A modern family farm: Grandvewe Cheeses & Hartshorn Distillery

A selection of Grandvewe cheeses.
A selection of Grandvewe cheeses. Photo: Adam Liaw

Back in 2015 when our Prime Minister described Australia's future as agile, innovative and creative, most of us were picturing a tech-heavy nation of apps and cloud storage. But he could just as easily been describing a small cheesery and distillery in the hills overlooking Birchs Bay, about 40 minutes drive from Hobart.

At Grandvewe Cheeses and Hartshorn Distillery, the mother, daughter and son team of Diane Rae, Nicole Gilliver and Ryan Hartshorn make cheese and they also make booze, and the circumstances of how it all happened makes a lot more sense than you might think.

When Diane and her then-partner moved to Tasmania more than 17 years ago, the idea was a standard tree-change dream – a plot of land with a curl of vines, and a toe dipped into some small-scale wine production.

Adam Liaw gets hands-on with the cheesemaking process at Grandvewe.
Adam Liaw gets hands-on with the cheesemaking process at Grandvewe. Photo: Supplied

The vineyard was based on polyculture principles, raised off the ground so that sheep could roam beneath the vines removing weeds and fertilising, while providing an additional revenue stream for the farm.

The vines are long gone, but the dairy sheep took off and soon became the centrepiece of this operation. Over the years, Diane has produced her own breed, a cross between the more common but temperamental East Friesian and the Bedouin Awassi breed that she feels gives the perfect balance between milk production and ease of farming.

Diane certainly loves her sheep, and she's even named cheeses after them, but it's after the muddy boots have been replaced by the meticulous cleanliness of cheesemaking that this agile, innovative and creative family business really starts to come into its own. There's an intellectual curiosity here that I'm certain is the secret to their success.

Sheep whey vodka and gin at Hartshorn Distillery.
Sheep whey vodka and gin at Hartshorn Distillery. Photo: Adam Liaw

The first time I meet Diane is in Grandvewe's commercial kitchen, working at producing a butter from heavy sheep cream. It's not a simple process, due to the different properties of the fat micelles between cow milk and sheep milk (I think that was it anyway, the explanation was a bit over my head). It's an experiment that ultimately leads to one of Australia's first sheep milk butters, produced right in front of me and destined for the tables of some of Australia's best restaurants.

Just on the other side of the kitchen's wall, Diane's daughter Nicole takes the lead in the cheesery, and her enthusiasm for her product is matched only by her skill and talent in teasing award-winning cheeses from endlessly variable litres of fresh sheep milk. She's beaming as she offers me a taste of a new cheese she's experimenting with; a simple, unsalted ricottone (a ricotta-style cheese made from whey). It's delicate, creamy and sweet, and it's the second completely new thing I've tried in less than an hour.

The result of all her efforts are stunning, award-winning sheep milk cheeses, and it's a bit of a wonder to me that we don't eat more of them in Australia. Very different from both goat and cow milk cheeses, sheep milk cheese has an elegant structure with the unmistakable lactic sweetness of the milk. There's a gentle creaminess that is quite different than thick, heavily creamed cow's milk cheeses, and none of the barnyard aromas that goat cheeses sometimes have. But this story doesn't end with cheese.

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The leftover whey from the cheesery pipes straight downstairs where Nicole's brother Ryan runs Hartshorn Distillery. Using a secretive cheesemaking process, the lactose from whey is split to its component sugars which are then fermented, distilled and vapour-infused with Australian natives such as wattleseed and the hay-vanilla aroma of sweet vernal grass.

The new-wave Sheep Whey Gin it produces is a surprising drink. I assumed it would have some of whey's savoury-sourness but instead it's a full-bodied but clean spirit, amply supporting the aromatics. Trying it brings my count of 'firsts' to three just for the afternoon.

It's not often that I get to try three new things in a day, and any day that happens can easily be considered a very good one. I get the feeling, however, that it's not entirely rare here at Grandvewe.

To an average visitor stopping in at Grandvewe's tasting room for a sheep milk latte, a nip of whey vodka or gin, or a cheese board – it might appear that all the butter churning, cheesemaking, farming and distilling is just a sprawl of diverse activities where new things bubble to the surface more often than you think possible. In reality it's a series of deliberate and logical steps, and that agility, innovation and creativity is the blueprint for a very successful modern family business.

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This article brought to you by Tourism Tasmania.