Local Cheese Empire Passes the Torch
There have been some changes in Alberta’s artisan cheese making world. Sylvan Star Cheese has long been one of our province’s largest and most recognized cheese producers. The Schalkwyk family started a Holstein dairy cow farm in 1995. After moving from Holland they had a hard time finding good cheese so they started to make their own. John Schalkwyk had 30 years of cheese making experience, which he learned from his mother. They started making traditional Dutch gouda cheese in 1999 and Sylvan Star Cheese was born. They have won numerous awards for their cheeses. Perhaps one of their best-known offerings is the Grizzly Gouda. This cheese is almost comparable to parmesan. It is a very hard and crumbly gouda, as it has been aged much longer than usual. Because of the age of Grizzly Gouda, it loses a lot of its water weight and has a nutty flavour. It has a characteristic “crunch” due to calcium lactate crystals. The crunchy crystals form during the aging process, as bacteria breaks down the lactose. Due to this conversion of lactic acid, gouda cheese doesn’t actually have any lactose in it! Grizzly Gouda and the other Sylvan Star selections are award-winning examples of what fine
Albertan cheese can be.
That is how Sylvan Star got its start, but what is in store for the iconic cheese making brand today? The Schalkwyks were getting older and probably starting to wonder how they might pass along their successful brand. Luckily for them, they heard through the grape-vine about another Dutch immigrant who had recently moved to Alberta to pursue his passion for making quality gouda…
"...quality cheese comes from quality milk."
I first met Art Snoek in 2021. I had heard rumblings of a new cheese maker entering the Albertan scene. What stood out about Art’s company, Alberta Pike Cheese, was not only that he was the new kid in town, but he was making cheese with cow’s milk. Alberta Milk very closely governs the cow milk industry and it uses a strict quota system. This quota system makes things a bit more complicated for cheese makers and it can be difficult to know the exact source of the milk. What a cow eats can drastically affect their milk and thus the cheese it is able to create. As such, the world of Alberta Milk can be a bit of headache for any cheese maker, let alone someone new to town. Many cheese producers in our province rely on goat milk to create their cheeses, as goat milk is not regulated by a quota system. Despite the challenges, Art consistently produced an exceptional quality cheese. He is a sixth-generation cheese maker, having learned the trade from his family. The gouda Alberta Pike Cheese was producing was delicious, especially creamy, and their creative flavors were enticing. Art emerged onto the Albertan cheese making scene and caught the eye of the family behind Sylvan Star Cheese. He was approached about taking over their cheese empire, and while negotiations drew out over the course of a year, Art Snoek and his wife Jennifer eventually transitioned to become the new owners of Sylvan Star in February 2022. This transfer is unique in several ways. Art is only 28 years old, an impressive age to be running two of Alberta’s larger cheese making operations (as Alberta Pike Cheese still continues on). He came to Canada only 6 years ago, moving from his home close to the city of Gouda in the Netherlands (yes, it is an actual place). Another highlight is the fact that the Schalkwyk family continues to support and mentor Art as he has taken the reins of Sylvan Star. It’s wonderful to see this camaraderie between local producers. Yet another amazing feature of Art taking over is that he can still rely on the Schalkwyk’s son (Jeroen) who continues to produce high-quality milk from the family’s own herd of Holstein cattle. This is a rare trait of Sylvan Star, in that they are able to know exactly what the cows are eating; thus they are able to control the quality and subtle nuances of the milk. This is critical, as quality cheese comes from quality milk.
Art was kind enough to tour us around his newfound cheese making facility. From our tour with him back in 2021 to see where he is now, it’s so impressive to see the growth of his passion. The facility itself is enabling a larger volume of cheese to be produced and more kinds too. In the new facility, Art is making upwards of 30 different kinds of cheese. He continues to make Sylvan Star’s tried and true favourites, like the Grizzly Gouda and their “Klondyk” gruyere. Their flavoured goudas include: smoked, coconut, beer and mustard, truffle, peppercorn, nettle and celery, fenugreek, pesto, and many more. Seeing the aisles upon aisles of cheese wheels is staggering, as they age at different lengths of time. The youngest cheese they produce is 2 months old. Each wheel is hand coated in wax each day for 8 days. This wax protects the cheese during the aging process. Wheels also need to be individually wiped down and frequently rotated as they mature. Moving into the new location has drastically increased their cheese making technology. There is an immense milk pasteurization machine, with holds milk at the required 72°C for 18 seconds. There is a giant salted water bath set into the floor, allowing them to efficiently soak/brine the cheese wheels. It wasn’t just the equipment they upgraded! They now have an impressive storefront which carries a variety of other cheeses, local products, and food specialties from Holland and Europe. Art also mentioned the potential of opening a small restaurant there too. Outside is a quaint chicken coop with some friendly chickens. Their fresh eggs are sold in store. This impressive operation is situated just outside of Sylvan Lake on a picturesque country road. During our visit, it was great to see a steady stream of people coming to purchase cheese direct from the source.
"Not only will the Sylvan Star Cheese brand continue its legacy, but it has... a young, passionate, and talented cheese maker at the helm."
I knew the original founders of Sylvan Star were close to retiring age, so I always wondered what would become of the cheese empire. Having Art and Jennifer transition into running Sylvan Star and continuing to produce their award-winning cheeses seems like the perfect solution. They are continuing to make the Shalkwyk’s family recipes, as well as Art’s own for Alberta Pike Cheese. It is funny how things seem to fall into place, and I am so glad that they did. The Shalkwyk family was looking for someone to pass along the business to, and Art and Jennifer were eager to expand their business. Not only will the Sylvan Star Cheese brand continue its legacy, but it has Art, a young, passionate, and talented cheese maker at the helm. Art and Jennifer will continue to meet Alberta’s appetite for exceptional quality cheeses. Want to learn (and taste) more? You can reach out to Art at Sylvan Star Cheese directly and request a tour for yourself! Visit the store at 39008 Range Road 10 (off of Hwy 11A) or find their cheeses at the following locations in Calgary: Sylvan Star Cheese (Calgary Farmers’ Market South) Springbank Cheese Company (4 locations in Calgary)
Say Cheese Fromagerie (Crossroads Market) A little more on Say Cheese Fromagerie... it is one of my favourite cheese shops in Calgary! The owner, Isaac will make you feel like you are a member of their cheese family. He hosts after-hours cheese themed events, imports fresh truffles from around the world, has a "cheese of the month" club, and is always happy to offer samples to help you find exactly what cheese you are looking for. Isaac particularly supports local producers. Their cute shop has everything else you'd need for a fabulous charcuterie and cheese party (crackers, pickles, olives, condiments, charcuterie, and more). The store brings in lots of seasonal specialty products, like foraged mushrooms and locally made eggnog. Visit Isaac and look around the rest of the quirky market too. It includes a farmers' market, an independently and locally owned food court area, and a flea market.