Geotrichum-rinded (or “geo”) cheeses have been produced for centuries in France, where Vermont Creamery co-founder Allison Hooper first learned cheese making. They’re extremely popular in Europe, which led Hooper and co-founder Bob Reese to believe the line would catch on in the U.S.
Vermont Creamery debuted its first aged goat cheese in 2001 with Bonne Bouche, which is lightly sprinkled with ash and aged for about 10 days for a mildly yeasty flavor.
“Aged goat cheese was so new then, not unlike the market for goat cheese 30 years ago,” Hooper told FoodNavigator-USA. “So we got into it with something of a leap of faith—thinking we’d invest in this new kind of cheese, develop the market and give it a go.”
Growth means reinvestment
Because aged cheese requires the addition of yeast and mold to the milk (common enemies of non-aged cheeses), the company first built out a small addition to its existing facility. It spent the next six years perfecting the process of making and scaling the cheese before opening a dedicated aged cheese-making facility in 2006.
That year, it sold about 5,000 cases, mostly to specialty food shops and cheese mongers. Last year, it sold over 100,000 cases of aged cheese (which now includes three more varieties—Cremont, Coupole, and Bijou), which includes sales to such national retailers as Whole Foods Market and Wegmans.
Such growth has required reinvestment, to the tune of $4 million in 2013 for a state-of-the-art facility expansion, which Vermont Creamery completed this summer. The overhaul encompasses a 14,000 square feet addition and a high-tech atmospheric control system that manages ventilation, moisture, temperature, and particle filtration—all calibrated for optimum ripening and rind development.
“Growth has brought us good things. It has meant only improvements to everything we do,” Hooper said.
Goat cheese: cream cheese’s tangier, fancier cousin
Consumers’ embrace of aged goat cheese wouldn’t have come without the explosion of the goat cheese category in the U.S. over the past few decades.
With roots in the farm-to-table movement, goat cheese has become more widely popular as an 'everyday cheese' that provides a spreadable, natural alternative to cream cheese, an addition to sauces or topper for salads, Hooper said.
“Goat cheese is such an easy cheese to consume every day,” she noted. “It’s not a heavy cheese, though it is considered to be comfort food. It adds flavor, protein and interesting texture to recipes and food.”
And what was once a niche category has seen the entrance of more and more players, which has raised the bar for the product as a whole.
“Over the years, everybody’s improved,” Hooper said. “The cheese lasts longer—it has to sort of stand up to the rigors of the marketplace and distribution. So now when you find a fresh goat log in the supermarket, there’s an expectation that it will have a certain amount of freshness.”
Slow, steady growth
About half of Vermont Creamery’s more than $20 million in annual sales now come from goat cheese, with the rest from cow’s milk cheese.
Growth has come in the steady, 10-15% annual range during the company’s 30+ years in business, rather than through massive spikes in sales, Hooper said. This is largely because the company doesn’t have a readily available supply of goat’s milk. It sources from 12 dairies of varying size—with anywhere from 60 to upwards of 500 goats (60 goats can produce about 150,000lbs of cheese per year).
“Our growth in cheese sales has to be consistent with how fast we can stimulate milk production,” Hooper said. “Because we have the option of buying milk outside Vermont, we’ve been able to grow even when supply hasn’t kept up with cheese sales. Now we’re investing more in growth of supply and would like to eventually buy all our milk in Vermont.”
Such was the impetus for Vermont Creamery to launch Ayers Brook, the country’s first demonstration goat dairy, last summer. The farm provides an open-book model for sustainable goat dairy farming, which will enable the company to more proactively enlist potential goat dairy farmers, Hooper said.
“Our approach at this point is to better understand what a sustainable goat enterprise looks like from the point of view of how much land is required to support the animals, how much capital is needed to set up the dairy and how much working capital to see enterprise through to positive cash flow,” she said. “We wanted to track all those metrics so we could be much more proactive in reaching interested dairy farmers or future generations who might try milking goats.”
And because great goat cheese begins with high-quality milk, Ayers Brook also aims to help develop good breeding stock in order to supply new farmers with strong foundation herds.
“The biggest challenge for people who are interested in goat dairy farming is acquiring high-quality animals with good genetic potential,” Hooper said. “We want to get people started out right with the right animals so they have a fighting chance.”