Haystack Mountain's cheesy lovefest with Boulder County

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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."

See also: - The Right Ingredient: Munson Farms Corn is candy on the cob - Il Mondo Vecchio gets cheeky with guanciale, salumi - Red Wagon Organic Farms: Can't beet its produce! - Two small-town families made Colorado's Best Beef a sought-after brand

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.

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."

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]."

The classic chevre soon gave way to a panoply of goat cheese varieties, flavors and rinds, like the mild and sweet Chile Jack (a recent winner of best flavored Jack Style at the American Cheese Society awards, as Scaggs is quick to mention) or the upcoming Wall Street Gold, a large-format Alpine-style named after the Wall Street Mine in Fourmile Canyon. Aging a full year in Haystack's carefully controlled aging rooms, these wheels will only start to roll onto store shelves this summer.

Yet it's another upcoming cheese that truly epitomizes Haystack Mountain's status in the Boulder County community. Much like the celebrated Oatmeal Stout cheese made with Breckenridge Brewery beer, A Cheese Named Sue is a raw milk cheese washed with Oskar Blues' G'Knight Imperial Red, brewed practically down the road from the Haystack creamery in Longmont. But Haystack's relationship with the brewery goes beyond a simple cheese wash. G'Knight is named for Gordon Knight, the helicopter pilot who lost his life in 2002 trying to drop water on a fire near Lyons. In a fascinating coincidence, Knight's widow, Sue, had worked on the Haystack Farm for a while before its closing; A Cheese Named Sue is a tribute to Sue and to her husband's spirit.

"When I make that cheese... I feel like Mr. Knight is watching me. Like, 'You better make that cheese right!'" Chang laughs. "It's a lot of pressure."

The jovial face of the Haystack brand, Scaggs can hardly contain himself when talking about this next step in local synergy: "This is a Boulder County lovefest like you couldn't imagine!" The relationship goes both ways, says Louis Thomas, chef de cuisine at Longmont's Oskar Blues Homemade Liquids and Solids. The restaurant gets three to four wheels of Haystack cheese every week, giving the Blues crew free rein to feature Haystack cheese in all sorts of cheese boards and specials. "We're all about local here," Thomas says with pride.

Thomas's pumpkin ravioli is bathed in a cream sauce of Haystack goat cheese and G'Knight, and studded with green chiles. Just like the Oskar Blues brewery itself, it's sweet and hearty, with a mischievous kick.

Scaggs slices off thin triangles of Sunlight, a strong raw-milk goat cheese for his visitors. "This is the O.G. Superfunk," he warns. "This one's not for everybody. They fear the funk." Even milder cheeses like the Spanish-style hard Queso de Mano or the classic Boulder Chevre benefit from the vision and craft brought to the table by Chang, who's been head cheesemaker since 2004. The widespread acceptance of goat cheese since Haystack opened in 1989 leads more and more people to pursue the aggressive, almost barnyard-y flavors of cheeses like Sunlight and Red Cloud.

Scaggs recounts giving out tastes of funky Sunlight on slices of tart Honeycrisp apples at the Boulder Farmers' Market: "I gave a girl a taste of this at the farmers' market, and this is probably one of the best quotes of the season... her eyes kind of flutter a little bit and they roll back in her head, she goes 'Oh my god, I think you just changed my DNA a little bit.'" Well, a little genetic restructuring never hurt anybody.

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