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How cheese launched a career

Kate Johnson talks tiny goats and big cheese at Longmont Library

Kate Johnson never meant to start making cheese, but now she’s written a book on the art of it.

Tiny Goat, Big Cheese is Johnson’s memoir, her journey from life coach to cheese coach. The book is also about how tiny ideas turn into big changes, driven by passion and persistence. And it has some cheesemaking too.

“The book is about taking a hobby and turning it into a career and the wobbly path you could take to do that,” Johnson said. “But it’s basically a memoir with cheese recipes.”

Tiny Goat, Big Cheese wrote itself, Johnson said. After sharing her stories during classes, students would often tell her she should write a book. So while vacationing in Hawaii, Johnson sat down and wrote out the whole first draft in a month. 

Johnson’s book was finished and released before the pandemic, and now she’ll get a chance to speak to a small audience at the Longmont Library as part of the Authors We Love series.

Johnson lives in the rolling farmland just west of Longmont on Briar Gate Farm, where she raises Nubian goats, chickens and a few other farm animals. The five-acre “farmette,” as Johnson calls it, is also the home to the Art of Cheese, Johnson’s cheesemaking school.

Starting with horseback riding as a girl, Johnson called herself an animal-crazy kid and said she’d always wanted to live on a farm. Fast forward to suburban life in Superior twenty years later and Johnson took her young daughters to see the goats at Haystack Mountain Creamery. Watching her daughters play and explore on the farm sparked something, so Johnson and her husband decided they would buy a farm.

The Johnsons bought Briar Gate Farm two years later. What started with one old horse and one young pony — to keep it company — turned into chickens, llamas and eventually dairy goats. When Johnson wound up with too much goat’s milk on her hands, the only logical conclusion was cheesemaking.

“I was just intending to make cheese for my family, but one thing led to another and someone asked me to teach a class and it kept growing as this hobby,” Johnson said.

What started as occasional classes through the Longmont Recreation Center and Senior Center kept growing. Johnson took more advanced cheesemaking classes with dairies in Vermont and California to expand her repertoire. Inspired by how much the Longmont and Boulder County communities love food, Johnson launched the Art of Cheese in 2014.

Twelve years after Johnson made her first cheese, the classroom is thriving. The Art of Cheese classes were originally hosted at Haystack Mountain Creamery, with guest appearances around the state. When Haystack made some changes to their operation, Johnson converted the garage at Briar Gate Farm into a permanent classroom.

When the pandemic shut down in-person events, Johnson pivoted to a virtual program like much of the rest of the world. Now she has more than 50 recorded cheesemaking demonstrations and her in-person classes tend to fill up almost as soon as they’re listed. According to Johnson, the on-demand videos for Art of Cheese have reached viewers in 17 countries. With the online content that Johnson and her cheesemaking staff developed during 2020, the goal now is to figure out how best to market them.

Even as COVID variants continue to permeate the country, leaving winter plans and restrictions uncertain, Johnson is adapting the best she can. Johnson requires students wear masks for in-person classes, doubling down on the sanitation required for cheesemaking and Johnson herself wears a face shield during instruction. Due to limitations in time and capacity, Johnson is only offering one or two classes per week, along with private bookings.

“There are some question marks on how group things are gonna go this winter,” Johnson said. “We’re back to requiring masks, which I didn’t want to have to do. I feel like in order to be conscientious and stay open, that’s just what we have to do.”

As she looks to the future though, Johnson wants to take Art of Cheese on the road. An RV dubbed the Cheese Chariot will let Art of Cheese travel to wineries, cideries and more, starting this coming October. The Cheese Chariot will be outfitted with all the fixings the classroom will need, but Johnson will give the instruction in an outdoor setting.

“The Cheese Chariot will be a way for us to take it on the road and bring our hotel with us,” Johnson said.

Before Johnson takes the goats on the go, she’ll be sharing her love of cheese and readings from her book with the Longmont Library on September 16. The free event will be hosted in-person in one of the library meeting rooms and registration is required as seating is limited. 

“There’s parts of the story before the goats, and then the first cheesemaking anecdote,” Johnson said. “So I’ll make the cheese while I share that story, and we’ll have cheese to taste after.”

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