Washington State University teaches a can-do attitude in its cheese program.
In 2005, there were fewer than 10 registered cheesemakers in Washington State, but since that time, it has grown to more than 50, with cheese selections being vast.
While the number includes cheeses from small family farms and artisan cheesemakers, one of the most notable producers comes from Washington State University in Pullman, which runs a Creamery that produces 250,000 cans of cheese each year.
The Creamery is best known for its Cougar Gold, which is sold on the WSU Campus at Ferdinand’s Ice Cream Shoppe, but also has a strong online presence and is available at local Pullman retailers.
Sales at the Creamery support student employees at WSU by providing competitive wages and valuable work experiences. A portion of the revenue from the sale of all WSU Creamery products is used for educational support of food science students.
The Program Takes Root
John Haugen, WSU Creamery manager, notes the cheese program began with a grant from the U.S. Can Co. and the Army in the 1940s, which were trying to figure out a way to get cheese to the troops, and packaging was an issue.
“They wanted to figure out how to successfully put cheese in a can, and Dr. N.S. Golding at WSU got a grant to do that, and that’s where the name Cougar Gold comes from, taking our mascot and his name,” Haugen says. “He added an adjunct culture to the cheese that helped it work in a can, and that’s been our niche ever since.”
The first receipt for the creamery’s cheese dates back to Sept. 24, 1948, and it’s been an important part of WSU’s course programing for more than six decades.
“They also wanted to have students making it to give them work experience, and that’s the main part of what we’re trying to accomplish here,” Haugen says. “It’s not just about pumping out product but getting the students some strong work experience.”
By the late ’70s, WSU dining halls began buying milk from a commercial dairy, and the creamery began to produce cheese year-round. The revenue from its cheese and ice cream sales was able to fully support the creamery as well as important research conducted at the University.
In May of 1992, the creamery transferred from its old spot in Troy Hall to a modern new location in the Food Quality Building. The new facility allows the creamery to be at the forefront of research in cheese production.
Today, the creamery’s milk is produced by a small herd of dairy cattle at WSU’s Knott Dairy Center, located on the edge of Pullman. Under supervision from staff members, students pasteurize the milk for use in both Cougar Cheese and Ferdinand’s Ice Cream.
“We’re one of those local operations where the animal science division has a dairy, and they have about 180 cows, and they milk the cows and get the milk in the tanks, and then we go about seven miles from our facility and bring it back,” Haugen says. “One of our students will get up around 3:30 a.m., go to farm and bring it back to make into cheese and ice cream.”
Recently, the creamery has been working on increasing production levels, and that requires getting some of the milk from the University of Idaho dairy farm, with about 5 million pounds coming in each year.
Haugen first started in 1990 as a student employee, and now his leadership role includes everything from picking up the milk to selling the cheese to the customers to overseeing the students.
“We have three departments—our production department where we make cheese and ice cream; our over-the-counter sales department on campus; and our direct marketing department, which has a website and call center,” he says. “Each has a full-time supervisor, and the goal is to have the students do all the work and let the full-time staff help them along the way and tie things together.”
A Student’s Perspective
Many of the students are enrolled in the university’s School of Food Science and will work for major food manufacturers as scientists after graduation, but that’s not a requirement.
“We prefer those who want to pursue this as a career, but we hire anyone who wants to come and work and get that experience,” Haugen says. “Even someone who may be an accounting major or something else, comes here, finds they enjoy it and ends up working in the cheese industry in that aspect of their major.”
Junior Kayla Lynn Rakoz started working at the WSU Creamery in the spring of her freshman year. With her dad being an alumni of the school, she grew up eating Cougar Gold cheese whenever the family could find it.
Today, she serves as a production worker as well as a cheesemaker.
“On certain days, I come in early to make the batch of cheese,” Rakoz says. “Those days consist of preparing the cheese vat to receive the pasteurized milk and adding in all the ingredients that are needed for the type of cheese being made that day.”
She also must prepare the finishing table and curd pump lines to ensure the cheese vat pumps out the cheese correctly and none is lost.
“On those days, I am not a cheesemaker, it consists of working along with the other students here preparing and packaging the cheese,” Rakoz says. “That consists of cheddaring, salting and wrapping the cheese in cheese cloth, which then goes into packaging the cheese the next morning. Since our cheese is sold in cans, we must slice the cheese and seal the cans in our sealing machine to ensure a tight seal for aging.”
Although she is not a food science major, and doesn’t plan on remaining in the cheese industry, Rakoz considers her opportunity working for the cheese program as being invaluable to her career and future in marketing.
For instance, Rachel Ray did a segment on the WSU Creamery, utilizing its Viking Dill & Garlic cheese to make a mac and cheese.
“We filmed for it at the creamery so she could show how we make it,” Rakoz says. “My bosses chose a few students, me being one of them, to answer the questions and be in it.”
She feels the job is such a great experience for any student, not just because Cougar Gold is so well known, but the fact that the cheese is sold in cans, plus is only made at the WSU Creamery, fully made by the students, which makes it even more special.
“We also make the cheese personable by adding the name of the cheesemaker on the lid, which is very cool. I know that my friends and family are always asking for a can of Cougar Gold with my name on the lid,” Rakoz says. “Providing students here with the opportunity to learn such an abundant number of skills with this unique opportunity is very special.”
Others Can Get Involved
The university offers a dairy products class and will utilize the facility to make some cheese, and the creamery staff and students will help them on the equipment, but for the most part, the program is just hands-on experience, and there are no standard courses.
“Sometimes there may be a graduate student who has a project in dairy, and they will do some work here, but we pretty much leave the teaching up to the professors, but we will help facilitate things when needed,” Haugen says.
For the past 35 years, the WSU Creamery has also offered a Cheesemaking Shortcourse, a one-week course designed for experienced cheesemakers, supervisory, management, quality control and marketing personnel from commercial plants.
Leaders in the dairy production community teach the class, which includes lessons on topics such as filtration technology, cheese yield, the latest flavor discoveries, regulatory issues, protecting your product and ends with a full day of hands-on cheesemaking at the WSU Creamery.
“Part of what we want to do here is maintain good relationships with the dairy industry, and this is one of the ways we do that,” Haugen says. “We also have a pasteurization workshop, taught by FDA inspectors, and we’ll see people in the cheese industry come to both.”
Cougar Gold is the main cheese at WSU, representing 80% of the 500,000 pounds of cheese (260,000 cans) that’s produced and sold annually.
“Some people call it a white cheddar, but it has an adjunct culture in it that gives it a sweeter, nuttier flavor than you get with cheddar,” Haugen says. “Some people compare it more to a Gouda-type flavor. It’s aged for a year before we sell it, so it has a strong flavor.”
The other 20% is comprised of a regular cheddar and smoky cheddar, a jack-style cheese called Viking, and a version with different spices added in. One of the more popular flavors is called Crimson Fire, and that has jalapeños and other peppers in it.
The WSU program has been responsible for hundreds of people getting involved in the cheese industry through the years, and even more with a new appreciation of cheese. “We have a pretty labor-intensive process, and it takes a lot of work to do it, so the students learn hard work and learn what it takes to be involved in a manufacturing facility,” Haugen says. “This is something you can’t get experience in without getting experience. That’s really valuable for everyone. I know it was valuable to me when I was a student.”