A guide to common goat breeds

Photo credit: Gamsutra

Photo credit: Gamsutra

There are dozens of different goat breeds from around the world, but here in the U.S., we tend to see just a handful (sad, but true). Goat breeds fall into three main categories, depending upon their intended use: meat, milk, or fiber. Some breeds are used for cross-purposes.

As for why breed diversity is slim pickings Stateside, one needs to understand that we’re one of the few cultures in the world that doesn’t routinely eat goat. Goat is the most widely consumed meat worldwide, and a staple throughout Latin America, Africa, Central Asia the Caribbean, Middle East, and parts of Europe.

While goat is gaining ground on North American high-end and ethnic menus, we’re just too squeamish (and anthropomorphic) for it to catch on as a mainstream protein source. It’s a shame, because goat is good eating (look for future posts on this topic).

Cultures that consume goat meat also prize their milk as a source of vital protein and other nutrients, often in the form of yogurt or cheese. In certain parts of the world, goats are even used as pack animals. For most of the planet, goat and its by-products provide subsistence, and have serious economic, as well as social, value.

We also don’t prize goats for their fiber, although we’re all familiar with cashmere (derived from the fine, silky hair of the Kashmir or Cashmere goat, or Pygora or Nigora goats), and mohair, which comes from the Angora goat (not to be confused with the Angora rabbit, which is also used for its wool).

What North Americans love goats for (besides their inherent cuteness and ability to clear brush) is milk, primarily for use in cheesemaking. The most popular dairy breeds here mostly aren’t American in origin, but were brought to this country as dairy animals. Over the generations, due to improvements in breeding stock, these breeds have become prized for their various attributes, which range from milk yield and butterfat content, to temperament and mothering abilities.

Below, a guide to the most common American goat breeds:

Nubian: Although they have a rep for being a bit bratty and exceedingly vocal, this Middle Eastern/North African breed with the beguiling long ears and Roman nose produces high-butterfat milk. The Nubian’s yield is lower than that of other breeds, which is why they’re sometimes cross-bred. In color, they often have intricate spotted, patchy, or stripey patterns.

Photo credit: Buffalo Creek Farm

Photo credit: Buffalo Creek Farm

Alpine: These robust, prolific milkers originated in the French Alps, and are one of the most popular breeds amongst cheesemakers.

Photo credit: The Goat Guide

Photo credit: The Goat Guide

LaMancha: Despite its misleading name, this “earless” breed originated in Oregon in the 1930’s. LaMancha refers to the windswept plains region of central Spain, as the breed is believed to have likely descended from the native Murciana goat. LaMancha’s do have ears, of course; it’s the pinna, or external portion, that’s missing.  They’re prized for their high yields of butterfat-rich milk, friendly nature, and hardiness.

Photo credit: etcFN

Photo credit: etcFN

Toggenburg: This very old breed from the Switzerland’s Toggenburg Valley is the Honda of goats: mid-size, sturdy, and moderate (with regard to milk yield and butterfat content).

Photo credit: Goat Genetics

Photo credit: Goat Genetics

Saanen: One of the most “goaty” looking caprines, Saanens are white-to-cream in color, with forward-pointing, slightly floppy ears and a calm temperament. They have the highest milk yield, but a low butterfat content.

Photo credit: Patteran Dairy Goats

Photo credit: Patteran Dairy Goats

Oberhasli: If ever there were a goat beauty pageant, these gregarious, russet-to-bay animals with their black dorsal stripes, legs, and muzzles (a pattern known as “chamoisee”) would kill it. Oberhasli’s are growing in popularity here, but they originated in the Swiss Alps, where they’re widely used because of their high yield and butterfat content.

Photo credit: Tangled Roots Farm

Photo credit: Tangled Roots Farm

Nigerian Dwarf: These miniature goats  of West African origin. While some cheesemakers such as Oregon’s Pholia Farm use Nigerians for their production, the breed is really making its mark on the urban goat husbandry market. Most cities require backyard goats to be crossed with Nigerians or Pygmy goats, to keep them at a manageable size. Despite their small stature, Nigerian’s produce a high volume of milk, making them ideal for caprine-loving urbanites.

Photo credit: Kivuli Kids Farm

Photo credit: Kivuli Kids Farm

Stinky, funky, stanky: a guide to washed rind cheeses

Epoisses, the kind of funk. Cheeserank

Epoisses, the King of funk. Cheeserank

People have very strong feelings about certain types of cheese. Just the other night, I was at a bar with some friends, one of whom was keeping a death grip on a half-wheel of Epoisses I’d given him. For the uninitiated, Epoisses–which hails from Burgundy–is one of the most sublime cheeses on earth, but it’s also one of the most odiferous. The fumes from the cheese wafted across our table, practically hovering in a fog around us. Earlier in the day, we’d paired it with some Calvados, and the results were nothing short of revelatory.

Stinky cheeses possess what are known as “washed rinds.” When you hear a cheese likened to dirty feet or sweaty socks, funky armpits, or described as punchy, yeasty, beefy, meaty, or barnyard, chances are good it’s a washed rind. This style of cheese also possesses a signature rind, which is sticky and orangish, reddish, pinkish, or brownish in color. Their interior can range from soupy (cue the aforementioned Epoisses) to semi-firm.

Washed rinds get their name from their “make” process. They’re washed with brine (or beer, wine, grappa, brandy, etc.), which facilitates the growth of  Brevibacterium linens, or B. linens, a bacteria that  gives these cheeses their signature stink. It also prevents unwanted molds or bacteria from entering the cheese, while enabling good organisms to ripen it and develop its distinctive flavor. B. linens itself is responsible for the color, texture, and smell that are the hallmarks of most washed rind cheeses.

Haystack's Red Cloud

Haystack’s Red Cloud

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B. linens can exist naturally in the air where the cheese ages, but usually it’s added to the brine. The cheeses are usually washed as they age, as well. Cool trivia: B.linens also naturally  exists on the human body, which explains why these cheeses are often said to smell like feet. Despite their signature funk, bear in mind cheese of any type should never smell like ammonia, which is a sign it’s overripe. Washed rinds in particular are prone to this characteristic. As long as they’re not too far gone, you can remedy the situation by allowing them to air out for up to an hour before serving.

We love washed rinds, which is why we produce two versions of our own: Sunlight, and the award-winning Red Cloud. Both are punchy, semi-firm cheeses with flavors ranging from toasted almonds to freshly-cut grass (Sunlight is the less assertive of the two, although both are fairly mellow as washed rinds go).  To quote well-known cheesemonger and author Gordon Edgar of San Francisco’s Rainbow Grocery Cooperative: “Red Cloud is an incredibly underrated cheese. Many people have tried — and failed — to make a raw milk, washed rind, goat cheese that is consistently good, but Haystack has this one down.  Red Cloud is firmer than you might imagine for this style, but is meaty, fruity, tangy, and complex.  This is one of my favorite American cheeses.

Photo credit: The Deals

Photo credit: The Deals

I can’t help noticing that men in particular seem to have a thing for washed rinds. Maybe it’s a holdover from their bachelor days, when they happily wallowed in their in their own filth, living amidst dirty clothes, sheets, and dishes. Perhaps it’s more primal than that: he who was the smelliest produced the most blatant pheromones in order to secure a mate.

Whatever the reason, dudes usually dig stinky cheese, in the same way they love beer. This is convenient, because washed rinds and beer are a love match like no other. This Valentine’s Day, give that someone special (even if that person is you, and even if you’re female) the gift of romance. Nothing says, “I love you” like a super funk cheese and a six-pack of craft brew.

Some pairing tips:

Belgian ales, Lambics, hard ciders, and IPA’s are particularly washed rind-friendly. The rule of thumb is to match intensities between beer and cheese, or strive for contrast (this also applies to wine, spirits, or N/A beverages). Pair beer with our Sunlight or Red Cloud, or world-class cheeses such as Munster (the real deal is a primo soft, stinky cheese from Alsace; Muenster is a semi-soft American invention that is fairly bland); Livarot; Pont l’Eveque, or Taleggio. For domestics, we love Rush Creek Reserve (Uplands Cheese Company), Red Hawk (Cowgirl Creamery), and Grayson (Meadow Creek Dairy).

 

The “solid” facts about winter cheesemaking

Milking time at Hacienda Zuleta, Ecuador. Photo credit: Laurel Miller

Milking time at Hacienda Zuleta, Ecuador. Photo credit: Laurel Miller

Most people don’t realize that cheese is a seasonal product. Since its discovery sometime around 2000 BC, fresh cheese has been a way to use surplus milk. The process of aging cheese is actually one of the earliest methods of food preservation, and provided crucial protein and other nutrients during the lean winter months, when certain species of dairy animals don’t usually lactate.

Despite advances in the dairy industry over the centuries, cheesemaking has changed little, and on a small scale, remains a highly seasonal endeavor. Since milk is the main ingredient in cheese, it’s important to understand how its chemical composition changes over the course of a year. These factors are additionally influenced by species, breed, terrain, and climate.

Milk comes from lactating mammals, i.e., those that have recently given birth. In the case of cheese, that milk comes from a ruminant, or cud-chewing mammal with a four-chambered stomach. The stomachs of ruminants are specially adapted to break down their entirely plant-based diet.

Now, think about the seasonal nature of grasses and other woody, leafy plants (goats are browsers, rather than grazers, and so prefer to strip branches of shrubs and trees or nibble thorny grasses to obtain nutrients). Here in Colorado, pasture is either covered in snow, or fairly barren, as is the case with our high-desert dairy in Cañon City. In that part of the state, there’s little in the way of forage for goats, even during the spring and summer months, which is why we supplement our goats’ diet with alfalfa hay and grain year- round.

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Time for milking at the Skyline Correctional Center dairy in Canon City, Colorado. Photo credit: Barry Staver

The change in diet is one major reason why milk undergoes compositional changes with the seasons. In the case of our herd, the biggest change that we see is in the ratio of solids (fats and proteins) in the milk, which become higher in winter.

Climate changes can also affect milk. There’s  a sharp contrast in seasonal temperature in Colorado (in Cañon City, it routinely tops 100 degrees in summer,  and drops to the mid-20s in winter). Goats are naturally inclined to drink more water in hot weather (which is also generally when they’re lactating), which results in lower levels of milk solids during the summer months. The variance in milk solids requires our cheesemaker to carefully review their levels and make slight recipe adjustments throughout the year.

The timing of breeding season also depends upon goat breed and climate. Goats naturally lactate for up to 10 months after kidding. Ideally, they’ll be given a break before being bred again, to allow their bodies to regain strength. For a cheese company of our size- we maintain a herd of 1,100 milkers- we can stagger the breeding. This enables us to keep a small, but continuous, supply of milk throughout the year, so we can continue to make cheese. Like us, many cheesemakers also have aged cheese in their line, so they have product to sell during the winter months.

Fortunately, our does have just started kidding again, and a plentiful supply of milk and bouncy baby goats are just around the corner. We look forward to seeing you soon at the farmers markets!

For more detailed information on goat milk composition, go to the DRINC (Dairy Research & Information Center, UC Davis) website.