How did Josh Kilmer-Purcell and Brent Ridge become reality TV personalities? They smiled and said cheese. Well, not only cheese, but jams and jellies, soaps and lotions, and an array of artisanal pantry products and housewares.
In 2007, just before the US financial collapse, Kilmer-Purcel and Ridge bought the grand Beekman 1802 farmhouse in Sharon Springs, New York as a weekend home. Both were working in Manhattan, Purcell as an advertising executive and Ridge, as vice president of healthy living for Martha Stewart Omnimedia.
Shortly after taking ownership, recalls Kilmer-Purcell, “we got a note in our mailbox from John Hall, a local farmer, asking if he could graze his 80 goats on the property.” And shortly after that Purcell and Ridge both lost their jobs.
A less talented couple might have felt at a complete loss, but this pair had a history of entrepreneurial shape-shifting. Ridge is a physician (now practicing again) and Kilmer-Purcell, who chronicled his days as drag queen Aquadisiac in the memoir I Am Not Myself These Days, had always juggled his ad career with writing and other pursuits.
“We Googled what we could do with goat milk,” recalls Purcell. “And we went into business with Farmer John.”
They also started pitching. Both well-connected in the media world and highly experienced in branding, the pair branded themselves The Fabulous Beekman Boys and within two years were starring on a Planet Green television show chronicling their lives as newbie farmers both fascinated and confounded by country life. The show was nominated for a Outstanding Reality Program GLAAD Media Award.
In its third and final season, the Beekman boys moved to the Cooking Channel. The telegenic couple then went on to compete as a team on The Amazing Race.
The first goat-milk product made on the Beekman farm was actually soap. “Soap has a higher margin than cheese,” explains Purcell, “so we had to start there.” The couple also had to make significant changes on the property to meet dairy standards. “We had to build a milk house with water-resistant surfaces; had to build pens for our free range chickens to avoid contamination—it was a lot of work.”
When the couple finally did get around to making cheese, they came up with a doozy.
“We wanted to differentiate from other goat cheese,” says Kilmer- Purcell. “so we decided not to do fresh, spreadable chèvre. We wanted to make an aged goat cheese.”
The development of Blaak, which combines goat and cow’s milk and aged 90 days in its name-inspiring coat of ash, was a highlight of their TV show’s first season.
“It became a crazy, cult-like cheese,” Kilmer-Purcell recalls. “We had a wait list that year. Honestly, Rosie O’Donnell called to try and jump the line.” Today, about 8,000 two-pound wheels are produced between July and January each year and sold for $48 apiece (they can be reserved in advance online).
The pair also developed a second signature cheese, Ghoast, a semi-firm aged goat cheese with a nutty gray rind. Marketing mavens to the core, they even developed a proprietary serving tool, the Ghoast Maker, which shaves the wheel into ruffled curls that melt onto the tongue with a salty complexity.
The Beekman Boys are masters of leverage: Having used their novice farmer status to garner television stardom, they used that exposure to make the world aware of their Beekman 1802 brand, which now graces not just cheese and soap but an array of other products made on their farm and by dozens of other farmers who live nearby. There are Beekman Boys cookbooks, furniture, hotel amenities (at the Andaz, New York), and a quarterly lifestyle magazine. They are even expanding their ethos into a travel business, with an inaugural trip to Cuba scheduled for August.
Plan A Visit
Ridge and Kilmer-Purcell have been such successful brand builders that they’ve been able to turn their charming retail operation, Beekman 1802 Mercantile, (Beekman 1802. 187 Main Street. Sharon Springs, NY, Tel: 518-284-6039. www.beekman1802.com) into a tourist draw for Sharon Springs, three hours northwest of Manhattan.
Tours of the farm itself are only available during local village festivals in May, September, and December. To get announcements of tour dates in order to make reservations, sign-up for the Beekman 1802 newsletter online.
Known for its historic sulfur springs, the village is home to the charming Spring House Spa (www.springhousespa.com). Visitors can stay in funky luxury at The Nash (www.thenashny.com) bed and breakfast.
If you’d like a side of peanuts and Cracker Jack with your cheese, you can check out the National Baseball Hall of Fame (www.baseballhall.org) in nearby Cooperstown.
Try It At Home
Blaak, Ghoast, and other Beekman cheeses can be ordered online— most are seasonal. A gourmet cheese-of-the-month club is also available, incorporating other small production cheeses as well as those pro- duced on the Beekman 1802 farm.