and Max each wear Bluetooth headphones at all times so they can make quick calls to one another from anywhere on the farm.
“Cheese is slow food, so you do a step and wait thirty minutes or an hour,” Trystan explains. In the time in between, the brothers need to fit in packaging cheese, evaluating cheese that has aged, and maybe the occasional lunch break. “At the scale that we are, there’s a lot of variety, which we like.”
Summer is spent managing pastures and feeding the baby kids who were born in the spring. “If all those who were born this year survive, we’ll double our herd,” he says.
The brothers must also prepare for winter by carefully storing up hay. “We don’t raise hay ourselves, but it comes from within ten miles of our farm,” Trystan says. “We know the farmer and his pastures.” Making good cheese starts with good milk, so keeping track of the minutiae of their herd’s diet is essential.
How the animals are fed is just one component of the larger picture of running a sustainable farm and creamery. With so many details to keep track of in the cheesemaking part of the business, it’s easy to see why a good cheesemaker is a bit of a control freak, as Trystan is fond of pointing out. Carefully crafting their cheeses, with a finger on every step from pasture to plate is what differentiates First Light’s products—and their story.