With more than two decades of operations, two creameries, four retail stores, dozens of honors and 2,000 tons of cheese, it’s safe to say Cowgirl Creamery, located in picturesque Point Reyes Station, CA, is a success. And to think, it all started thanks to a journey in a baby blue Chevy van.
You see, in 1975, friends Sue Conley and Peggy Smith graduated from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, packed up the van, and drove cross country to the then-counter-culture cuisine epicenter—the Bay Area.
“We dove head first into the culinary scene,” says Conley. “Fast forward to 1997, after spending a number of years working in restaurant kitchens, we decided to channel our culinary and environmental ideals into organic, artisan cheesemaking by opening Cowgirl Creamery, which still sits just north of the Golden Gate in the rolling hills of Marin.”
Today, Cowgirl Creamery produces a variety of fresh, bloomy and aged cheeses by using milk from two neighboring dairies, what Conley refers to as “our local milk shed.”
The couple has been inducted into the prestigious Guilde des Fromagers, and was honored with Lifetime Achievement Awards from the James Beard Foundation, American Cheese Society and Specialty Foods Association.
Getting on the Cheese Horse
Both Smith and Conley came from the restaurant business, where they enjoyed cooking simply with local ingredients. Smith was a chef at Chez Panisse for 17 years and Conley was co-owner of Bette’s Oceanview Diner, both in Berkeley.
It was meeting Ellen Straus and her family that turned the two culinary creators on the course of creating a cheese legacy.
“Ellen thought that making cheese was the best solution for bringing more revenue to dairy farms in our county,” says Conley.
In 1995, when Albert Straus became the first dairyman to produce organic milk on the West Coast, Conley and Smith would peddle his frothy bottles of milk from West Marin to the Bay Area’s urban, restaurant-core.
“It was hands-on, grassroots and what would become the genesis of our sister company, Tomales Bay Foods, a small cheese distributor,” says Conley. “But it really ignited a desire in us to pursue a culinary profession that married land stewardship with handmade craftsmanship. In the 1990s, the art of American-made, hand-crafted cheesemaking was just beginning. At the start, we were all trying to find our cheesemaking voice.”
At first, the two worked out of a renovated hay barn in downtown Point Reyes that had a small cheesemaking room at the entrance to the building. Utilizing milk from neighboring Straus Family Creamery, the pair began making fresh cheeses.
As the idea grew, and the duo became more serious about the budding business, it’s rumored that two women on horses pulled up in front of the barn, hitched their horses to the bike rack and ran into the grocery store for supplies. That series of events set in motion the name of their endeavor—Cowgirl Creamery.
“When we started our business, there were five cheesemaking operations in our region,” says Conley. “Today, there are 30, and most of them started on a local family dairy because the young people became interested in continuing the family farm. The local farmers markets, along with UC Extension and the California Milk Marketing Board, helped the dairies get started, and our company helped them market and sell their cheese.”
A Giddy Up Strategy
Cowgirl Creamery cheeses are sold to over 500 stores, independent cheese shops, farmers markets and restaurants, and nationally through Whole Foods Markets.
“We believe that good cheese comes from good milk and that the craftsmanship of the cheesemaker is to highlight the inherent qualities of our local, organic milk,” Conley says. “By creating a product that features ingredients from local dairies and farms and that is prized by the food community (both near and far), we’re not only able to celebrate delicious, artisanal foods, but we can also support the environmental and agricultural practices from our surrounding food system.”
The company works closely with non-profit organizations that support sustainable and organic farming and those organizations, in turn, support and promote Cowgirl Creamery. Being part of a cooperative local agricultural community as well as a collaborative international cheese community has helped to propel Cowgirl Creamery to a national brand.
“Patience, tenacity and collaboration have been the hallmarks of our success as a business,” says Conley. “Excellent people who make, deliver, store and sell our cheese are key to moving the company forward.”
A Rodeo of Flavor
All Cowgirl Creamery cheeses are certified organic, which means they have been made from milk that is handled with care and respect.
“We identify the best milk for each cheese and work with one of our three dairy partners to match specific milk with a specific cheese,” says Conley. “Only after Eric (Patterson), Matt (Brown), and the cheesemaking team have perfected the recipe and the label/packaging is complete can the cheese be released to retail accounts. Every batch of cheese that is going to market is tasted each week by our team before being released.”
The company’s best seller is Mt Tam, a bloomy rind, triple cream cheese that is buttery with hints of white mushroom. Made from Straus Family Dairy’s fresh organic milk, it’s named for a Northern California landmark—the majestic Mt. Tamalpais.
Wagon Wheel is its aged, semi-hard, stirred curd, everyday cheese that can be used for cooking, the answer to its dear friend and celebrated chef Judy Rodger’s request for a melting cheese. It’s nutty with nice notes of brown butter.
Then there’s Red Hawk, a triple cream, washed rind cheese with a nice bit of funk. Interestingly, the cheese was actually born out of what Conley calls a “happy mistake.”
“When the entire Cowgirl operation was based in Point Reyes, space was tight. A batch of Mt Tam was aging in the same room as a batch of natural rind cheeses from England that we were selling at the shop,” she explains. Natural rind cheeses have cheese mites, which, in this instance, ‘jumped over’ onto the still-developing Mt Tam.
“Realizing what happened, I tried to ‘save’ the cheese by re-inoculating them with a penicilum candidum solution. Frustrated, I put them in Tupperware in the walk-in fridge and forgot about them until two weeks later, when a colleague found the rounds with a red tint and a pungent smell,” says Conley. “Together we tried the cheese and quickly discovered that it was absolutely delicious.”
For that reason, Red Hawk can only be made in the Point Reyes Creamery because a certain mix of wild yeasts and bacteria, including bacterium linen, exists in the environment.
“Because we wash the rind with brine, indigenous yeasts and bacteria are drawn to the surface of the cheese,” she says. “They thrive in the cool, damp air in Point Reyes and freely populate the rind.”
Cowgirl Creamery also makes seasonal cheeses that reflect the naturally changing flavors of milk. For spring, it offers St. Pat, a creamy-semi firm cheese wrapped in stinging nettle leaves. For summer, it swaps the nettle leaves for a mix of field flowers like chamomile, calendula and Thai basil. Chimney Rock heralds fall in with a dusting of ground shiitake mushrooms and summer savory lend earthier notes, while winter’s Devil’s Gulch pairs milder milk with fiery peppery flakes.
Around the Industry
With more than two decades of experience in the business, Conley has noticed the way cheese is distributed is changing quickly, something she refers to as “The Amazon effect.”
“There seems to be a trend by retailers to request smaller format cheeses so that they are easier to cut and wrap,” she says. “Consolidation of distribution companies makes it harder to find the right fit for smaller cheesemakers. The Amazon/Whole Foods merger will change the way we buy and sell food. Not sure how, but it will be different, and we will adjust.”
Smith and Conley at Cowgirl Creamery are proud to have a business that has survived the ups and downs of the economy without ever laying off employees or slowing down its cheese production.
“Like any food business, we rely on honest relationships with our suppliers and customers,” says Conley. “It’s important to connect with every employee in the company so that they all understand their individual role in the success of the whole operation.”
In 2017, the owners orchestrated a big growth spurt for Cowgirl Creamery by building a new cheese making facility in Petaluma, and it’s expected that it will lead to more growth.
“Now, we have the capacity to develop new cheeses and to re-introduce our cottage cheese and other fresh cheeses,” says Conley. “So, 2018 is a research and development year for us.”
With a love and devoting for cheesemaking, these ladies aren’t horsing around.