A vision in cheese in Ahualoa
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“Some folks count sheep as they’re going to sleep. When I go to bed, I’m counting goats,” said Dick Threlfall, cheesemaker and owner of Hawaii Island Goat Dairy located in Ahualoa. Another part of his routine is going to bed with his iPad, so he can look at pictures of cheese, contemplating his next creation.
Hawaii Island Goat Dairy began in 1999, as a hobby for Thelfall’s wife, Heather, who passed away in 2010. Heather wanted to learn to make cheese, and began with a cow. She soon discovered that goats were easier to manage and much less smelly. Dick joined her in the business in 2001, because after decades as a respected farrier, his worn back demanded a change. Together, they developed a business plan with sales targets that were exceeded within six months.
Chevre (fresh, uncured goats’ milk cheese) was the first cheese Heather made, and is still the product that defines the brand. In addition to producing chevre in numerous flavors and their popular feta, the dairy now makes 10 other ripened cheeses, varying from soft to semi-hard. One of their newer varieties, Crottin, is a mold-ripened, ash-covered cheese that is a favorite of Chef Allen Hess of The Canoe House at Mauna Lani.
In addition to many local chefs, this goat cheese has many loyal fans. Threlfall believes this is the result of their conscientious milk processing that keeps off flavors from forming in the fresh milk. This also prevents the “gamey” cheese flavor that many people find objectionable in goat cheese. “I had a college professor who fed me my first taste of goat cheese and I spit it out. I wouldn’t eat goat cheese again until I tasted Heather’s 30 years later,” said Threlfall.
According the Threlfall, the key to “clean, good tasting milk” is cooling the product very quickly as soon as it’s produced and pasteurized. This happens twice a day at his dairy - 63 goats are milked in a process that takes three hours and requires three employees.
“We try to keep the whole milking process mellow,” Threlfall said.
While this operation may appear relaxed, each goat’s daily milk production is tracked and followed on a spreadsheet. So, while his goats are living bucolic lives in rolling meadows, Threlfall works constantly to ensure efficient and quality production through optimization of his herd. This means closely managing the lineages of his Toggenburg, Alpine, Nubian and Saanen goats by tracking production and interbreeding the desirable animals.
Beginning with Heather Threlfall’s passion and continuing with her husband’s fastidious practices and creative cheese-making, Hawaii Island Goat Dairy is a success. Additionally, the goat dairy business, in general, has exploded in the last 10 years. Threlfall attributes this to the fact that goat’s milk products seem to be more tolerated and cleaner than cows’ milk. “Goat’s milk is naturally homogenized,” said Threlfall, and that seems to make it more digestible for many people.
Although Heather is gone, her presence is felt in this place the Threlfalls discovered 27 years ago. Building on their vision of creating productive land from what was once an overgrown homestead, they now produce a mainstay food in Hawaii. Their products can be found throughout the islands in various restaurants and retail outlets, including Kamuela Liquors, Healthways II and Homestead Market, on Saturdays, in Waimea.