Bessy’s Best Cheese North Dakota
Cheese Maker’s Spotlight – 50 states of cheese series
North Dakota has a rich farming history. Huge tracts of land. Northern European settlers with long dairy traditions and skills. In fact, Salem Sue is the world’s largest Holstein cow, a giant fiberglass cow funded in honor of the dairy industry, looking out over Interstate 95. The recent oil boom has seen a strong economy, low unemployment and a growing population. So the cheese making in this beautiful, rural state should be spilling out into Minnesota, right? Wrong. Dead wrong. Bessy’s Best is the last, remaining registered cheese maker in North Dakota.
The Goetz family are based in the southern central region of the state and, like many living in the area, are from German decent. Blaine Goetze is a second generation dairy farmer born and raised in North Dakota and his wife Kathy moved to Minnesota to help run the business. Their son Travis and his family have joined the family firm, something which Kathy explains was the turning point in switching to cheese making. “The dairy industry was thriving here- over five thousand dairies in the 1980’s. Today there are less than one hundred. We might have given up but we have the new generation to support so we had to adapt. The milk industry had hit rock bottom.” As the remaining cheese businesses quit or went broke, Kathy and Blaine were able to tap into Travis’ resourcefulness and build out a low cost milk and cheese plant.
Kathy said: “Eight years ago in April we made the decision to diversify. While Blaine and I were getting older we had to support a new family. Our first step was to start selling the milk ourselves because the milk marketing board was not getting the prices we needed to survive. Travis would work with us to pick up all the equipment- homogenization, pasteurization and so on- and track down second hand parts to keep the second-hand equipment going! We saved at least fifty per cent making the transition ourselves instead of using experts or buying new. And all this time I was just making cheese on the side for friends and family.” After being quoted $30,000 just for a company to come and take a look at their equipment, Travis took on the job of hooking it all up himself. “I remember it was midnight and Travis called out ‘It’s time to turn on the boiler!’ I hid in the other room but he flicked the switch and it worked perfectly. We have a great plant now and we could never have done it without doing it ourselves. Farmers are Jack-of-all-trades.”
The Goetz family slowly built up a reputation for producing whole milk and despite early struggles just to get it onto the shelves, local supermarkets in Bismark started to carry their product. Soon customers were asking for their milk by name and they managed to expand to towns further afield, such as Mandan and Dickinson. All the while, Kathy was continuing to teach herself cheese making and slowly she was using larger kettles and making larger batches of cheese. “Friends were asking for it and saying how great it was tasting. Eventually I turned to my husband and said ‘Right- I’m calling the inspector!”
Kathy is the first to admit she isn’t an expert and simply makes cheeses she loves- the community shared here tastes. “We have an honor system and when people stop by to buy our cheese we ask them to leave comments. We then start to make the cheeses our community wants and we get the feedback to know we are doing it right.” That doesn’t mean Kathy didn’t receive any help. “Cheese education is hard to come by in North Dakota. But I was lucky as a lady called Margaret Morris up in Canada continued to give me help. I was able to make cheese more consistently and having that advice when we started was invaluable.”
Margaret was even on hand when, following the transition from milk to cheese making, Kathy decided to make the leap and launch a range of yogurts. “Again it was just people coming round for coffee and I’d give them some yogurt to eat while we chatted. People wanted to take it home so we found a simple, natural recipe and soon that took off too. In fact I was making it to treat our baby calves as a natural medicine- that’s really why I was making it so regularly!” Bessy’s Best has a reputation for all natural products so the yogurt does not contain any thickeners, meaning the culture does all the work. They now sell plain, vanilla and strawberry varieties of the pourable yogurt.
The first cheese Kathy perfected and sold was Gouda, the process requiring hot water to wash the curd. The milk was taken right out of the milk tank before it went off to be homogenized. “I was only making small batches in a ten gallon container. I’d then bring it back to the house and age the little one pound wheels for a couple of months. Now I make big twenty pound blocks for six months or more, even up to a year. The flavor in the bigger blocks at room temperature are so full of flavor, it’s wonderful.” Kathy also makes a mild Cheddar, following the full cheddaring process and rivals the Gouda in local popularity. Kathy also has added a tasty aged Asiago to the range of aged cheeses.
Making new types of cheese was not easy, despite Kathy’s family background. “My dad was a manager at Land O’Lakes but when people kept asking me for ‘squeeky cheese’ I had no idea what they were talking about. It isn’t my favorite cheese because I prefer cheeses with stronger flavors but people have kept asking for cheese curds and we keep selling it.” Comments left in the box at the front of the farm were asking for a garlic style cheese curd, so they went to work. “It was a hit!”
It was at a local store where Kathy tasted mozzarella. “There was no flavor at all. I knew I could do better than that- so now we make mozzarella too.” The one cheese that is a local delicacy is dry curd cottage cheese. “This is German country, they use it for kuchan and cheese buttons, two dishes that are popular around here. The inspector insisted we had to make it using a machine- like our yogurts- so we needed a drier product. So we make a dry curd cottage cheese version that allows us do as the inspector asked and it is perfect for making traditional German dishes.”
So presumably the economic growth in the state has been a positive? “Actually, no. Up in the Williston area the oil wells have brought in so many people but we can’t compete with what they pay. Every year we need several workers to keep going but this year we had precisely zero people helping us out. In town there isn’t a single block you can walk without seeing a sign that says ‘Help Wanted’. We work sixteen hour days and can’t carry on forever. We have a fan base for our cheeses and yogurts and we don’t want to let them down- they love Bessy’s Best.”
We hope this state can see a return to its dairy roots so cheese making businesses like Bessy’s Best can continue to support their families and provide tasty, natural products for their communities. Please visit www.bessysbest.com to find out more about North Dakota’s remaining cheese maker.