Goat cheese: How do I describe thee?

Colleen Kottke
This pair of dairy goats will soon join the milking herd to help produce goat cheese for LaClare Farms in Malone.

Kay Thomas spends a lot of time reading labels in the grocery store, especially in the specialty cheese display.

“For a long time I was hesitant to purchase goat cheese because as a child I remember it being so strong tasting. But as I started reading the descriptions on the labels, I become more curious and decided to give it another try,” the Oshkosh woman said. “I can’t believe how much has changed over the years. There are so many flavors!”

Thomas, like many consumers with a limited exposure to goat cheese, often describe the product as tasting “goaty” or strong taste. But as the dairy goat industry has evolved, so has the flavor and quality of goat cheese, said Katie Fuhrmann.

LaClare Farms head cheesemaker says the taste of goat cheese begins with the quality of milk of which it is produced.

“When the dairy goat industry was in its infancy, milk producers were holding their milk up to five days in order to have enough to get the truck to stop and pick them up,” Fuhrmann said. “The bacteria in milk that isn’t fresh will start to create those ‘off’ flavors.”

Fuhrmann said that quality milk makes her job much easier.

“I’m not trying to use different cultures to hide flavors or using different techniques to cover things up,” she said. “My parents spent 20 years figuring out how to make the best goat milk possible. And if you don’t start out with great milk you’re not going to make great cheese.”

Fuhrmann says people are often shocked at the taste of today’s products created from goat’s milk.

“Ten to 20 years ago people described the flavor profile of goat’s milk as tasting goaty because most grew up on cow’s milk,” she said. “Today’s consumers are not accepting ‘good enough’ in the dairy goat industry. Now they’re expecting goat cheese to taste fresh and they’re expecting it not to have the goaty finish to it.”

Because the complexity and characteristics of the different varieties of goat cheeses are unique to one another and deserve to crawl out from under the blanket descriptor of ‘goaty’, researchers from Kansas State University’s Center for Sensory Analysis and Consumer Behavior developed a new flavor lexicon to characterize goat cheeses made in America.

LaClare Farms will move its cave-aged Chandoka-aging program to the Malone facility where the goat farm, restaurant and retail shop is also located. Chandoka made from a blend of cow and goat milk, is one of LaClare’s signature cheeses next to Evalon.

Researchers previously developed lexicons to describe the flavor characteristics of aged natural cheese and French cheeses.

“We thought it was a good idea to do this with goat cheese as we were seeing a lot of dairy goat farms across the country and it was becoming a pretty robust industry,” said Martin Talavera, assistant professor of sensory analysis and consumer behavior. “So we thought of trying to accommodate some of the work that has been done in the past to try and describe the flavor or cheese in order to specifically talk about the flavor of artisan goat cheese in the U.S.”

He said cheesemakers rely on flavor lexicons to not only adapt to consumer preferences but to also help producers benchmark their products.

Talavera said highly trained sensory panelists sampled 47 artisan goat cheeses from across the country. Goat cheeses sampled include cheddar-style with waxy, nutty and sweet flavors; feta-style with saltier flavor profiles; chevre-style with milder flavors; and mold-ripened cheeses that are more pungent and sharp.

As panelists sampled the cheeses, the flavors were categorizes as sour, bitter and buttery. Experts also analyzed the cheeses for their aroma, pungency, dairy sweetness, dairy sourness and mouth feel.

“This group of panelists have a wide range of terminology to describe products, so when they evaluate products they come up with a fingerprint profile of different products so they can say this product may have a hint of this or that,” he said.

Out of the 39 flavor attributes used to generate a flavor profile, Talavera said researchers eliminated three attributes that weren’t present in the cheeses that were evaluated but instead added five unique flavor characteristics: dairy, white pepper, lemon, black walnut and soapy.

Producers use descriptive terms to set an expectation in the minds of consumers on what flavors to expect when they sample that particular cheese.

Talavera said producers can use this flavor lexicon as not only a means to produce cheeses sought after by consumers, but to use it as a resource for development, product benchmarking and quality control.

“As far as consumers, there may be some impression that cheeses all taste goaty but that is not the reality,” he said.

For those consumers who have not sampled the variety of goat cheeses available on the market, Fuhrmann said a lot of time and energy is put into creating labels that capture the taste and essence of the cheese with a handful of words.

“When a consumer picks up a package of our Evalon cheese and reads that little three line blurb or what Evalon is, they will develop a flavor profile in their head that will match what the cheese tastes like,” she said. “Once they taste it, they start tasting those profile that we describe and are able to appreciate the cheese for what it is.”