Good Life

Aged to perfection: Cheese business keeps family on the farm, churns out 100,000 pounds a year

Cheese from Goot Essa on Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2015.
Cheese from Goot Essa on Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2015. CDT photo

John Esh never has to go far for one of his favorite treats.

He does, after all, manufacture about 100,000 pounds of cheese a year on his family’s farm at 351 Wise Road, Howard.

The Esh family founded Goot Essa, which means “good food,” 15 years ago. The Amish business has grown over the years along with its 13 varieties of cheese, and they ship to all 50 states.

It all goes back to the basics for Esh.

“It’s probably no different than any other business that reflects the values and character of the founder,” he said. “Chick-fil-A and their founder don’t want to be open Sundays. So, that makes his business slightly different because of his values. We have similar values not being open Sunday, but the core is the same as any business should be: Treat people with respect, build a quality product and have integrity. Those are all the key ingredients it takes for a successful business to run.”

Q: How’d Goot Essa get started?

A: We got started 15 years ago when our nutritionist and myself looked for something, some way to keep the family on the farm. We wanted to have a specialty business, and we were producing milk ... We wanted to do something more with milk than we were, and we know that cheese has a longer shelf life than milk, and there are also so many different things you can do with cheese.

Q: You started Goot Essa to help keep the family on the farm. Did you have to learn a lot to get the business going?

A: Like anyone (who) starts a business, it was quite a challenge. We started very slowly, small. Probably the biggest challenge for me was learning how to market our product. Us dairy farmers haven’t been trained in marketing. We’ve been trained in production, so the learning curve I had was all about marketing our product, going out to chefs, meeting other business owners and selling what we had.

Q: Goot Essa means good food. Does that mean you do a lot of taste testing?

A: Oh, yes. That’s one of the hats I wear happily. I like doing quality control. We do have rigid testing in place. For example, every batch of cheddar I will go through and taste it about every three months. We’ll taste it, check texture, check the pH and do those things to make sure everything meets our specs.

As another example, our sharp cheddar needs to age three years. We want that to be the very best there is, so it needs to meet certain criteria, like the pH needs to be 5.2. We don’t want it to be too crumbly, and we want it to taste good. Those are the three things I’m looking for when I’m taste testing.

Q: What’s the process of manufacturing cheese?

A: We heat the milk to about 100 degrees. Some of the cheeses we do pasteurize and take up to about 160 degrees for a brief period of time. We do different degrees for different cheeses, and we have different processes for different cheeses. We add different cultures to different cheeses depending on what we’re doing. The alpine, for example, has four different cultures. About an hour after we add the cultures, we add the granite to allow the milk to coagulate. After it’s coagulated, we cut the cheese and cut it finer if we want it dryer or less fine if we want it wetter. The we put the cheese into mold and press the cheese to drain it. The next day we move it into storage.

Q: How many varieties do you make?

A: Thirteen.

Q: About how many pounds do you make a year?

A: We produce about 100,000 pounds a year, which is still very small-scale compared to the crafts of this world. It’s become a nice viable business for us. It takes about 10 pounds of milk for 1 pound of cheese. A gallon of milk will make almost a pound of cheese.

Q: How many cows do you need to produce that much milk for both the dairy business and for the cheese?

A: We have 75 cows. It’s something that I grew up with, and it’s important to us that our cows are happy and comfortable just like us people. If we’re happy and comfortable, we’re comfortable. The same goes for cows. They have access to pasture. We also have water beds in the barn. So, we do pamper them a little bit and treat them as good as we do ourselves.

Q: What challenges does a small cheese manufacturer like yourself face in this industry?

A: One of the challenges we have is we are up against so many of the cheeses from European countries. They are subsidized and can sell their cheeses under the price of what we can sell here. So, believe it our not, our biggest competition comes from overseas in France, Spain, Germany and England.

Q: People can find the big brand name cheeses anywhere. Where can they find yours?

A: We are in Tait Farm, Way Fruit Farm, Happy Valley Winery, Mount Nittany Winery, Seven Mountain Winery, Nature’s Pantry, Reflections. We are in restaurants like Otto’s, Barrel 21, Penn Stater, Nittany Lion Inn, Harrison’s, Liberty Craft House, The Deli, Happy Valley Brewing Co. I’m hoping I’m not missing anyone — The Tavern, Spats Cafe, the Cheese Shoppe.