Favorite Food Artisan: Lively Run
Written by Laura Gallup, Photos by Heather Ainsworth
Historically, cheese was identified with the place it came from. Cheddar is named for a gorge in England, Gouda for a town in Holland, Gruyere for a valley in Switzerland. While American cheesemakers often mimic European styles, Pete Messmer of Lively Run Goat Dairy Farm and Creamery strives to create something that highlights the Finger Lakes.
“We’re never going to beat their 1,000-year traditions,” said Messmer. “We should be focusing on coming up with something new and different, something that reflects our own kind of terroir.”
Terroir is a term usually heard in winemaking, but also can apply to vegetables, grain and dairy products. It’s the list of conditions that are specific to an area which give the finished product a unique flavor. In the case of Lively Run it refers to things like goat breeds, the feed they eat, the microfauna in the cheese aging room and more—these key elements couldn’t be replicated somewhere else.
Messmer is a farm kid that came back from college in 2010 without a job and fell in love with the family business. “I was just trying it out but I got really into the cheesemaking aspect,” he said. “I’m totally obsessed with cheese.”
Messmer’s attention to detail has proven helpful in the tricky business of goat cheesemaking. Goats are on a milk production cycle of about 300 days per year, but the flavor and quantity changes depending on the season. In the spring and fall the milk is higher in fat, so the cheese turns out buttery and creamy with a very luscious mouthfeel. In the summer it turns out firmer, more dry and crumbly. This highlights the terroir of the region, but makes production more difficult.
“One of the challenges of artisan production is [that] you want to preserve seasonality,” he said. “You want it to vary, but not too much because you want it to be recognizably the same cheese.”
Big cheese companies that mass produce get around the differences by altering the milk—basically separating out the fat, proteins and water and then putting them back together in the exact same way every time to standardize it. Unlike Lively Run, most big cheese operations don’t care about identifying their cheese with a place.
Pete’s parents, Susanne and Steve Messmer, have owned and operated Lively Run in Interlaken since 1994, with Pete officially taking over for his mom as head cheesemaker in 2015. Their herd began with 30 goats and grew to about 100 by the early 2000s, when demand began outpacing their production abilities. “It became pretty much impossible to do both the farming side of it and the cheesemaking side of it simultaneously,” he said. “It’s hard to do both things well.”
The family kept making cheese and outsourced the milk to a few local partner farms. While small dairy farms across the U.S. struggle to deal with volatile milk prices, Lively Run and their partner farms continue to grow. “One thing that’s immensely satisfying for me is being able to support family farms and help make those lifestyles actually viable because we’re paying a fair price for milk to farmers,” he said.
What started as a side gig for Pete’s mom has evolved into a staple producer for the region; selling to cheese shops, distributors, grocery stores, specialty-food stores and restaurants. They’ve upped their production line and added in some cow-milk varieties. But the cheeses that stand out are the more creative ones, like their goat-milk Cayuga Blue, which happens to be Pete’s favorite.
“It’s pretty unique compared to most blue cheeses, because it’s not super strong. It’s approachable, not as acidic as most traditional cow blue cheeses.”
Cayuga Blue was awarded first place in its class at the American Cheese Society Cheese Contest in 2017, proving that American-made cheeses can do more than just mimic.
This article was originally published in our March/April 2019 edition.