Dairy farmer finds niche market in cheese
John Esh like so many other small dairy farmers had to make a change if he wanted to keep the family farm. He knew he needed to find a niche market; “that is where we started with the cheese.” Esh said, “Cheese is something that I have loved since I was a small child. My mother would always talk about how I loved a good sharp cheddar. So, we were looking at what can we make that is special, starting with a good quality milk, and cheese is what came to mind and that is how we got started.”
Esh shared that in the beginning he partnered with a cheese maker from Lancaster. It was in these early years mentored by this experienced cheese maker that Esh learned the art and chemistry of making cheese. It took about six years for the business to really begin to develop a name and experience growth but through that process Goot Essa cheese was born.
As Goot Essa began to grow some restaurant owners had started reaching out to Esh asking him to build a cave so that he could supply them with local made European style cheese rather than the restaurants having to import them. “So we thought let’s see what it would involve to build a cave, and lo and behold we built a cave and it worked,” Esh said.
“We started out as a co-op with some other members but then we had a couple hurdles, and they lost the interest, but we still maintain the cooperative structure mentality.” Esh is the sole proprietor but added, “We cooperatively work with four other farms to purchase their milk. My wife and I and our family provide all the cow’s milk from our farm, and we purchase milk from the three Amish sheep farms and one goat farm that we work with.”
The desire to create a variety of cheese came from the interest of the restaurants and wineries to be able to offer unique and delicious cheese boards to their customers. “We have 19 different cheeses, and they are all different from each other. The goat and the sheep do offer some complexity in ways that we cannot get from the cow.”
Goot Essa is set apart by two things, “The cave and the European style cheeses, most of the Pennsylvania cheese makers are not making European style cheeses. The European style with the natural rind is quite unique.” The other thing that sets them apart Esh shared is the amount of variety, “the things we hear quite a bit when I am at restaurants is that they did not expect to find this amount of cheese from one source.”
“I find peoples favorite cheeses varies quite a bit with location. Geographically the urban areas here in the East Coast will tend to gravitate towards the soft bloomy rind goat cheese, the Marn Vom Berge. The more rural areas of Central PA tend to like the sharp cheddar and the goat gouda. The goat gouda is a bit of a stretch for some because they have not had a goat cheese before. But this one is quite mild and yet it has a level of complexity.” Esh added, “The Der Mutterschaf, is also a milder sheep milk cheese, has an excellent texture, and it does have a nice tang. There is in my opinion still too many folks here in the central PA area who have never tried sheep milk or goat milk cheeses and may be pleasantly surprised if they would choose to try some.”
Over the last 20 years Goot Essa has grown into a well-known name, “The growth came gradually and with time. Last year during the pandemic the 70 restaurants that we had been working with dried up to five almost over night with the shutdowns. We are now only back to about 17, but it is still slow. That was a slam that really hit us hard.”
The one thing that sustained Goot Essa during the pandemic was their gift assortments. Esh said, “The gift assortment market grew dramatically for us last December. That along with the wineries doing well made up for the loss we had with the restaurants.”
After visiting this farm touring the cheese caves and enjoying a tasting that was offered this cheese will always be on the list of essential grocery items. The attention to detail and passion this family has for cheese making was inspiring and a joy to experience.
With Christmas around the corner Goot Essa is depending on the gift basket sales again to help them navigate the losses still being experienced from the pandemic. Shopping local and supporting local makes a tremendous difference in the success of our local farms and food suppliers. “We are really hoping that people find us and see that this is really a product that they would like to share with their loved ones.” Esh said.
For anyone interested in visiting the store for a tasting to experience the wonderful world of cheese that they have to offer, Goot Essa is located at 351 Wise Road, Howard, Pa.
For more information about upcoming events and locations where Goot Essa products can be purchased or to purchase gift boxes, visit the website (https://gootessacheese.com), Facebook or find them on Instagram.