The artisanal advantage
Are all cheeses created equal? Well, sort of. Milk is always set into curds, which are drained of whey and formed into cheese.
But the beauty of artisanal cheeses lies in the tiny variations from batch to batch, which is what's so nice about things made by hand; they're new creations every time.
An artisanal cheese reflects the skill of the person who made it, the place where it was made, how it was aged, sometimes even the season.
At Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy, outside Boulder, Colorado, you can taste that creativity in each of Haystack's nine cheeses ― which, like Winchester's gouda, have won multiple awards.
The dairy's public tours end with a tasting of, for instance, Boulder Chèvre, a pure white, incredibly creamy fresh cheese that tastes as clean as spring grass. And there's Red Cloud, a small wheel with a reddish, sticky rind, and a buttery, molten, mushroomy interior.
Haystack Peak takes the shape of a pyramid and has a creamy-firm texture and a pleasant mineraliness. Its velvety rind of microscopic Penicillium candidum ripens the cheese from the outside in, and if the temperature in the aging room is too high, you learn, the cheeses will shed those rinds (or as the French say, tombe les pantalons ― "lose their pants").
Tours begin, naturally enough, at the kid pen, full of baby goats as frisky as preschoolers on a playground. There's no goaty smell here ― just the freshness of the green fields, high blue skies, and groves of aspens and cottonwoods against the mountains.
A few of the kids stretch their fuzzy necks toward the farm's founder and occasional tour leader, Jim Schott, begging for a scratch. They look as though they're about to purr. Which, says Jim, they actually can do: "When you get about 10 of them at it, it makes a nice, mellow sound."
Jim, a former education professor, has fun factoids at his fingertips. Did you know that goats' milk production wanes in winter, sometimes causing holiday cheese shortages? Or that the strange horizontal shape of goat's pupils is also found in octopuses?
Jim started making cheese in his kitchen in 1989, using the milk of his five new floppy-eared Nubians, and learned by consulting other cheesemakers and reading books ― including a how-to pamphlet by some cheesemaking Benedictine nuns.
It took nine years of very hard work and the occasional maxed-out credit card before the business "achieved critical mass," as he puts it. Now he and his wife, Carol, are adding 80 acres to the farm and setting up a branch in Oklahoma.
To watch cheesemaking at Haystack is to appreciate the delicacy of goat cheese, with its soft, snowy, easily digestible curds (versus the fattier, more rubbery cow's-milk curds).
And to see each little cheese being coaxed into ripeness in aging rooms set to just the right humidity, temperature, and airflow is to understand patience and watchfulness.
For Jim, it's all worth it. "Goats and cheesemaking are both quintessentially transforming. The goats produce new life, and when we add the culture to the milk, it becomes cheese. It's magical each time."
And in a way, so is the cheese itself, whenever a taste brings back the pleasure of seeing it made.
Take the cheese trip
Here are details on the cheesemakers profiled in this article.
Winchester Cheese Company Guided tours (10 a.m. Wed and Thu, $125 per 25 people; reservations required) include tasting. Or just stop by to watch the cheesemaking (free; generally 9-1:30 Tue-Fri). The shop (9-5 Mon-Fri and 10-4 Sat-Sun) sells gouda plus other Dutch goodies; 951/926-4239.
Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy Guided tours (by appointment; $50 per 15 people) include tasting. Self-guided tour twice a week (free; 12-2 Tue and Sat; typically no cheesemaking on Sat); 720/494-8714.