Dreamy Cheese and Happy Goats in The Hills of Northern California
An afternoon with Bohemian Creamery's Lisa Gottreich.
August 11, 2017 ● 3 min read
By James Szkobel-Wolff | Image via Bohemian Creamery
Lisa Gottreich has a deep connection with her goats.
When she takes me around to see them, she calls from afar: “Hey, girls! We’ve got a big tall visitor. You’re little, he’s tall!” She speaks to them the same way I talk to my cat. Currently, there are 112 Alpine dairy goats romping around the rolling hills of the partially forested, bucolic property in Northern California. One after the next pushes forward in search of some petting, like small, horned dogs — most are younger kids, not much larger than Jack Russell terriers, but a number of older goats dot the herd. Gottreich admits she can’t bring herself to take her senior females to slaughter, even if it makes economic sense. “I’m too attached,” she says, grinning, “and they gave me so much.”
Gottreich is the owner and head cheesemaker of Bohemian Creamery in Sebastopol, California, known for its innovative and small-scale goat, cow, sheep, and buffalo cheeses. She grew up in Bolinas, a sleepy coastal town with agriculture at its core, and though she has worked with goats for most of her life, they didn’t exist in her professional life until roughly ten years ago, when Bohemian became a reality. “I guess I make cheese as an excuse to have goats,” she confesses.
Starting Bohemian came as more of a natural progression for Gottreich than a deliberate action. While working for an oncology company, she recalls wanted nothing more “than to go home and chop wood and milk my goats. That was a great comfort to me, so I just thought, well, this is what I should be doing,” she says. So she did.
She never went to cheese-making school or apprenticed for a world-renowned cheesemaker. She learned the best way she knew how: by reading as much as she could and testing things out. “I think it was one of those things you need to learn experientially and empirically in the kitchen, figuring out this and that,” she says. You won’t find any Gruyeres or cheddars at Bohemian, as every cheese is its own in-house variety. The selection doesn’t shy away from the different and somewhat strange.
“I lived in Italy for many years,” she says. “There, it’s a culinary sin to mix seafood and dairy. I thought, what a great idea!” One of her cheeses features nori she's hand-harvested along the coast; once roasted, she grinds it, then coats the exterior of the cheese with it — she calls it the "Surf and Turf." A cow's milk cheese hides an interior of goat milk caramel; another is washed in Russian River Brewery's cult-favorite Consecration Ale. It’s these deviations that Cavallo Point’s pastry chef Ethan Howard loves. “You could just tell that [her cheese] was really made specially,” he says, “It was something that was a little different from everybody else.”
Gottreich's experiments are unabashedly playful, and it's her willingness to indulge her creative whims that accounts for Bohemian’s success. Just two years ago, she opened a storefront on the farm to sell cheese and other dairy-based concoctions, like her homemade goat whey soda and goat’s milk soap, offering tours of the creamery and the farm. Thus far, it's been powered primarily by word of mouth, and lately, she’s had to begin turning people away because the crowds are so large.
With the ever-increasing number of restaurants in San Francisco and the Bay Area at large, the act of getting cheeses in stores and restaurants has only gotten more difficult. Margins have shrunk, and stability is all but gone. “It’s much harder to have a mid-to-high end restaurant in the Bay Area now then it was ten years ago. I feel the pressure, and they feel the pressure,” Gottreich says. Her neighbor and fellow farmer, Jim Reichardt, acts as Bohemian’s distributor (and has for the last decade), cutting out a significant added cost to her business. Despite the struggle, Gottreich dreams of making her cheese affordable for anyone who wants it, not just those who shop at a Whole Foods-level. “When I was a kid, everyone used to shop in the same store. Whether you father was a doctor or an engineer or worked the night shift in a can factory, we all shopped in the same place,” she says.
It’s an ambitious goal to be sure, but nothing’s impossible—especially considering Bohemian’s local reputation. She’s loved by not only locals, but chefs throughout the Bay Area, and her artisan brand carries weight throughout the region’s culinary community. “She is definitely one of my most respected cheese makers,” says Sondra Bernstein, founder of French restaurant The Girl and The Fig. “She’s just so passionate about it.”
World domination or not, she'll always have her goats.
In California? Here's where to find Lisa's creations.