The subtle animalic flavor that often occurs in sheep's milk cheese
Sometimes described as “wooly”, “tangy” or “animalic”, sheep-milk cheese usually has a noticeable flavor that is called “sheepy”. The sheepy flavor can vary dramatically depending on the style and age of the cheese in question. Sheepy flavor is similar to goaty flavor, but is usually described as also being “sweet”, “caramel-like”, or “smoky”.
In addition to fatty acids (see below), phenolic compounds are thought to contribute to sheepy flavor (especially the sweet/caramel undertones). Example of phenolic compounds include: cresols, ethylphenols, and methylphenols.
Sheepy flavor also comes about for many of the same reasons as goaty flavor. In part, due to that fatty acid composition of sheep milk and its subsequent cheese. As we’ve discussed previously, lipolysis is a reaction involving the cleavage of fatty acids from triglycerides (fat molecules). Left whole, these triglyceride molecules don’t have any flavor. When enzymes (lipases) break off the fatty acids, they are now volatile and can interact with your aroma receptors. Some unique fatty acids found in sheep milk contribute to sheepy flavor. A few important fatty acids include: 4-ethyl octanoic acid, 4-methyl octanoic acid, caproic acid, and caprylic acid to name a few.
While we often talk about flavors and aromas being caused by certain compounds, it’s important to remember that the unique taste and aroma of cheese is caused by a whole menagerie of chemicals. Cheese flavor is definitely a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.
Cover image (sheep): Wikipedia