Maplebrook Farm expands at new site

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NORTH BENNINGTON — Drive by Maplebrook Farm's new production facility on Water Street, and you'll be greeted by the sweet smell of cherry smoke and a fresh new sign.

The local cheesemaking business has grown from humble beginnings at a kitchen to a large new production facility. It means the company, which distributes award-winning artisanal cheeses to markets and stores as far as California, will have the space to churn out more product and set its sights on future growth, according to co-owners Johann Englert and Michael Scheps.

"There's so much that's changed for us," Scheps said during a recent tour of the new production facility at 441 Water St. here.

At the 10,000 square-foot facility on East Road, the business was churning out over 40,000 pounds of cheese each week. Scheps said they'll be able to make even more after completing phase one of an expansion. The second phase calls for bringing the East Road operation to the Water Street site.

"Everything will be under one roof," Englert said.

The company's roots go back to 2003, when Englert visited an Italian groceria in Manchester owned by Scheps' family. She asked Scheps, a third-generation cheesemaker, for 20 balls of mozzarella. They were brought to gourmet shops in Boston, who wanted more.

"It was fate," Englert remembers.

The acquisition and subsequent renovation of the Water Street manufacturing building effectively quadruples the business' operations, she said.

The new main production room has better ventilation and humidity control, with better plumbing and electrical infrastructure and a pitched floor for better drainage. A new walk-in cooler is about four times as large as the one on East Road. And it means workers have more space to move around.

During a recent visit to the facility, employees in white aprons were hard at work. At one end of the room, they were rolling balls of fresh mozzarella by hand. At another, they were stretching stracciatella that would be soaked in cream and folded into balls of mozzarella to make its signature, buttery burrata.

That product is truly award-winning. Maplebrook's cheeses took four awards last year: Buratta, ricotta alta and feta received first place ribbons from the American Cheese Society. And the business took a "Best in Fest" award from the Vermont Cheesemakers Festival. A dozen types of cheese are offered, some in a smoked variety, smoked on-site with cherry wood smoke.

Other changes include automation. "We used to take a handgun and date all of our boxes," Scheps said. But a brand-new boxing machine labels them for them. And a new thermo-former will wrap 600 pounds of fresh mozzarella in an hour. That will give that cheese a 60-day shelf life, meaning it can be shipped to markets and restaurants in California, Texas, and Colorado. (One line of fresh mozzarella is still hand-rolled and wrapped by hand.)

Englert and Scheps hope that with the expansion, they'll be able to have more visitors. More space would mean they could someday welcome the public to tour the facility, as part of the Vermont Cheese Trail. (Maplebrook is listed on the Vermont Cheese Council's list of cheesemakers across the state, but isn't yet designated as one open to the public for retail sales and farm tours.)

They've also been able to invest in bringing new talent, including marketing, officer and a general manager.

"They help us grow," Englert said.

Ed Damon can be reached at edamon@benningtonbanner.com, at @edamon_banner on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 111.


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