Monday, July 13, 2009

Go, Fight, Win! Cheesemakers!

A tour of the Tillamook Cheese factory seemed like a simple way to spend half an hour.

That assumption reveals my (Chuck's) complete ignorance of the reputation and scope of the company's products. I quickly learned that "Tillamook is to cheese what Napa is to wine."

The foundation of Tillamook's cheese industry began in 1894 with T.S. Townsend and the production of cheddar cheese. The original cheddar recipe, which was brought to Tillamook by Canadian cheesemaker Peter McIntosh, is still being used today by the Tillamook County Creamery Association, a farmer-owned cooperative of dairies.

Our visit began by finding a parking space in one of several lots, including one for motorhomes and other large RVs.

Upon entering the Visitors' Center, we passed a gift shop, the Ice Creamery (featuring 38 flavors of Tillamook premium ice cream), a retail cheese shop, a café, and a long line headed to the cheese sampling tables on our way to the Observation Level. Information at this level revealed that the factory annually churns out more than 60 million pounds of cheese and attracts nearly a million visitors.

We missed the huge vats that heat and stir 25,000-gallon batches of milk to a custardy consistency. From there, a contraption called the cheddarmaster—imagine a clothes dryer as big as highway billboard—separates the curds (milk solids) from the whey (the frothy liquid) and slices the curds into finger-sized pieces. Pillar-like pressing towers then squeeze the curds into 40-pound blocks of cheese. Each block is then placed in a laminated plastic bag (photo, left).

A high-powered vacuum (left) is drawn over this package of cheese and the pouch is then sealed. The block is now in an airtight, moisture-proof bag.

The sealed blocks are transported to a rapid cool room and held for 24 hours at 38° F. From there, they are palletized and placed in storage for aging and curing at 40-42° F. To achieve the unique flavor characteristics of Tillamook cheddar, the cheese is aged for a minimum of 60 days.

After curing and grading, the cheese blocks are taken to the packaging department where the aging bags are removed and the 40-pound blocks (above) are cut for retail sale.

Finally, the cheese passes through the packaging machine, which readies the consumer-size blocks for market.

Once a month, a rabbi supervises the washing of the tanks and the production of a kosher cheese that is made using a microbial/vegetable-based rennet (used in the formation of curd) rather than the animal-product, traditional rennet.

After our 90-minute tour, we stopped at the gift shop to help commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Tillamook County Creamery Association, formed in 1909 by 10 of the small independent plants to control quality and to market the cheese from the county as a whole instead of from individual plants.

By 1968, all of the smaller local cheese plants had consolidated into the large, central plant, marking the beginning of a single cooperative.

Back in 1854, several farmers banded together to build a two-masted schooner, dubbed the “Morning Star of Tillamook,” to transport their butter to Portland. The schooner's image can still be seen on their label today.

In the region, cows outnumber people two to one, and cheese is so revered that the high school football team is named the Cheesemakers.

Go-o-o-o-o Cheesemakers!

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