Artisan Cheese

The goats are strong-willed. They trot out of their pastures with their cute, floppy ears and through the open gate, into the milking room and on top of the milking stands. “They know where they’re

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Tom Brossart photo

Hailey Hanna pets one of the goats during a visit to the Fossil Creek Creamery, outside of Strawberry. Visitors are encouraged to pet and feed the goats at the creamery.

A crowd, mostly children, gathers in the small milking room to see the furry creatures, and John Bittner asks if anyone wants to try.

“Come on,” he says gruffly. “Either you do or you don’t.”

A little girl steps forward and agrees to volunteer. Bittner, 70 and with a sunburned face, shows her how to draw milk from the teat. Hailey Hanna’s first try is successful.

The goats furiously eat while the humans milk them. After running out of food, they squirm and one of John’s employees hurriedly refills the container. It’s the employee’s first day and she hesitates before inserting herself in the chaos-filled narrow lane between milking stands.

“They will do anything for food,” John says about the goats. Single-minded, the goats basically ignore the people around them, even those tugging at their teats.

The goats have names like Sunflower and Lilly, Boogie-woogie and Tulip.

Every day at 6 a.m. and 4 p.m., John milks his 32 milking goats. At the afternoon milking, people usually gather to watch.

The creamery produces 200 pounds of cheese each week, but the Bittners also make fudge, yogurt, ice cream, lotion and soap.

The ice cream appears to be a big seller. Joyce, John’s wife, had run out that day because someone had earlier purchased seven containers.

However, cheese and fudge mark the farm’s top sellers, with people usually buying one or two boxes of each.

Fossil Creek Creamery opened in 2004 and has since become one of Rim Country’s most successful small businesses, although John declined to divulge the company’s total sales. In 2009, the creamery won a Hero award from the Edible Phoenix magazine for its artisan cheeses, and also a Small Business of the Year award in Rim Country.

They supply some of the Valley’s top restaurants, including one at the Marriott Ritz Carlton, J&G Steakhouse at the Phoenician and Westin at the Kierlands. Whole Foods, Tempe Farmers Market and Payson’s own farmers market also supply Fossil Creek products.

“Cheese making is a real art as well as a science,” said Joyce. “It’s like bread making — every loaf of bread isn’t going to be the same if you’re making it by hand.” Yet, she added, the couple has the process fine-tuned enough to deliver a consistent product.

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Tom Brossart photo

Above: John Bittner explains the milking process to visitors to the Fossil Creek Creamery. Every day at 6 a.m. and 4 p.m., John milks his 32 milking goats. At the afternoon milking, people usually gather to watch.

The resulting cheese is so-called artisan — crafted, not created in a factory.

At first, the couple didn’t imagine opening Fossil Creek Creamery, which also offers overnight stays in a yurt and hikes with llamas.

John envisioned himself semi-retired from real estate, selling fudge on a street corner in Strawberry. The couple moved to Strawberry in the late 1990s, after discovering the hamlet on a trip to Flagstaff.

John started making fudge, but the goats produced so much milk that the couple expanded into cheese.

They attended an intensive one-week cheese making class at the University of California San Luis Obispo.

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Tom Brossart photo

A goat peeks through a feeding hole.

Now, the couple’s cheese business is thriving. Last year when a potential storm closed the farmers market, a customer drove to Strawberry just for Fossil Creek goat cheese.

Sarah Daykin, a visitor from the Mesa, said she loves the tart taste of goat cheese.

“I’ve read it’s healthier for you than cow cheese,” she said. It’s more compatible with a human’s digestive system.

John said that the lactose in cow’s milk consists of larger molecules than in goat’s milk. Lactose intolerant people simply can’t handle the size of the lactose molecules.

Some people fear the taste.

“A lot of times, people have had goat’s milk that is really strong, so they’re afraid to try it again,” said Joyce. However, the Bittners feed their goats with a special sweet Alfalfa from Colorado, and so the milk tastes sweeter.

Beyond taste, Fossil Creek Creamery’s products attract people because they’re local, said Joyce — the same reason restaurants seek out the farm’s cheese.

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