Dale Baumgartner talks life as Tillamook Cheese Company's head cheesemaker
Tillamook Cheese Company's head cheesemaker Dale Baumgartner, has been a dairy man his whole life, and the quality of the cheese shows it. He's gearing up for grilled cheese month, as we all are, and was happy to answer some questions about how cheese fits into his daily life, as well as his sandwiches:
How long have you been making cheese and what did you do before this career?
Before being a cheesemaker, I worked on my dad’s farm where I milked 28 cows both morning and night. I’ve been making cheese for 44 years! I started with the Hebo Cheese Association in Hebo, OR. Hebo was one of 13 small cheese factories that consolidated to be part of the Tillamook County Creamery Association. That was a long time ago though – I’ve been with Tillamook since 1969 and have been the head cheesemaker since 1995.
What are the trickiest things about making cheese?
There’s a lot of tricky stuff for a company like Tillamook. First, we have to have perfect starter cultures. This is so important that back in 1992 we took over 3 months to make, test and approve cultures in order to find the ones that make an absolutely perfect natural cheddar cheese. Getting the highest quality milk on a very consistent basis is as important as anything and can be tricky to get consistently. Milk quality can change based on the season, the feed, the weather and a lot of other reasons. We work hard to make sure we get consistent milk quality though because it makes consistently quality cheese.
Do you have any advice for anyone looking to enter into the cheesemaking industry?
Pick your favorite cheesemaker and invite them to dinner, one-on-one, and pick their brain. Most cheesemakers are willing to discuss the process – don’t hope that we’ll share our deepest secrets though. After all, the fun in making cheese is finding out what makes your finished product different from the next person’s. Also, be ready to take great pride in the product you are making through long hours, holidays and weekends.
What is your favorite meal to make with cheese?
Well, I do love macaroni and cheese. But I also love a good old fashion grilled cheese. It’s really a tossup between those two, but like many cheesemakers, I like to just take a slice off the aged stuff…our Vintage White Extra Sharp is the best. The older, the better for me.
As far as grilled cheese goes, are you traditional or non-traditional?
I’m a little more traditional…but I have an adventurous bone too. My favorite grilled cheese sandwich uses our Vintage White Extra Sharp, Tillamook Pepper Jack and ham on plain ol’ white bread. I don’t need my bread getting in the way of the cheese!
If you could visit any cheese maker in the world, who would it be and why?
I actually have had the chance to do that. I had a pretty neat opportunity to go Europe on a business trip (hazard of the job I guess). I went to Denmark, England, Belgium and New Zealand. I even had the opportunity to go to Cheddar, England. Yes, this is where cheddar cheese got its name. I met the head cheesemaker at their factory and watched them make cheese the old fashioned way in open vats and all by hand.
Who is your cheese idol?
Former Head Cheesmaker at Tillamook, Ed Yates (1969 – 1994). He taught me a lot about cheesemaking and how to make the best product we can. He only accepted the highest quality and cared a lot about the product he produced. He cared about where it was produced too – he taught me to take a lot of pride in making cheese.