Agriculture Features

December 10, 2014 at 8:00 am

From Udder to Plate: Two Faces of Vermont’s Goat Cheese Scene

They want YOU to raise goats. Miles Hooper and Joey Conner, that is. Preferably not too far from the Vermont Creamery. And if you can manage a goat milk with high protein content, a clean bill on pathogens, and a hint of clover in the finish, your milk will be heartily welcomed.

What a long way American goat cheese has come. The little chèvre that was once considered a stranger from foreign parts now has a place on the finest cheese trays. A leader in getting it there has been The Vermont Creamery, a rising star in the artisanal cheese world and now the largest producer of goat cheese in New England. Demand exceeds supply for their award winning products— they can’t keep their creamery in goats’ milk. With an inspired merging of old world methods, modern farming technology, and the promise of a blueprint for future farmers, they are moving forward on improving production in both quality and quantity.

Cheese making is a transformative process, from udder to plate. The Pygmalion journey takes raw milk from the barnyard, passes it through the creamery lab, and unveils the changeling as a fashioned food. For one milk to produce such a wide range of cheeses is an amazing process of reinvention, and is accomplished best when ushered along by skilled and dedicated journeymen.

Working at opposite ends of the production cycle at the Vermont Creamery are Miles Hooper (in the fields) and Joey Conner (in the laboratory). While Miles tromps around in muddy work boots herding goats from pasture to milking stalls, Joey analyzes the cheese matrix for optimum content. From their very different corners, both are working towards making the best possible goat cheese.

Ayers Brook Farm lies outside the town of Randolph in northern Vermont, a bucolic setting for the 640 goats that make up the Vermont Creamery herd. In this world, females are valued far more than males (imagine that!), as they provide both milk and kids. The does outnumber the bucks, who are kept for stud and meat, by 60 to 1.

The barn hums with the activity of the animals and a nurturing staff, a rubber-booted group who seem to share a liking for earth-colored clothing. Everybody’s busy at their down-and-dirty jobs— forking manure, wrapping silage, wiping teats with iodine after milking.

Miles Hooper is the crop manager, 23 and sporting a shock of auburn hair that frames a face intent on farm advancement. When I ask if he’s the son of the owner (Allison Hooper, with her partner Bob Reese) he confirms he is, but adds, “We all earned our place here.”

Working with goats (like human kids) requires close attention. Some smart goats figure out how to lick stall locks with their strong tongues to trip the latch. And it’s not just their cuds they like to chew. But it’s hard not be won over by their charm— they’re friendly and inquisitive, sticking their muzzles through the fencing in greeting. They come in many markings and colors— stripes and patches in black, white, and beige. Inside the spacious barn, newborns are still wet behind the ears, and 8-week-olds frolic around, kicking up their heels.

vermont creamery goats

Mostly French Alpine and La Mancha, the breeds are chosen for their milk’s high protein and butterfat content, which affects the resulting cheese. So does the goats’ diet, as well as where they are in their lactation/gestation cycle. Summertime grasses and clover produce a different taste than wintertime feed.

Miles is constantly making adjustments for these variables, and when the fields are covered in snow, he feeds the goats fermented silage— chopped grass and corn that’s left to ferment for 45 days in six-foot bales wrapped in white plastic. They look like giant marshmallows. High in concentrated nutrients, the fermented silage is easier for goats to digest.

“Cheese making is a moving target. To get the highest quality cheese, all the stars have to line up.”

 René De Leeuw, the Dutch herd manager, is the breeding expert. He focuses on improving milk production and quality through genetics, and keeps a detailed log for each generation. Like horse or dog breeders, he looks to combine mates with advantageous traits. He is a key player in the aim for Ayers Brook Farm to be a model, a center to provide superior genes and stock to other farms.

As Miles puts it about their meticulous record keeping, “We want to establish a playbook for future goat milk producers.”

26 miles northeast of the Ayers Brook Farm sits the Vermont Creamery in Websterville where the milk is trucked and made into cheese. The cavernous building has plenty of room to expand the business way beyond last year’s 30th anniversary.

inside vermont creamery

This workplace couldn’t be more different than the farm. Its interior rooms are sanitized and sequestered. Every measure is taken to protect the developing cheese from contamination. The staff I can see from the observation deck is dressed as if for the operating room: white lab coats, gloves, hairnets. I watch the cheese making process from behind the glass like a new father at the maternity ward window.

Joey Conner, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, gives me the lowdown on just what goes into making cheese. Cultures and enzymes and curds- oh my! The cheese matrix— the constituents of a cheese— is a major factor in development.

For the bacterial growth that cheese requires, various natural elements are added to the milk. Rennet contains microbes that encourage coagulation. Calcium tightens the structure after pasteurization causes denaturing of the existing calcium. And most importantly, the starter culture jumpstarts fermentation, bringing the cheese to life.

According to Joey, “Starter culture is the secret weapon, the ingredient that distinguishes one cheese from another.” The starter culture contains good bacteria that eats the sugars in the milk and produces lactic acid. It determines the DNA of the cheese, which along with the other ingredients, effects how the cheese congeals, its texture and taste.

For a modern cheese maker like Vermont Creamery, the goal is to improve the matrix and increase essential proteins. What was once left to the hand of fate now progresses through an educated handling of genetics and chemistry.

Smiling with an acknowledgement of many variables, Joey says, “Cheese making is a moving target. To get the highest quality cheese, all the stars have to line up.”

And more often than not, they do. The Vermont Creamery is producing some excellent goat cheeses that hold their own against the cheese that first inspired Allison Hooper when she apprenticed on a French dairy farm during college.

From fresh cheese logs with their tangy finish to the aged Bon Bouche with its seamless coat of ash and feathery texture, these products have advanced remarkably from the fledgling creations of American goat cheese. The Coupole ages for 15 days, shrinking slightly into a wrinkled rind that’s mild and ever-so-edible. Combining goat and cow milk, the double-cream Cremont melts in your mouth, the luscious cream line between the rind and the paste oozes across the plate. You’ll think you’re in Paris. And the cultured butter is quite simply the best butter I’ve had on this side of the Atlantic.

While the creamery does use some milk from local cows, their focus is goats. But as Joey tells me, “Vermont is a cow state.” Goats are a minority population. But the tide is slowly turning, as dairy goats are gaining in popularity. Where there were nine goat farms in Vermont in 1994, there are now more than 25. Advantages include a more stable milk price, and a growing market due in part to the milk’s lower lactose level, easier digestibility, and the excellence of the produced cheeses.

With orders up beyond their present production capacity, Vermont Cheese is happy but hungry. They need more goats’ milk. So for anyone with a hankering for an ag-venture, these cheese makers would be more than glad to see you in Vermont. Like the sharecroppers, all you’ll need is forty acres and some goats.

-Corinna Clendenen