Mary Keehn was one of the three “goat ladies of California” who laid the foundation for the American love affair with goat cheese. TGR recently had a chance to talk to her about her award-winning cheeses and the broader trends in American artisanal cheese.
What sparked you to become a cheesemaker?
I am frugal and generally dislike waste. When my goats began providing me with more milk than we could drink — more milk than a calf could drink — cheesemaking seemed the obvious answer to the problem. Somehow I didn't think of the obvious solution, which would have been to have fewer goats.
What type of animals do you raise and under what conditions?
When I started, my goats were upgraded Alpines, which is a nice way to say they were sort of "mutts." I bred them with registered alpine bucks and over time I developed a great breed that won three national championships and exceeded the national average in milk production. Now, over 30 years later, we have a more varied herd, many more goats, and very strong milk production. We started with registered Alpine, Saanen, Toggenburg, and LaMancha breeds and crossbred them for hybrid vigor.
Our milk production exceeds the California and worldwide average for commercial goat dairies — and that’s with a very young herd. Since our dairy is just a few years in the making, our herd is very young — about half of our milkers are milking for the first time, so we expect our production numbers will increase as the does mature.
The care and feeding of our goats is extremely important to us so we have a vet and a nutritionist on retainer to stay on top of herd health. We incorporate recycled agriculture materials, such as almond hulls for bedding, which saves in cost and is really absorbent. We bring high-quality feed to the dairy and mix alfalfa and grain. We have happy goats. Calm and healthy goats create really good milk and a lot of it. That’s why we approach the farming in the way we do. As a result, we were recently recognized as a Certified Humane dairy, receiving a 100 percent score.
Do you use raw or pasteurized milk?
We use pasteurized whole goat milk for all of our cheeses. Our cheeses are aged less than 60 days and thus must be made from pasteurized milk according to state and federal laws.
What story should retailers be telling to justify the cost per pound?
Our goat milk cheese is actually quite a bargain considering the increased cost of production (compared to cows) and the nutritional benefits found in goat milk. A cow produces almost 10 times as much milk as a goat. That means you would need a lot more goats to produce the same amount of milk of one cow. Not to mention our dedication to producing the finest cheeses in the world, a true labor of love. It’s a lot work, but we feel customers can tell the difference.
What beverage, carrier, condiment, charcuterie pairings do you recommend and why? Do they/should they vary by season?
Generally speaking, our soft-ripened cheeses are enjoyed with hoppy IPAs and light/crisp wines. Our Purple Haze with Simple and Crisp Blood Orange is yummy. Barleywine and Truffle Tremor is a favorite with beer lovers, and you can’t go wrong pairing Bermuda Triangle with Nuts and Honey from Bonnie’s Jams. One of my personal favorites is Midnight Moon and fig jam.
Keep in mind that cheese is alive and the maturity of the cheese will change your pairing. For those interested, we have additional pairing suggestions on our website.
What trends have you noticed from the retail community?
What I find really cool is cheesemongers are taking it upon themselves to educate the public. Retailers are investing in their cheesemongers through training/testing (the American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional Exam) and customers are relying more on their expertise. They’re creating a complete experience — from cheese care to delicious pairings. I think it helps people appreciate cheese in a whole new way.
What trends should independent retailers be aware of that may or may not be on their radar?
That’s a great question. Cheesemakers are making smaller format cheeses so that cheeses are finally available at a variety of new foodie venues. For example, we just released a one-pound version of our Original three-pound Truffle Tremor wheel. This trend is a new opportunity for small shops, wineries, breweries and pubs to sell artisan cheese