Australia's best cheddar cheese produced in a shipping container

Jane Holroyd
Ian Fowler, of Bay of Fires in Tasmania, makes his award-winning cheddar in a shipping container.
Ian Fowler, of Bay of Fires in Tasmania, makes his award-winning cheddar in a shipping container.  Photo: Chris Crerar

A cheddar made in a converted shipping container on a small property on Tasmania's east coast has been judged the country's best at the 2016 Australian Grand Dairy Awards.

Unlike the $7 Coles' Extra Reserve Cheddar, which was recently awarded best cheese at the Sydney Royal Cheese & Dairy Produce Show, Bay of Fires cloth-bound cheddar retails at about $69/kg and is difficult to come by – unless you live in Hobart, or frequent one of six fancy grocers in Melbourne.

The man behind the cheddar, Ian Fowler, is a 13th-generation cheesemaker who migrated from England to Tasmania seven years ago. He can date his cheesemaking pedigree to the 1670s; the Fowlers cheese company is the oldest cheese company in England.

The grass-fed herd that provides the milk for Ian Fowler's Bay of Fires cheddar.
The grass-fed herd that provides the milk for Ian Fowler's Bay of Fires cheddar. Photo: Chris Crerar

But Fowler's dream was always to start his own business. When time came to make the leap, he moved to a dairy-producing region of Tasmania (near St Helens) where he initially landed a job working at another cheese factory. When he decided to go it alone, the six-metre shipping container made sense from an economic perspective. But even Fowler needed some convincing initially.

"I had my doubts ... but it was actually someone involved in food safety that told me about it," he said. "The previous owner had been using it to make goats' milk cheese."

Buying a pre-established cheesemaking space also made it easier to get a loan.

Ian Fowler outside his Tasmanian cheese "factory".
Ian Fowler outside his Tasmanian cheese "factory". Photo: Chris Crerar

The container has some obvious cons. "It's certainly confined. If you move you touch the person next to you, but it's only ever family in here."

Once Fowler has collected the milk (600 litres each day from a nearby farm) the entire process of cheese-making takes place in the container except for the maturing. Fowler also has a purpose-built, temperature-controlled shed where the cheddar matures for 12 months. Up until about six months ago, he even did the milking – but "I just couldn't keep up".

Following his Grand Dairy Awards coup, it might be time for Fowler to seriously consider an expansion. "At the moment I can only produce 750 four-kilogram wheels of the cheddar [a year]" – a rate of about 60kg a week. "If I wanted to produce 100kg per week I would need to be able to store five tonnes of cheese, where currently I only have space for three tonnes."

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Judges, who blind tasted 15 cheddars to declare Fowler's the best, described it as "superbly crafted" with "a crumbly texture and buttery flavour developing slightly sweet, earthy flavours on the mid-palate". Entrants had to have won a gold medal at a previous approved state competition, however a spokeswoman for Coles confirmed the company did not enter its prizewinning, 500g home-brand cheddar (manufactured by Bega until the end of this year) in the 2016 Grand Dairy Awards.

The Victorian distributor of Fowler's boutique cheddar, Sam Hurst, of Savour and Grace, described it as "highly unusual". "A traditional English-style, cloth-bound cheddar is very acidic, very sharp. But this cheese is very buttery and grassy ... It's not a hit-you-in-the-head flavour, but is very complex and nuanced ... it gets more interesting.

"I think it is worth the price," Hurst said. "Ian has decades of experience in England but he really knows Australian milk and has complete control over his supply ... We're always on the lookout for a cheese that has a real provenance and this one ticks all the boxes."

Can't keep up: Australia's best cheddar 2016.
Can't keep up: Australia's best cheddar 2016. Photo: Chris Crerar

Fowler says the key to his flavour is a method of pasteurising the milk at a lower temperature (for longer), but more importantly the fact the milk is from cows "with a good Jersey base who are fed only on grass" – unusual in Australia.

Not everyone is a fan of the cheddar though. "My 13-year-old son complains it's too strong," Fowler laughs. He's not sure his children will become 14th generation cheesemakers.

The 2016 Grand Dairy Awards

Cheddar winner

Bay of Fires Cheddar

Other national cheddar finalists

Bega Heritage Reserve (available at Bega Heritage Centre)

Warrnambool Matured Cheddar

National cheddar entrants (must have previously won a gold medal at approved state competitions)

Bay of Fires Cheddar

Bega Extra Tasty Cheddar

Bega Heritage Reserve Cheddar

Emporium Selection 20-Month Aged Cheddar

King Island Dairy Black Label Cloth-Matured Cheddar

King Island Dairy Black Label Wax Cheddar

King Island Dairy Surprise Bay Cheddar

Maffra Cloth-Aged Cheddar

Maffra Cloth-Aged Red Leicester

Maffra Mature Cheddar

Warrnambool Mature Cheddar

Warrnambool Vintage Black Waxed Cheddar

Warrnambool Vintage Cheddar

Westacre Extra Tasty Cheddar

Wicked Vintage Cloth-Bound Cheddar