Tillamook: From Farm to Factory

Tillamook CheesesDisclosure: Tillamook provided me with airfare and lodging to tour their factory and a dairy farm. All opinions are mine and may not reflect those of the company. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.” All photos are mine and subject to copyright.

Tillamook IS cheese. It produces about two dozen cheese varieties, from sharp Cheddar to aged Swiss to hot habanero jack. Tillamook  also makes ice cream, butter, sour cream and yogurt, which I hope one day Texans can also enjoy! Tillamook YogurtsTillamook County Creamery Association, which makes Tillamook Cheese, is described as North America’s most successful farmer-owned dairy cooperative for over 100 years. To meet the demand, Tillamook built a satellite cheese plant in the eastern Oregon town of Boardman in 2001, then doubled its size to 150,000 square feet in 2006, boosting the creamery’s cheese output by 50% when both plants run at full capacity.

Before I get ahead of myself, let’s go back to when Tillamook was founded. Western settlers tried cheese-making on their farms since it was easier to preserve than butter. Cheese-making blossomed. Residents built in 1854 and launched Morning Star of Tillamook to move their product; the schooner’s image remains on the Tillamook brand’s logo today.Morning StarConsistent quality, though, was hard to come by until 1909, when 10 factories pooled their resources and formed a co-op, the Tillamook County Creamery Association. Farmers and cheese-makers followed strict sanitation rules and craft the same recipe, day in and day out. Time has not changed the quality of their product.

What better way to understand Tillamook than starting at where the cheese is first created – cow’s milk. I had the opportunity to visit one of the 99 dairy farms where Tillamook procures their milk. Wow! I not only gained an appreciation of the high-quality of ingredients that they use, but also the hard work required to be a dairy farmer in this modern world. It’s tough on the dairy farmer’s family: physically hard and exhausting; mentally stressful with few days off or vacations; and, financially challenging with rising feed costs and little to no government agricultural subsidies. Fortunately, these farmers LOVE what they do, and these cows are a part of their family.Dairy FarmerThe farm that I visited raised Holstein and Jersey cows. Holstein cows are the signature milking cows that are black and white and are the world’s highest producer of milk. Socially, they are more cautious of humans, but they can soon warm up to you. Then, you have the Jersey cows which are much smaller than the Holstein but produce some high butterfat content in their milk. They are also more sociable and pretty smart, such as figuring out how to unlock a gate, etc. 😉 Twice a day starting as early as 2AM, each cow delivers her milk in a largely automated milking parlor, where it takes about 20 minutes per cow to get the job done. The milk spills into refrigerated tanker trucks and head to the Tillamook Cheese Factory.Tillamook Cheese FactoryThe Tillamook Cheese Factory’s Visitor Center draws nearly 1 million people each year. Inside, the place swarms with travelers who are curious about where that baby loaf of Cheddar in their refrigerator was born or crave ice cream — this place sold 525,000 cones last year.Tillamook Ice CreamClimb to the second floor history exhibits and peer through windows to the factory floor. On one side, you glimpse enormous stainless steel vats where milk cooks and the cheesemaking process begins. It blends science, art and precise recipes involving enzymes, bacteria, lactic acid, salt and, in the case of yellowish orange Cheddar, coloring. Tillamook uses annatto, derived from the reddish pulp surrounding seeds of tropical achiote trees, to give its signature product that distinctive orange hue. Did you know that Cheddar cheese acquired its classic orange color from annatto in the 1800’s when it was thought that high quality cheeses were yellow due to higher quality green grass fed to cattle?

Workers cut freshly made cheese into 40-pound blocks, vacuum pack them and send them down the line for cooling, curing and grading, where it is sent to the Sensory Lab that test for taste, color and texture, determining which batches need to age longer. Cheddar ages a minimum of 60 days, longer for sharp and extra-sharp. Finally, workers wearing hair nets and gloves carve the big blocks into loaves for the consumer. They wrap about 1 million of those pieces each week and ship them to supermarkets in semis designed to look like chunks of cheese.

During the tour, consistency, quality and savvy marketing stood out to me as the hallmarks of Tillamook‘s brand! I highly recommend that you take a trip to this cheese-making wonderland. Enjoy the gorgeous backdrop of  Tillamook, Oregon while you are visiting. It will surely melt you heart, like a good piece of extra-sharp Cheddar on a  grilled cheese sandwich. 😉