SOUTHERNERS think of one thing when they hear the word "bootleggers": Moonshine.
We all have a story or two of a friend of a friend that can get true mountain-distilled corn liquor. At least that’s what we say.
In reality, the only true bootleggers around Savannah don’t deal in the hard stuff. Their trade is in the soft stuff: goat cheese.
Bootleg Farm is small local family-owned farm that makes and sells handmade goat cheeses. They have approximately fifty acres for their 140 goats to roam and graze, keeping things as natural as possible.
Their herd consists of Nubian, Saaenen, and Snubian, a cross between the two goats. Their goats, unlike many other farms, are true dairy goats.
If you have visited the Forsyth Farmers Market or eaten at one of our popular local restaurants, such as Husk and Green Truck, it is likely that you have had Bootleg’s products.
The duo who run it, Wendy and Richard Cowart, do not limit themselves to just one type of goat cheese. They are cranking out varieties from manchego to ricotta.
I met Richard at the Forsyth Farm Picnic, where they set up to let guests meet their “kids.” After speaking with him for awhile, he was gracious enough to allow me to schedule a visit to his farm. Once there, I spent the afternoon learning about his and Wendy’s trade.
Bootleg, the name and the story, comes from how Wendy and Richard started their family business. What started as a hobby and a small operation, with a few goats and the desire to explore making cheese, quickly turned into a profitable business after their cheese became popular at the farmers market in Rincon.
The problem was, they were making cheese that was unregulated and uninspected. So after lines started forming at the market for their cheese, the Department of Agriculture called.
After calling the Department of Agriculture back Richard realized he was bootlegging cheese. The name stuck and the family decided to go legit.
And now Richard tells me that they “are the area’s only Grade A dairy, and, along with that, [they] are a Grade A manufacturing plant also.” Which means Bootleg Farm is licensed through the Department of Agriculture.
But the Bonnie and Clyde duo started with honest intentions.
“The girl I married twenty-five years ago turned into the woman that wanted to make cheese. That’s how I got into it. We both came from agricultural based families,” Richard recalls.
“I met her at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, down in Tifton, Georgia. That’s where she was from. She was in the nursing program, I was in the forestry program, and we met and here we are today,” he says.
“We bought some scrub goats for another piece of property we lived on just to have some goats. Then she decided, ‘I want to make cheese, I want to make some butter,’ stuff like her grandmother did. So we upgraded from a brush goat type herd to dairy goats.”
Although Wendy had roots in cheese and butter making, almost everything she has done is self-taught. Richard took his background in building to build the farm a dairy processing plant.
Next to a small barn sits the manufacturing area, which takes the milk straight from the goats into the needed vats. The process starts, as to be expected, by milking the goats.
“Typically we are milking in the mid-60’s [head of goats] range, and we are doing 30-35 gallons per day,” Richard says as we walk through the farm.
Bootleg pasteurizes the milk themselves in-house before using it to create many variations of aged cheese offered around town. Walking me through the dairy processing facility Richard explains, “We use low temp and a longer period, we think that is gentler on the milk. It doesn’t remove all of the milk that high temperature pasteurization does.”
After pasteurization, the cheesemaking begins. Each cheese requires its very own process: different times, temperatures, and cultures. Wendy is the expert at every single detail.
The milk is separated into whey and curds, and the curds are used to make and form the cheese. Richard has even found a way to use up the leftover whey, so no part of the product is wasted.
Bootleg has two separate rooms for and aging their cheeses and for storing the cheese at the correct temperature once it stops ripening. I could happily live in those storage rooms lined with various farm fresh yet aged chèvre, gruyere, cheddar, and mozzarella.
The feta is as authentic as it gets. Keeping with a more traditional method, Bootleg’s is made from goat’s milk.
The use of goat milk, instead of cow milk, lends a bolder flavor that is expected with the tangy, slightly salty, soft cheese. If you have not yet tried Bootleg’s feta, go for it first because it is by far their most popular.
Along with the feta, I took home a hearty size wedge of sweet and nutty aged gruyere. The earthy cheese is perfect on its own, or paired with any of Bootleg’s cheeses artfully arranged on a cheese plate.
As for the goats, they are all just as friendly as Richard and Wendy. “They are all named. The collars are for my benefit; Wendy can call them by name,” Richard smiles.
The farm also has chickens, who provide a good many eggs to the Sentient Bean.
I finished the tour by asking the bootleggers what they are considering for the future. According to Richard, “Wendy will continue to make different varieties of cheese. We are going to look to expand out marketplace. Our marketplace right now is Savannah, Statesboro, St. Simons.”
Stop by the Forsyth Farmers market almost any Saturday to grab any of Wendy’s handcrafted milk creations. Be sure and tell Richard I said hello.