What do Champagne, snow in Steamboat Springs, Colorado and goat cheese have in common?
Don’t worry it doesn’t have anything to do with terrorism-- that’s a different root word.
Terroir is from the french word terre or earth. Terroir refers to the complete set of environmental factors that combine to uniquely affect the characteristics (taste, texture, aroma…) of an artisanal food or beverage.
The most famous beverage known for its distinct terroir is Champagne, which, according to the EU law and that of other countries, is sparkling wine that comes from the Champagne region of France and ONLY comes from that region. If a sparkling wine is produced somewhere else, then it isn’t Champagne.
In perhaps the most unusual use of terroir, the Steamboat Ski Resort in Colorado trademarked the locally coined term “Champagne Powder.” Champagne powder refers to the exceptionally light, dry powder snow common in the Steamboat Springs area. While there is fierce argument within the ski community about this trademark, the geography, weather patterns and topography of this region of Colorado combine to create snow that has a lower water content (lighter and drier) than any other part of the country.
What does this have to do with Goatsbeard Cheeses?
We haven’t trademarked anything, but our cheeses do have their own distinct terroir, which even changes with the season. Or maybe you have noticed that our cheese has a distinctive punch that the less expensive soft goat cheeses at the grocery story lack.
This is our terroir. It is a reflection of our unique management practices and the place where we live.
Our dairy herd is one of only a few commercial herds in the country to be on a rotational grazing system. Most dairies feed their goats a diet of hay (usually alfalfa) and grain. The advantage of feeding hay is that the operators can maintain a consistent diet for their goats all year long. This in turn makes for more consistent milk and cheese. The tradeoffs are that hay is more resource intensive to produce and the goats (and humans) miss out on the benefits of a more diverse diet. Equipment and gas are needed to bale and transport hay, and most hay crops receive some sort of fertilizer, herbicide or pesticide application--this is especially true for alfalfa, the most common hay crop fed to dairy goats. And most of all, the goat cheese lacks that ‘Je ne sais quoi,’ that can only come from goats grazing on fields with a wide variety of plants to choose from.
Fescue, brome, alfalfa, timothy, sunflower, nettle, henbit, chickweed, wild bergamot, wild raspberry, and wild rose are some of the plants commonly found in our fields that are thought to bring a sweet flavor to our goats’ milk. These plants also contribute a wide variety of nutrients and calorie sources, which are good for the goats and passed on to the milk and cheese.
We work hard to maintain palatable plants in our pastures. We use no herbicides, pesticides or commercial fertilizers on our fields. We mow our fields once a year, but this uses significantly less energy than mowing, baling and transporting hay. No pesticides or herbicides mean that our fields are also home to pollinators and the other plants and animals that depend on them.
But there are a few plants that have strong flavors which can overpower the sweet flavor, making the milk taste more ‘goaty’. The biggest culprit in changing cheese flavor this time of year is Barbarea vulgaris, also known as Yellow Rocket or Yellow Mustard. This annual plant is in the Brassicaceae family, and is commonly lumped in with a group of plants known as mustards. As the name of mustard suggests, Yellow Rocket, and other mustards, have a strong flavor that can be carried through to milk. Interestingly the flavor we associate with mustard is part of the plants’ defense system and can be a deterrent to grazers such as goats all the way down to grasshoppers. Most mustards also have chemicals that are believed to be toxic to soil pathogens like fungi and nematodes, which is pretty cool.
This particular member of the mustard family is not toxic to goats, who find it to be very platatible. Instead of spraying our fields or changing to an all hay diet, we do our best to manage plants like this. Each spring when the Yellow Rocket is abundant, our goathands are sent out to pull it up by hand, which is a surprisingly easy, if time consuming, task.
We’ve found that too much clover, which is very common all the time, and various wild onions, plentiful in the spring, also affect flavor. In the late summer, as temperatures increase and conditions become more dry, the flavor chemical composition of each species changes, too, grasses for example have lower sugar and higher protein, and flavors tend to become more bitter. We time our rotations to use the best pastures available at the time, for example saving pastures with certain plants for late fall after the first frost makes some plants more palatable.
Our goats do get some hay (mostly from our sister property just a few miles away), including alfalfa, and in the winter this is the primary source of food. We pride ourselves on balancing practices that are on easy on the goats and the land, with techniques to make high quality cheese at a reasonable price. While grazing our goats poses some management challenges, it is healthier for the goats and brings a rich complex of flavors to our cheeses, our mid-Missouri, north Boone county, handcrafted, goat cheese terroir.
Mizzou Weed ID, about Yellow Rocket: https://weedid.missouri.edu/weedinfo.cfm?weed_id=36
Self medicating goats? https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24140164