California Goat Cheese, PART 2
Endless experimentation and a restless search
for new and better cheeses
Redwood Hill goat dairy made a name for itself in the 80s. Despite warnings from the Milk Advisory Board that the niche was filled, newcomer Capricious Cheese established its own unique reputation. This is the story of two very different goat dairies who found direct-marketing success with meticulous management and distinctive products.

By Lisa M. Hamilton

 

Farm at a glance:
Ginger Olsen
Capricious Cheese/MyTime Ranch

Size: 10 acres

Location: near Eureka, in Humboldt County, Calif.

Summary of operation: 100-150 head of Toggenburg and other breeds. Marketing seasonal, mold-ripened cheeses throughout the US.

 

Editor's Note:

Our West Coast-based freelancer Lisa M. Hamilton is back from Japan, where she did a series for us on Shumei Natural Agriculture, and reporting again on the many faces of sustainable and alternative farming in California. Recently she filed a pair of stories investigating the rising popularity of goat cheese in the US market. Up first: the management philosophy of Jennifer Bice at Redwood Hill Farm, one of the earliest and most successful goat cheese makers in the state. Next: marketing insights from Bice at Redwood Hill, and from newcomer Ginger Olsen, maker of Capricious Cheese at MyTime Ranch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Jennifer Bice’s family moved to the hills of Sonoma in 1968, nobody knew what chèvre was. Goats got a little credence from the Back to the Land movement, and health food customers embraced goats' milk and yogurt for their medicinal properties, but that was the extent of the market.

Then, in the 1980s, goats' milk had what Jennifer Bice calls the “gourmet crossover.”

Suddenly, when Jennifer did product demos at grocery stores, people who wouldn’t have stopped two years before would now lean across the samples of milk and yogurt to ask, “Don’t you make cheese?” Before too long, Redwood Hill stopped selling goats milk altogether—it was far more valuable as potential curd.

Originally, Jennifer and her husband thought they would make cheeses common in America, such as ricotta, mozzarella, and cheddar. But as their line grew to include ten distinct products, only sharp cheddar stuck. The farm’s success has come by abiding the cardinal rule of small cheesemakers: You can’t compete with Kraft, so you have to be original. Today, they make four kinds of chèvre (including a seasonal, chocolate-flavored version), three unique French-style cheeses, as well as niche-fillers like feta and sharp cheddar made from raw milk.

Cheesemakers who have arrived more recently have a new cardinal rule: You can’t compete with Redwood Hill. That’s the sort of advice Ginger Olsen heard at a Milk Advisory Board cheesemaking seminar in 1998. The class aimed to encourage failing cow dairies in northern California’s Humboldt County to diversify out from their milk contracts. Though failing goat dairies like hers weren’t officially invited, she posed as a cow person and heard the advice that shapes her business to this day: “Make something that’s special. Make something that’s yours.”

From there, she and her partner patched together an education. They visited cheesemaking farms, including Redwood Hill. They learned how to roll cheese from a team of brawny factory workers who made fun of the tiny women even as they insisted on perfection. Their friend Maggie talked them through making their first cheese, which they named Oscar and for weeks nurtured on whatever kitchen counter was available. And gradually, bouncing between the aid of friends and a local cheese company, they figured out how to transfer home cheesemaking to a commercial scale.

The only thing that remained to be done was finding their cheese. Aware that the market was awash in chèvre and other fresh varieties, they knew they wanted to make an aged cheese—but that was it. So they experimented, following the second rule of artisan cheesemaking: take notes on everything you do, even mistakes.

They made a raw milk jack cheese that eventually exploded on them—literally—wasting a year’s worth of work. But alongside it they had made a similar cheese with pasteurized milk, and through a gradual series of adjustments that were minute, sometimes accidental, and always recorded, they came up with Capricious Cheese. In 2002, it won Best of Show at the American Cheese Society’s annual contest.

One basic strategy, a wealth of distinct cheeses

Capricious Cheese and Redwood Hill are vastly different operations with products that could well come from different countries. Capricious Cheese’s eponymous product is aged five to ten months and tastes like an Old World variety—bold, deep, intense. Redwood Hill’s French-style, mold-ripened cheeses are as white and delicate as snowflakes. And yet both businesses rely on the same thing: products that sell not just because they are good, but because they are distinctive.

At Redwood Hill, people are drawn in by the one-of-a-kind Bucheret and Camellia cheeses, but then loyally buy the farm’s versions of chèvre and cheddar, too. Likewise, Ginger now sells feta in addition to her famous Capricious, and is perfecting a fresh cheese she calls Borracho. It’s unique (for starters, it’s marinated in Chardonnay) and soon-to-be excellent, but she can do it only because she already has a reputation built on something even more unique. “If we had tried making a fresh cheese from the start,” she said, “we would have died.”

Marketing these special cheeses requires a careful balance of volume and intimacy. Jennifer explained that because only a small percentage of the population eats goat cheese (and likewise artisanal cheese), sales must cover a geographical area much wider than you might expect. It helps that Redwood Hill offers variety. “If we have one goat milk consumer,” she said, “that person might buy our yogurt, chévre, French cheese, and then cheddar for their sandwich. If we had only one of those products, we would have to have an even bigger area.”

To attain that critical mass of customers, Redwood Hill and Capricious both use distributors—but carefully. Jennifer’s aged cheeses can sit on the shelf for a long time if necessary, meaning they can travel to health food stores in Denver without being ruined. Her French cheeses, however, have small windows during which they’re perfect. “Once stores get it, they don’t want to lose money when it ripens and they should throw it away,” she said. “Then some poor soul who has heard of it but doesn’t know what it’s like eats it overripe and never wants to have it again.”

Likewise, Capricious Cheese can’t be sold in most stores. When the cheese is cut and wrapped in plastic, customers can’t smell the complex flavor or feel the dense, crumbly texture—they can only see the price tag that says $25/pound.

The solution is to have customers try the cheeses under the tutelage of the makers. For this, both Jennifer and Ginger swear by farmers markets and free samples. At the market, not only can sellers get a piece of cheese into the customer’s mouth, they can explain that more than the taste is special. They describe their farms and talk about the cheesemaking process. Ginger might tell how her partner’s great grandfather was a goldminer, and that Capricious Cheese is similar to the hard cheese he and other fortune-seekers ate during the gold rush. Jennifer might talk about her award-winning goats or the new crop of kids born days before.

As they talk, and people chew, the levels of taste multiply; suddenly the cheese has a person behind it, a story—a significance. Not only will the customer probably buy it then, but the next time he or she visits a store, the label will stand out. Jennifer and Ginger say that when people outside the distribution range call to order by FedEx, the conversation invariably starts, “I tasted your cheese at the farmers market…”

The markets also serve as invaluable testing grounds. When Redwood Hill was developing their Bucheret cheese, they found that customers preferred it younger and softer than they were serving it. When they sampled out new chèvre flavors, customers made it clear that garlic chive and peppercorn should stay and that smoked trout and jalapeño should not. Once, when Ginger over-salted a batch of cheese she decided to call it a beer cheese and see what the people at the market thought. To this day, they beg her to make it again.

“You never know when or how you’ll come up with something unique,” she told me. “That’s why I’m always keeping notes. The other day, my new cheesemaker didn’t pasteurize correctly. When I told her to start the process over [and re-pasteurize the milk], she asked if she should start a new chart”—as she would for a whole new batch of cheese.

“I said no,” Ginger continued. “First of all it’s not legal, but also we want to know what happens. I mean, who knows what this might become?”