Maybe you’ve been lucky enough to taste a smoky, sweet, fudgy piece of rogue creamery’s smokey blue, cold-smoked for 16 hours over local hazelnut shells in Oregon’s Rogue Valley. Or savor some Lorelei, a small square loosely inspired by a robiola, but made in Dundee, OR by Briar Rose Creamery. It’s washed in Steam Fire Stout, a beer made at nearby Fire Mountain Brewery, and exhibits funky, citrusy, balanced and lovely notes. Or perhaps you wisely stock your fridge with Tillamook’s Special Reserve Extra Sharp Cheddar, made from their own high-quality, super fresh milk and aged for about 15 months to coax out tons of complex savory, nutty flavors.
From the stunning Oregon Coast to the Willamette Valley, surrounded by vistas of the Cascade Mountains, to the sunny, high desert of Central Oregon, truly stellar cheese is being crafted in The Beaver State. The Northwest state is not home to a large number of artisanal cheesemakers — 22 claim membership in the Oregon Cheese Guild. Yet the quality of cheese tends toward the highest levels.
“People want to know their producers, where their cheese comes from, and who makes it,” says Francis Plowman, who has been the marketing and merchandising director of Rogue Creamery for more than a decade. He identifies what has happened in Oregon cheese over the last several years as “a renaissance.”
This is obvious from a plethora of recent accolades. Oregon artisan, farmstead and specialty cheesemakers were awarded top honors in two categories during the American Cheese Society’s 2016 Annual Cheese Competition, and Rogue Creamery won an impressive six ribbons. Winning Oregon cheesemakers also took honors in seven categories and 11 subcategories. Clearly, Oregon cheese has earned a rightful place in the spotlight.
A Sense Of Place
When it comes to making cheese, Oregon is incredibly suited for the task. “Without a doubt, the water and milder climate of western Oregon make it ideal for dairy. The milk makes the cheese,” says Christine Hyatt, founder of Cheese Chick Productions in Phoenix.
If you’ve spent time in Oregon, you know to bring a raincoat with you at all times. The state’s regular, abundant rainfall makes lush, green grass thrive all year long. The goats, cows and sheep grazing on it produce incredible milk that comes through in local cheeses of all varieties.
Great milk is the most important factor in creating excellent cheese. “Oregon milk consistently ranks in the top five in the United States,” asserts Plowman from Rogue Creamery. “The quality is truly outstanding.”
As is the case for all exceptional cheesemaking regions, to enjoy Oregon cheese is to experience a sense of place like nowhere else in the world.
Oregon also has a varied climate and many diverse geographical regions, so there is a wide range of influences on the cheese, depending where your milk is made, according to Patricia Morford, founder and cheesemaker at Rivers Edge Chèvre in Blodgett, OR. She lives and works in the Central Coast Range, about eight miles as the crow flies from the Pacific Ocean, and “the ocean, mountains and river valley” influence her terroir and her cheese.
Hyatt says, “Oregon is all about ‘eat local.’ This ethos definitely extends to cheese.” Oregonians are greeting their state’s fine cheese with open arms and discerning palates.
“Oregon is such an agricultural incubator of diverse products,” says Carine Goldin of Goldin Artisan Goat Cheese located in Mollala, in the foothills of the Cascade Range, near the Mount Hood National Forest, where she makes cheese with her resident Alpine herd.
Whether or not you’re a fan of the much-lauded, yet quirky Portlandia television series, Oregon cheese consumers will appreciate the small batch and the ethically-, locally-sourced varieties, which bode well for the makers of farmstead cheese. “Whether it is at farmers markets, specialty grocery stores, agricultural products specific to the Northwest, farm dinners or being exposed to innovative chefs, artisan cheeses fit well in this mosaic of good foods,” says Goldin. “Made in Oregon cheese implies quality.”
Not To Be Missed
Considering the modest size of the Oregon cheesemaking world, the list of award-winning and exquisite varieties is quite long and impressive.
Ochoa’s Queseria’s fresh, bright Queso Oaxaca took home first place in the category of ‘Hispanic & Portuguese Style Cheeses — melting’ at the 2016 American Cheese Society (ACS) competition. It’s a perfect cheese to melt in quesadillas or atop nachos, or to snack on with fresh berries.
“We have noticed an increase in local producers, which is great because we all have a positive camaraderie,” says Ochoa Queseria/Don Froylan founder Francisco Ochoa.
La Mariposa and Ochoa’s Queseria cooperatively share cheesemaking equipment, and both make wonderful product in a little cheese factory nestled between historic downtown Albany and the breathtaking Willamette River. “Consumers are really excited to have a local option for high-quality cheese. They have a sense of pride about the cheese that is being produced here,” says Mariano Battro, the proprietor of La Mariposa. He learned the art of making cheese from his father in Argentina and brought his knowledge to Oregon, where he makes two artisan cheeses — his family recipe called Five Corners, and a pasteurized cow’s milk cheese that came from Welsh immigrants in Patagonia. Both are well worth adding to your list.
This also is true with the goat’s milk cheese made at Goldin Artisan Goat Cheeses, inspired by Goldin’s childhood in the Savoie region of France. Explains Goldin, “I have a lot of European people stop by my farmers market booth and as one French lady summed it up, ‘I only buy cheeses that have interesting molds.’”
Her cheese Chaumine was awarded the 2015-16 World Cheese Awards Super Gold and was a finalist in the 2016 Good Food Awards. The beautiful cheese was named after the home where she grew up, and its patterned washed rind is reminiscent of the house’s thatched roof. It’s creamy, rich and just the right amount of stinky.
To open up the delicate maple leaves that enclose the woodsy, gorgeous bundles of Up in Smoke from Rivers Edge Chèvre is to unwrap the very best kind of gift. Morford first smokes the hand-formed fresh Chèvre over alder and maple wood, and then wraps each round of cheese with smoked maple leaves that have been misted with bourbon.
“We are a very small farmstead creamery, a mother-daughter operation,” says Morford. “We make a pretty diverse range, including fresh smoked, bloomies, washed rinds and aged cheeses. We enjoy making beautiful cheese that appeals to the eye as well as those that taste really good, a cheese that makes you want more.”
The Cheddar also is something to write home about. Hyatt is really excited about Bandaged Cheddar from Face Rock Creamery. Brad Sinko, the cheesemaker at Face Rock and the son of the original Bandon Creamery owner and former cheesemaker at Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, has been hard at work perfecting his Clothbound Cheddar, and the first batches are coming to delicious fruition. After a minimum of two years in a carefully-controlled cave environment, Face Rock’s Clothbound Cheddar bursts with a crystallized, flaky texture and tons of layered, nutty flavors.
Oregon cheese keeps improving. “The more well-established producers like Rogue Creamery, River’s Edge Chèvre and Ancient Heritage Dairy just keep getting better and better, breaking new cheesemaking ground and making some of the most beautiful and tasty cheeses out there,” says Hyatt.
Indeed, Oregon cheeses are shining even on the international stage. The Specialty Food Association honored David Gremmels of Rogue Creamery as the winner of its third annual Business Leadership Award, which honors members “who have gone above and beyond in advancing food standards in society — and society itself — by creating social, economic and environmental impact through innovation and vision.”
Gremmels has been bringing his vision to life at Rogue Creamery since he re-established the cheesemaking operation in 2002, when he purchased the creamery. Within its first two years, Rogue won the World’s Best Blue Cheese at the 2003 World Cheese Awards in London, a first for a U.S. creamery.
Its long list of more than four trophies and 30 medals and awards includes the Best New Product Award from the Specialty Food Association for Smokey Blue, and the Best American Cheese for Rogue River Blue at the World Cheese Awards.
Rogue Creamery’s cheeses can now be found around the world, from South Korea to Australia.
“Our cheese is so special because of the milk, because of the terroir, because of the land, because of the pasture,” says Plowman. “And we deserve some credit, too.” Its world-class cheesemakers craft exquisite Blues and Cheddars.
Making cheese in Oregon is not without its challenges. Makers who do not have their own herds talked about the difficulty of finding quality milk on a small or mid-sized scale, and growing producers discussed the struggle to find knowledgeable employees in a niche industry new to the area.
The Oregon Cheese Guild has played a big part in supporting and promoting local cheesemakers, and Rogue Creamery and makers have developed a close working relationship with Oregon State University.
Despite the challenges, it’s abundantly clear that Oregon cheese just keeps getting better and better.