Rachael Johnson works behind the counter at Door County Creamery, the new store in downtown Sister Bay she operates with her husband, Jesse. / Heidi Hodges/Door County Magazine
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This article is among the stories in the Fall issue of Door County Magazine, which arrived in stores across the country this week. Other features include the Door County Wine Trail, a profile of Washington Island’s Ron Overdahl, and the ghosts of Door County.
Jesse Johnson pours fresh goat milk into sterilized holding containers after an early-evening milking on his farm in Sister Bay.
Fresh goat cheese, colorful gelato — handmade every morning — and hanging hand-cured meats greet visitors inside Door County Creamery, a new specialty shop at 10653 N. Bay Shore Drive in Sister Bay.
It’s a labor of love for Jesse Johnson and his wife, Rachael, who have been working for nearly three years to see the operation to fruition.
The inspiration for the cheese-making business came to Jesse when he recalled time spent on a small goat farmstead in the south of France.
“The goats were running around and they’d take them out to pasture, then they’d come back and milk them, and take the milk to local stone creamery where they’d make cheese for the day,” he said. “They’d bring the cheese to the town or regional market.
“It was a closed circle, from the farm to the market. I wanted to recreate that here.”
Johnson shared his idea of making fresh goat cheese with his family and they embraced the idea. As owners of Waterfront, a fine dining restaurant in Sister Bay, and JJ’s casual dining and bar establishments in Sister Bay and Jacksonport, the family was accustomed to operating restaurants.
What they weren’t accustomed to was raising goats. It was a bit out of their comfort zone, but something the Johnson clan was willing to try.
“We had to start our own goat herd because there was nowhere in Door County to get enough goat milk,” Johnson said. Their original herd started with 10 females and one buck. Now, nearly three years later, the goats number 54.
Johnson’s initial vision was to have a small production facility on the farm where he would sell cheese at farmers’ markets and operate a roadside stand, but when his father, JJ, bought a storefront in downtown Sister Bay, their dream grew. This site would become the home of Door County Creamery, a place where the public could not only purchase the remarkably fresh cheeses and other specialty goat-milk products, they could watch Johnson work his cheese-making magic.
It’s been years in the making. Between classes, internships and countless hours needed to earn a cheese maker license and a handful of other licenses, the Johnsons opened their Door County Creamery doors in late June.
Perfecting the art
Johnson said everyone in the family plays a part in the business. He described his mother, Kris, as the backbone of their adventure, always keeping a level head, while his father is more of the visionary. Johnson and his wife, Raechel, run the farm; the couple milk the goats every morning and evening, after following lengthy and rigorous sterilization procedures. The fresh milk is then brought to the Creamery for him to make the cheese, not unlike the French farm operation that inspired him years ago.
Johnson’s background is firmly rooted in food. He graduated from culinary school and cooked in the family restaurants during the summer. When Door County’s off-season arrived, he’d travel and cook throughout Europe.
“You pick up what you can and come back and apply your own vision or inspiration to it,” he said.
He has applied his cooking know-how to cheese making.
“Almost all cheese starts with the same four ingredients – milk, salt, culture and enzymes – but it’s how you craft, shape, age and salt it. There are endless combinations and possibilities,” Johnson said. “You don’t have to follow a recipe, but you have to understand the process. When I make cheese, I let the milk do the talking.”
Although learning to raise a herd of goats – keeping them fed, watered and milked – and understanding the strict regulations in the dairy industry has been a challenge, Johnson believes one of Door County Creamery’s greatest obstacles will be changing people’s perception of goat cheese.
“People usually go into a store and pick out a block of cheese, but they have no idea where the milk comes from. That milk usually sits three or four days before they process it. So, often when people have goat cheese, they say it has that stinky goat flavor,” Johnson said. “That isn’t how goat cheese is supposed to be – it should taste like fresh milk.” With his farm-to-market operation, Johnson’s milk is turned into cheese within hours, preserving the fresh, light flavor.
Johnson said goat milk has a sweeter, silkier texture than cow milk. Those qualities carry over into the ice cream and cheese.
“You can only make as good of a cheese as your milk is,” he said.
At the Creamery
If you walked into Door County Creamery you’d see a case on the right filled with different colored gelatos and sorbets, a fresh bread rack, a deli display case with cheeses and the hanging hand-cured meats. On the other side of the room, a wine rack invites you to select a bottle from a small local producer. Other specialty items, like hand-made goat-milk soap — crafted by Rachael — fill in the spaces.
Visitors are encouraged to pick up some cheese, meat and fresh bread, grab a bottle of wine and sit outside, enjoying bustling Sister Bay. Or linger inside the shop which features a cafe seating area. If shoppers come hungry, they can indulge in an ever-changing menu, featuring the Creamery’s cheeses and specialty food items.
Johnson said he was inspired to establish Door County Creamery not necessarily because he wanted to follow in his parent’s entrepreneurial footsteps but rather out of a strong interest in food and how it should be done authentically.
“I wanted to bring something different that wasn’t streamlined – something that goes against the grain,” he said. “It’s been really hard, but it’s hard for a reason.”