West Coast Cheese

Being from the Northeast I spent many years laboring under the mistaken notion that dairying, and cheesemaking, was an exclusively East Coast to Midwest thing. Getting into cheese in the 2000s, the idea of California dairying was massive confinement operations milking cows to death in a short two years, and the small, upstart artisanal cheesemakers defining themselves in opposition to that grim trend.

In truth, northern California has been a cornerstone of the American cheese scene since the 1920s. Years ago I spent a fascinating if somewhat awkward afternoon with Ig Vella, often known as “The Godfather of Cheese” at his Vella Cheese Company. His dad was in cheese, buddies with J.L. Kraft, back when Kraft was the good guy, paying fair milk prices to dairy farmers.  Ig passed away in 2011, but Vella Cheese Company continues to produce the cheeses that typify traditional California cheesemaking: the American original Monterey Jack (invented in Monterey, CA), its aged counterpart Dry Jack, and Italian style cheeses such as Asiago and Toma. 

While the Northeast and Wisconsin dominated Cheddar production, and Wisconsin recipes were influenced by the Swiss-German immigrant population, northern California catered to an Italian immigrant community. In 1935, Ig’s father Tom also brokered the takeover of a plant in Central Point, OR, creating a model where farmers could upgrade their milking operations, buy ownership of their cows, and Kraft (who financed the deal) could purchase premium cheese at a reduced rate, to be sold directly to US troops fighting in WWII. That plant, Rogue Creamery, is in operation today and making the broadest portfolio of blue cheeses in America (as well as a broad range of primarily flavored cheddars).

Point being, West Coast cheese is anchored by several “factories” with a larger production scale, and extremely deep and important roots in American cheesemaking. Complementing them are the makers I think of as “the goat ladies.”  Starting in the early 1980s, a handful of women, inspired by the French, began producing cheese that was positively freakish at the time: made of goat milk, often involving mold and yeast. These women were ahead of the market, but cemented the possibilities for a new kind of European inspired cheese, borne not of the necessity to feed an immigrant community, but of their own passion for place and flavor. Laura Chenel of Laura Chenel’s Chevre and Mary Keehn of Cypress Grove Chevre, both in northern California, blazed the biggest trail. Their cheeses were purchased by Bay Area chefs, most notably Alice Waters, and established a model of collaboration between West Coast chefs and West Coast makers, continuing to this day with luminaries such as Thomas Keller and Soyoung Scanlan of Andante Dairy.

The smaller scale of these makers, combined with the temperate weather and ample retailers and farmers’ markets of San Francisco, has also supported a higher concentration of goat and sheep cheese makers than in other parts of the country. My parting advice would be, don’t discount the “big” specialty cheesemakers, without whom today’s “smallscale” artisan cheese industry would not flourish to the same extent.

West Coast Makers to Find:

  1. Vella Cheese Company (Sonoma, CA): Originators of Dry Jack, coated in oil, cocoa and pepper with a crumbly, breakable texture, fruity flavor and richer quality than, say, Parmigiano.
  2. Tillamook (Tillamook, OR): The West Coast equivalent to Vermont’s Cabot: a farmer-owned cooperative making a broad range of typical but reliably consistent block cheddars.
  3. Rogue Creamery (Central Point, OR): Saved by Ig Vella’s dad Tom, Rogue originally made cheddar-types and was among the first to bring p. roquefortii mold back from France to experiment with blue cheese production. Notable blues today include hazelnut-shell smoked Smokey Blue and seasonal Rogue River Blue, wrapped in pear brandy macerated grape leaves.
  4. Washington State University Creamery (Pullman, WA): Theirs is the only cheese in a can you should ever eat. Cougar Gold is the recipe that directly inspired Beecher’s Flagship, and is a remarkably dense, creamy cheddar-type with intense sweetness and flecks of crystallization. Dating back to WWII this stuff is fantastic!
  5. Beecher’s Handmade Cheese (Seattle, WA): Owner Kurt Beecher Dammeier set out to make a cheese that was “clearly premium but ubiquitously likeable”. Flagship is like Gruyere mated with Cheddar with a whiff of Aged Gouda sprinkled in. Cheese candy.
  6. Cypress Grove Chevre (McKinleyville, CA): A trailblazing “goat lady” Mary Keehn sold her business to Swiss dairy giant Emmi but you’d never know a change had occurred from the cheese they make. Humboldt Fog is undoing the fear of goat cheese, one eater at a time. Truffle Tremor does the same with truffles to boot.
  7. Cowgirl Creamery (Petaluma, CA): Cream-enriched Mt. Tam and Red Hawk put this maker on the map. Their cheese is thick, rich and made with organic milk from the Strauss Family.
  8. Pt. Reyes (Pt. Reyes Station, CA): Known for years for their Original Blue, the farm now makes mellow, Stiltonesque Bay Blue and milky, buttery Toma.
  9. Marin French Cheese Co (Petaluma, CA): While his neighbors some 50 years later would pursue Italian types, Jefferson Thompson starting on soft-ripened French styles in 1865!!! Today various Brie types are still produced but it’s the washed rind Schloss you need to taste.
  10. If you’re in the West, look for “little local guys” including: Andante Dairy, Ancient Heritage Dairy, Nicasio Valley, Penny Royal Farm, and Tomales Farmstead Creamery.