Haystack Mountain's cheesy lovefest with Boulder County
This is the seventh in a series of pieces profiling Colorado-grown products...and what some local restaurants do with them.
As much pride as we Coloradans take in our local producers and their staggering variety of goods, how many of them can say they tangled with the heaviest of heavyweights on a global platform -- and won? "This is world-class," Haystack Mountain's John Scaggs says through a mouthful of his Haystack Mountain Queso de Mano. "This stands on a world stage, no worries."
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At the World Cheese Awards in Birmingham, England, Haystack Mountain goat cheese has collected numerous medals over the past few years, beating out thousands of cheeses from every type of animal and every country with so much as a milking machine to its name. (In 2012, Haystack won bronze medals for its Wall Street Gold and Breckenridge Oatmeal Stout cheeses; in 2010, Haystack Camembert snagged a gold medal.) But that's not nearly enough for Haystack's exacting and committed cheesemaker, Jackie Chang; she wants to win World Champion cheese, and she won't stop 'til she gets there: "Just like a mountain goat, slowly you climb, climb, climb until you get to the top one day."
And for an operation that started with one man and five goats in the shadow of a "mountain" that's barely more than a molehill, Chang and company have a serious chance at claiming that crown. Before the raves, before the medals, before armchair mongers all over the country started pulling out handmade cheese boards and learning the word "lactic," Haystack Mountain founder Jim Schott was looking for a second career in the culinary world, and mulling over becoming a chef. It wasn't until he came face-to-face with a herd of goats that he fell in love, sowing the first seeds of a future Colorado cheese empire.
"This was in the early '90s, when artisan cheese production was not the cool, hipster thing that it is today," Scaggs explains. Schott started pounding the pavement and knocking on restaurant doors -- peddling the cheese that is still the cornerstone of the Haystack lineup today: Boulder Chevre. The journeyman of goat cheese and a staple of arugula and beet salads across Colorado, those first batches of Haystack chevre helped cement relationships with places like Rioja (which remains Haystack Mountain's biggest customer) that, in some cases, have lasted over two decades. "All those accounts are dear customers today and a key part of our success," says Scaggs, who has worked as Haystack Mountain's director of sales and marketing for just under a year.
Matt Twing John Scaggs took us on a tour of Haystack Mountain's creamery in Longmont, and showed off the company's many aging rooms.
Goat cheese seemed like a hard sell to consumers at a time when Kraft Singles and Velveeta meant cheese for millions of Americans. Even today, Scaggs encounters folk not yet hip to the Gospel of Goat when he mans the farmstand at the Boulder Farmers' Market. "People come up to the farmers' market stand and they're like, 'Goat cheese? I don't eat goat cheese,'" he recalls, affecting a haughty suburban accent. "I'm like, 'All right, but just try this. Please?'" A taste of briny, funky Sunlight or the intriguing Applewood Smoked Chevre usually muzzles doubters with a rush of creamy umami.
As Haystack Mountain's cheese caught on, the farm found itself struggling to keep up with capacity. In 2003, cheese production moved to a modest facility not far from downtown Longmont. And after some bumps in the road with milk sourcing, Haystack now gets all of its goat milk from an unlikely source: Canon City's massive prison complex. The goat-tending program at Colorado Correctional Industries is consistently one of the most popular inmate programs at Canon City. "Only the best of the best can participate in this program," Scaggs says. "Most of [the inmates that participate] graduate with these dairy certificates and most end up staying in agriculture."
Matt Twing Scaggs with a wheel of Chile Jack.
The program was conceived as a joint venture between CCI and Haystack after Schott retired and sold his Boulder County farm. CCI director Steve Smith came to new Haystack president Chuck Hellmer with an offer: If he could guarantee a market for a million pounds of milk a year, CCI would add a goat dairy to its sprawling, inmate-staffed facility. "Just to see these really hardcore, tatted-up dudes just cuddling and wrestling with goats... these guys are just melting," Scaggs remembers. "It's actually helped us quite a bit to focus on cheesemaking and leave the dairy production to [them]."
Matt Twing This coffee grinder has seen better days, but it still faithfully grinds spices for Haystack's spiced chevre varieties. "That's what small craft food business is all about," Scaggs says. "Whatever it takes, you just got to get it done."