Say (goat) cheese

Lebanese dairy pro­duc­ers di­ver­sify into new op­por­tu­ni­ties

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Goat dairy pro­duc­tion has a long

his­tory in our part of the world. Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ev­i­dence sug­gests that goats were the first dairy an­i­mals to be do­mes­ti­cated, some­time be­tween 9,000 and 8,000 BC in what is to­day Iraq and Iran. Goat milk was also men­tioned in the Bi­ble, with the prophet Abra­ham own­ing herds of goats, and the Book of Proverbs speak­ing of the an­i­mal’s abil­ity to pro­duce milk.

The dairy mar­ket later shifted to cows, and is to­day glob­ally and lo­cally dom­i­nated by the larger mam­mal. The rel­a­tively re­cent trend to­ward healthy, clean foods and the rise of food al­ler­gies, how­ever, has brought goat milk back un­der the spot­light. The global mar­ket for goat cheese prod­ucts is grow­ing slowly but steadily, and Le­banon’s dairy pro­duc­ers have been quick to take part.

A BRIEF HIS­TORY

No­madic goats are tra­di­tion­ally bred in Le­banon’s moun­tain­ous ar­eas. Vil­lagers use their milk to pro­duce cheese and kishek (a dry cheese) for the na­tional mar­ket and oc­ca­sion­ally, in­ter­na­tional dis­tri­bu­tion.

Mazen Khoury, the pro­duc­tion man­ager at Dairy Khoury, one of the lead­ing dairy pro­duc­ers in Le­banon, says his fam­ily busi­ness has been pro­duc­ing goat yo­gurt, lab­neh (strained yo­gurt), and bal­adi (lo­cal) cheese (a type of white, round cheese also re­ferred to as green cheese) since the 1970s. How­ever, ac­cord­ing to Khoury, no­madic goats—the only goat va­ri­ety found in Le­banon at the time—pro­duce milk only sea­son­ally, so Dairy Khoury’s pro­duc­tion was lim­ited to the pe­riod start­ing in Fe­bru­ary and end­ing in Au­gust at the lat­est.

As such, a steady and con­sis­tent busi­ness re­volv­ing around goat dairy prod­ucts was not fea­si­ble in Le­banon un­til 2005, when Ji­had Da­her, the tech­ni­cal man­ager of and part­ner in Goût Blanc, used per­sonal funds and a loan from Kafalat to im­port 60 dairy goats from France with the pur-

pose of pro­vid­ing a con­sis­tent sup­ply of high-qual­ity goat milk to the coun­try’s dairy pro­duc­ers.

A GOAT BY ANY OTHER NAME

The goats im­ported by Da­her were Saa­nen, a Swiss breed, and Alpine, a breed that orig­i­nated in the French Alps. Saa­nen goats are stronger and less vul­ner­a­ble to dis­ease than Alpine goats, ac­cord­ing to Walid Bou Habib, a part­ner at Goût Blanc, but both breeds have a sig­nif­i­cantly higher yield than the lo­cal goat va­ri­ety. “The lo­cal breed is strong and can re­sist dis­eases, but their yield is low, at 0.5 kilo­liters per day per goat, whereas with the Saa­nen you get an av­er­age of 3 kilo­liters per day. This is re­lated to the goats’ in­her­ent ge­netic po­ten­tial, and there is noth­ing you can do to in­crease a goat’s max­i­mum yield. Be­cause of this small yield, no Lebanese dairy [farm] would in­vest in a lo­cal breed to get goat milk,” ex­plains Bou Habib.

Khoury speaks of the ad­van­tages of Saa­nen goats over the lo­cal va­ri­ety, say­ing that their yield is more con­sis­tent, there­fore al­low­ing for a year­round pro­duc­tion of dairy prod­ucts. Khoury also ex­plains that Saa­nen goats are bred to be farm goats and can milked us­ing au­to­mated milk­ing sys­tems, whereas lo­cal goats are typ­i­cally milked by hand in the fields. He says au­to­mated milk­ing is more hy­gienic, and it pro­duces milk that can be im­me­di­ately pro­cessed and re­frig­er­ated.

FOL­LOW­ING THE TREND

Bou Habib says goat cheese is fast be­com­ing a global trend: “In­ter­na­tion­ally, peo­ple are shift­ing from cow dairy prod­ucts to goat dairy be­cause of the idea that goat milk is health­ier and does not con­tain lac­tose, which makes it eas­ier to digest.”

Khoury ex­plains that be­cause the food in­dus­try in Le­banon has evolved a lot over the past decade and a half in terms of food safety, qual­ity of prod­ucts, and con­sumers’ taste and aware­ness of global food trends, Dairy Khoury has had to keep up with these de­vel­op­ments to grow fur­ther.

As such, Dairy Khoury in­tro­duced a ded­i­cated line of goat cheese prod­ucts, Chevrette De Khoury, in 2016. “We chose to start this ded­i­cated line be­cause goat dairy is now the global trend, since it is per­ceived as health­ier than cow milk, as it has fewer al­ler­gens and is lower in choles­terol,” says Khoury, ex­plain­ing that their line in­cludes goat yo­gurt, soft lab­neh, hard lab­neh, as well as bal­adi, halloumi, and dou­ble cream cheeses.

Dairy Khoury set up their 75,000 square me­ter goat farm in Meshmesh, in the moun­tains north of Jbeil, which is an hour and a half ’s drive away from their pro­duc­tion cen­ter in Ain el-Sendyene, Metn. Khoury ex­plains that the com­pany chose this lo­ca­tion be­cause of its ex­treme re­mote­ness (thereby en­sur­ing a pol­lu­tant free and cleaner en­vi­ron­ment) and abun­dance of agri­cul­tural land, as goats are ex­tremely sen­si­tive to their sur­round­ings.

De­mand for lo­cally pro­duced goat cheeses and yo­gurts has gen­er­ally been in­creas­ing faster than the avail­able sup­ply.

The pi­o­neer of a branded and ded­i­cated goat dairy pro­duc­tion in Le­banon was Goût Blanc, who be­gan its ven­ture in 2013. While pre­vi­ously Da­her had sold his im­ported goats’ milk to lo­cal dairies, he had not con­sid­ered start­ing his own dairy pro­duc­tion com­pany un­til he met Bou Habib through Alfa Laval—a Swedish com­pany that mar­kets it­self as the global leader in heat trans­fer, sep­a­ra­tion, and fluid han­dling—where Bou Habib used to work and from whom Da­her had bought his au­to­matic milk­ing line.

The duo in­tro­duced new part­ners to the com­pany—Camille Atal­lah, a lawyer, and hold­ing com­pany Sarkis Group—and im­ported more goats from France, bring­ing the to­tal of im­ported goats to 300, which then went on to breed oth­ers. To house them, they built a sec­ond farm ad­ja­cent to the first one Da­her had al­ready built in Anaya, north of Jbeil, an area Da­her also chose be­cause of its re­mote­ness and pris­tine en­vi­ron­ment. They built the pro­duc­tion fa­cil­ity and the nurs­ery for new­born goats in the same area as well. All this in­vest­ment was aimed at hav­ing a large-scale goat pro­duc­tion busi­ness, and Bou Habib says that a to­tal of $1 mil­lion has been in­vested in Goût Blanc to date. A fur­ther $1.5 mil­lion will be in­vested to ex­pand the farm, as well as for dis­tri­bu­tion and trans­porta­tion—Bou Habib says this amount will come from per­sonal funds and a sub­si­dized loan from the cen­tral bank. Un­til now, Goût Blanc is only break­ing even with its goat dairy prod­ucts.

SUP­PLY AND DE­MAND

Lebanese have in­deed warmed up to goat dairy prod­ucts, as even a ca­sual ob­server can­not help but no­tice the abun­dance of restau­rant menu items list­ing goat cheese as an in­gre­di­ent or the su­per­mar­ket shelves that are in­creas­ingly stacked with goat dairy prod­ucts.

In fact, de­mand for lo­cally pro­duced goat cheeses and yo­gurts has gen­er­ally been in­creas­ing faster than the avail­able sup­ply. Goût Blanc has a to­tal of 1,400 goats and is in the process of con­struct­ing a third farm with a ca­pac­ity of 1,800 goats which will be ready in mid-2018 and will bring their to­tal num­ber of goats to 3,200). Cur­rently, the com­pany pro­cesses a max­i­mum of two tons of milk per day, but Bou Habib says this is not enough to meet de­mand. “The mar­ket de­mand is ahead of us—we should have started con­struc­tion of the third farm two years ago to meet the grow­ing de­mand that we are fac­ing now. Peo­ple think our dis­tri­bu­tion is bad be­cause they don’t find us con­sis­tently in our points of sale. But what is hap­pen­ing is that our prod­ucts dis­ap­pear fast from the shelf be­cause we have a lim­ited sup­ply,” he ex­plains, adding that by early 2019 they ex­pect to have enough sup­ply to meet lo­cal de­mand.

Khoury also be­lieves that the mar­ket de­mand for goat dairy is higher than the sup­ply, and that there is there­fore room for more play­ers to en­ter the mar­ket with­out lead­ing to sat­u­ra­tion. Dairy Khoury has more than 3,500 goats that pro­duce 3 tons of milk per day and has cre­ated a di­vi­sion in its fac­tory solely for pro­cess­ing its milk—as such, Khoury says the com­pany is able to keep up with the de­mand for its goat dairy prod­ucts.

OLD DOG, NEW TRICKS

Al­though goat dairy prod­ucts are hot items in Le­banon, not all of them are cre­ated equal, and it seems tra­di­tional tastes are hard to change.

Goût Blanc’s orig­i­nal idea, says Bou Habib, was to pro­duce only French goat cheese. How­ever, he and Da­her quickly re­al­ized that the Lebanese mar­ket for that type of cheese alone was too small and would not jus­tify the big in­vest­ment they had in mind for their project. “A small seg­ment of the mar­ket in Le­banon con­sumes French goat cheese, and they do so mainly in win­ter time around hol­i­day gath­er­ings, while they eat halloumi, lab­neh, and la­ban on a daily ba­sis. So we de­cided to in­tro­duce these prod­ucts as well

to sus­tain and grow our busi­ness,” ex­plains Bou Habib.

Goût Blanc has 10 prod­ucts which in­clude soft and hard lab­neh, lab­neh with oil, yo­gurt, two types of French goat cheese, halloumi, and dou­ble cream cheese. Of these prod­ucts, lab­neh alone con­sti­tutes 46 per­cent of the com­pany’s turnover, while 15 per­cent is from yo­gurt, and only 10 per­cent is from the French goat cheese. “As a gen­eral taste in Le­banon, we pre­fer the sour­ness of the lab­neh and la­ban to the creami­ness of French cheeses,” muses Bou Habib. Sim­i­larly, Khoury says Dairy Khoury’s most sold goat dairy prod­ucts are lab­neh and yo­gurt “which are part of our tra­di­tional cui­sine.”

GREENER PAS­TURES

Given the global goat cheese trend, both Goût Blanc and Dairy Khoury see a rosy fu­ture for their dairy prod­ucts. Al­though Dairy Khoury says cow milk prod­ucts will al­ways be their best sell­ers—it cur­rently con­sti­tutes 90 per­cent of their busi­ness—they plan to ex­pand their goat line fur­ther by in­tro­duc­ing French goat cheese in 2018, along with other goat milk prod­ucts, to sat­isfy both lo­cal and ex­port de­mand. (Its goat cheese prod­ucts are cur­rently ex­ported to Qatar, Dubai, and Kuwait.)

Bou Habib says Goût Blanc also has ex­pan­sion in mind, al­though its aim is to first meet lo­cal de­mand be­fore it con­sid­ers ex­port­ing. “Our goal is to have a to­tal herd of 5,000 goats and use that to build a very strong brand in Le­banon be­fore [ex­port­ing]. Once we feel the mar­ket in Le­banon is sat­u­rated, we would con­sider in­vest­ing abroad, or in­creas­ing our pro­duc­tion to ex­port it. But there is a lot of po­ten­tial in Le­banon it­self. Hope­fully, if we fol­low the global trend, the goat milk mar­ket should be around 10 to 15 per­cent of the to­tal dairy mar­ket in Le­banon—to get to that fig­ure, we would have to have 10,000 goats, not just 5,000,” he ex­plains.

The main limit to the growth of the goat dairy prod­ucts in Le­banon is that the feed is im­ported, which drives up pro­duc­tion costs, and there­fore price. Khoury says that the feed pro­duced lo­cally—mainly corn yeast and straw—can only sat­isfy 30 per­cent of a goat’s nu­tri­tional needs. And even then, it is cheaper to im­port all their feed.

Be­cause of this, Le­banon can­not hope to be com­pet­i­tive with global lead­ers in goat cheese pro­duc­tion un­less the coun­try spe­cial­izes in niche prod­ucts, ex­plains Bou Habib. “The big prob­lem in Le­banon is that we don’t have enough fields or agri­cul­tural spa­ces. It’s not nor­mal to im­port feed and es­sen­tially trans­form it into milk, in Europe for ex­am­ple you have the milk where you have the feed. We there­fore can­not be com­pet­i­tive in the in­ter­na­tional mar­ket un­less we are com­pet­i­tive in spe­cial prod­ucts where we can give added value,” he says, cit­ing goat lab­neh as one of these prod­ucts.

Even so, dairy pro­duc­ers say that cer­tain gov­ern­men­tal ac­tions, such as pro­tec­tion of lo­cal dairy prod­ucts from for­eign com­pe­ti­tion and sup­port­ing dairy pro­ducer’s en­ergy and ex­port costs, would go a long way in strength­en­ing their busi­nesses both lo­cally and abroad. If goat dairy prod­ucts do some­day con­sti­tute even 15 per­cent of the to­tal dairy mar­ket in Le­banon, it would open up fresh op­por­tu­ni­ties for those look­ing into in­vest­ing in Le­banon’s dairy mar­ket and for ex­ist­ing pro­duc­ers to di­ver­sify their pas­tures.

The main limit to the growth of the goat dairy prod­ucts in Le­banon is that the feed is im­ported.

Goût Blanc pack­ages its goat cheese

Khoury Dairy launched Chevrette De Khoury in 2016

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