Antonelli’s Cheese-y Bus Tours Offer Cheese, Cocktails and Goat Cuddles
Take a delicious and unforgettable trip to the dairies that supply Austin’s famed Antonelli’s Cheese Shop
By Laurel Miller
I’m trying to concentrate on the cheese and cider pairings before me, but a persistent gentle prodding in my back distracts me. A young whitetail buck is rubbing his velvety antlers against me, before turning his attention to nibbling the straps of my daypack. I whisper-scold him because Argus Cidery founder Wes Mickel is talking, but it’s impossible to resist the creature’s liquid eyes.
I knew there would be plenty of animal interaction on Antonelli’s Cheesey Bus Tour, but the deer is an unexpected and enchanting bonus. The three-year-old tours are the brainchild of cheesemongers Kendall and John Antonelli, who opened their namesake Hyde Park cheese shop in 2010, two years after John had an epiphany on their honeymoon. “I suddenly realized I didn’t want to continue to work as a CPA,” he says. “I wanted to do something in cheese.”
While the shop is a national model for industry professionals and small business owners and the subject of TED Talks, the bus tours allow the couple and their staff to personally introduce their community and customers to some of Central Texas’s most acclaimed food and drink artisans. Antonelli’s mission is, “Do Good. Eat Good,” and that means sourcing products from makers who manage their land and livestock using regenerative and humane management methods. Antonelli’s also donates time and money to various philanthropic passion projects.
Tours – which always sell out – launch from the shop and start with a visit to Pure Luck Farm & Dairy in Dripping Springs, where acclaimed cheesemaker Amelia Sweethardt makes French-inspired cheeses using milk from her herd of 100 goats (the opportunity to snuggle goats sells as many tours as does a love of cheese). The second half of each six-hour tour is a stop at a winery, brewery, cidery or distillery (upcoming November tours include Treaty Oak Distilling and Jester King Brewery).
“We have such a good time on these tours that it’s not uncommon for folks to leave crying and hugging us,” says John. “It’s an amazing day.” If that seems like an exaggeration, I assure you it’s not – I’ve conducted farm tours for over 20 years and there’s something about acquainting people with food at its source that fires the tear ducts.
While farm and maker tours ultimately help guests better understand the importance of localized food security and why artisan products like cheese cost what they do, they’re also a lot of fun. Cheesey Bus Tours, which accommodate 50, take the concept to the next level, using a luxury coach as a mobile classroom (By the end of the day, we’ll have eaten a pound of cheese from four different thoughtfully curated pairing experience, featuring cheese and beverages sold at Antonelli’s).
As we board the bus to Pure Luck, we’re given boxes with three cheese pairings (winner: Nettle Meadow Farm’s buttery Kunik) and pours of Conquilla Cava Brut (refills encouraged). We sip and snack our way up Highway 290 West as John – whose enthusiasm is infectious – leads the tasting and tells us more about Antonelli’s history and ethos (Kendall usually leads tours but was out of town).
The relationship Antonelli’s has carefully cultivated between cheesemakers like Sweethardt and cidermaker Mickel are the result of years of working together. “We were honored to be one of Argus’s first accounts,” says John. “And over the past decade, we’ve developed a personal, alongside professional, relationship with Pure Luck.”
When we arrive at Pure Luck’s pastoral dairy, we’re split into two groups. Half of us head to the tiny Cheese House (used for workshops and events) for a tasting led by Sweethardt. In addition to boards piled with Sweethardt’s cheeses, including her award-winning St. Maure, and delicate rounds of a specially created blue cheese, we drink Heidi Schröck Rosé ‘Biscaya and snack on salumi, bread and salad.
“The bus tours are the perfect ‘maker-to-monger’ event, and it gives us a chance to really showcase some of our smaller batches and special offerings,” says Sweethardt. “They also help us pay the bills,” she says. Cheesemakers struggle to make ends meet in winter, when lactation dwindles or stops and they’re not making cheese. Pure Luck staggers its breeding for this reason, so they continue to have a limited supply of milk year-round.
Following the tasting, Sweethardt’s sister and business partner Hope Boatright leads us on a tour. There’s ample time to interact with the goats and purchase cheese from Sweethardt’s 11-year-old son, June (her husband, Ben Guyton, was selling cheese at the Lakeline Farmers Market).
After a reluctant farewell, we head for Argus Cidery in rural South Austin. Mickel greets us, along with the aforementioned deer, whose origins are a mystery. “He just showed up one day last year,” says Mickel.
Mickel founded Argus in 2010 with the goal of producing dry, sparkling ciders from Texas fruit. Logistical challenges, including the sale of a small San Antonio orchard, led him to instead source fruit from the Pacific Northwest and Arkansas. “Our grower there is actually closer to us in mileage than a grower in North Texas,” he says. Most of the ciders are fermented with English Ale and Champagne yeast and aged in old Balcones Distilling whiskey barrels.
Following a pairing of five cheeses and ciders (I loved the Mustang Grape-infused cider redolent of rose petals with aged L’Amuse Gouda and Vinho Pearde – a perry based on the lively Portuguese wine – with Little Boy Blue from Hook’s Cheese Company) and time to purchase bottles and wander, we headed back to Austin. The day concludes with a red wine and chocolate pairing in Antonelli’s Cheese House event space, where we chat with staff and compare goat and deer selfies.
For the Antonellis, too, the Cheesey Bus is more than just a sideline. “To us, the makers are everything and we love sharing their magic and telling their stories to our customers,” says John. “That’s really what these tours are all about.”
Visit antonellischeese.com for information on upcoming November Cheesey Bus Tours and other events; tours resume in Spring.