Most cheesemakers wind up bringing work home one way or another, but few do so as literally as Rebecca Velazquez, the co-owner of Barn First Creamery with her husband Merlin Backus. In the town of Westfield, Vermont (population: 500), Velazquez and Backus live and work in a 3,800-square-foot barn directly above their herd of 59 goats.
"We were going to build a house but decided to expand our apartment in the hay loft above," Velazquez says. "The cheese cave is right across the driveway. I'm pretty happy with the commute."
Barn First Creamery specializes in goat cheeses that aren't typically made from goat's milk. "I wasn't going to do just fresh chevre and yogurt," like many goat cheesemakers do, she says. "I wanted to do an entire cheese board with just my milk, and to throw out the rules of what goat milk is and what it isn't. I wanted to see what the limits were."
And so she makes a brie-like bloomy rind cheese called Quinby and an ash-ripened chevre called Cowles; a fudgy and funky washed rind square number named Urdang; a mushroomy Valdes Blue; and other styles, including a raw-milk tomme and a bloomy rind / blue cheese hybrid. All are made exclusively with milk from their goats, and are named after women in their family—particularly those who didn't pass surnames on to their children. While Velazquez and an assistant manage cheesemaking, Backus and another assistant milk and tend to the herd.
When Velazquez and Backus bought a handful of goats in 2012, neither had much dairy experience. "We were just cheese eaters who lived in New York City," she explains. They were frequent customers in Saxelby Cheese's early days, where they sampled their way through the Northeast Kingdom's wealth of cheeses to share with Backus' family up in Vermont. They even named one of their first goats Anne, in honor of Anne Saxelby.
Velazquez spent three years tinkering with recipes in cheesemaking manuals to develop her initial line of cheeses. Most days, she'd start with two or three gallons of goat milk on the stove, then experiment with ways to modify cow's milk cheese recipes for her own purposes.
"I took an approach of, 'let's see what works,'" she says. "I came from a layperson's background; there are kids who study dairy science in college."
Barn First started selling six cheeses in 2013. In 2019, they took home a 1st place award from the American Cheese Society competition for their seventh cheese, an aged washed rind style called Malloy. Now, with the worst of the pandemic behind them, the creamery is going through another growth spurt. Velazquez is developing new recipes, including a Spanish style cheese washed with wine, a version of Urdang washed with beer, and an aged tomme spiked with Aleppo pepper. She and Backus recently increased the size of their herd. They plan to expand their bottled milk production and have purchased a new 100-gallon vat to make larger batches of cheese. Shoppers at the Burlington farmer's market will find them at a new stall, spreading the goat's milk cheese gospel.
"I did a lot of demos before COVID," she says, "and I miss that interaction with people. I get competitive with myself and Merlin about how much goat cheese I can sell, and how many people I can convince to try an unfamiliar cheese."
Velazquez likens her self-educated cheesemaking career to a restaurant's dishwasher who worked her way up to become chef de cuisine. "Everything I do is by touch and feel and knowing my milk."
But in spite of the creamery's growth, she's keeping herself grounded. "80% of cheesemaking is doing dishes."
Taste the amazing goat's milk cheese from Barn First Creamery!
Farm photos by Merlin Backus, courtesy of Barn First Creamery.