In this blog series intern Briana finds artisan cheesemakers from six regions around the country that represent our cheese nation. Venture along the ride as she goes coast to coast, discovering what makes the U.S. home to great artisan cheese. Read on and find out how you can win a subscription!
Ahead of the Game
If you’ve ever seen the sketch comedy show Portlandia, you’re fully aware of the self-deprecating humor directed at Portland, Oregon. However, the show’s aim is not to mock the city and its residents, but to praise them; Oregon stays true to its roots and has always been ahead of the times. Rather than follow trends, Oregonians set them.
In regards to local cuisine, Portland is quickly becoming a foodie destination. There’s a fantastic locavore attitude to the food, and whether it be through bountiful produce or communal, seasonal eating, Oregonians reap what they sow.
Just outside of Portland, and you’ll find a small, but growing artisan cheese scene. “It’s a great place to be making cheese,” says David Gremmels of Rogue Creamery. “When I started [with Rogue] in 2002, there were three farmstead artisan creameries in Oregon. There’s 26 today.”
With support from Oregon State University‘s food science and technology program, dairy farmers, and Oregon’s Department of Agriculture, Rogue sits at the top of Oregon cheese, and American artisan cheese as well. Gremmels is one of the founders of the Oregon Cheese Guild, and the Oregon Cheese Festival held in Central Point. To add to the success, even an Oregon Cheese Trail has popped up on Oregon’s tourism site.
Deep in the Rogue Valley of Southern Oregon, Rogue Creamery has been making cheese since Tom Vella, founder of Rogue Creamery, arrived from California in the 1930s. After seeing a need for year-round jobs in the small farming community, Vella started the creamery using milk from nearby farms. He began making blue cheese in 1954, after visiting France, and to this day blues are Rogue’s most prized creations. Vella’s son Ig took over the business and became known as the godfather of the artisan cheese industry.
With Ig’s imminent retirement, Gremmels and partner Cary Bryant took over the business in 2002 and have elevated Rogue’s status immensely. They were the first to export raw milk cheese from the U.S. to Europe, and have become ambassadors for American cheese: Rogue is sold in Paris, London, Tokyo and Sydney. According to Gremmels, the move towards a global audience was crucial.
“I am aware of the gap in knowledge [overseas] around the artisan cheese movement in America,” he said. He travels around the world to increase awareness on not only Rogue’s cheese, but also other American cheeses.
“I’m passionate about sharing the story of American artisan cheeses,” Gremmels declared.
In keeping with Oregon’s innovative spirit, Rogue Creamery put a focus on sustainability in their cheesemaking. They are one of Oregon’s top ten green business of 2013, and the only vertically integrated, third-party certified, sustainable cheese. They even have their own 3 R’s system, which they follow vehemently: Reducing waste, Reusing whey, and using Recycled content in packaging.
Gremmels hopes Rogue will be a zero impact company by 2018. They hope to produce their own energy and have zero waste through solar panels and a hydro water system, while moving its dairy and cheese production biodynamic. Rogue has garnered the attention of several top Oregon associations. In May, they were recognized by the Small Business Administration with an award for innovation and leadership, adding to an already hefty collection of accolades.
Their commitment to the environment spreads farther than Central Point: In 2009 Rogue began a bicycle-to-work program, the Nellie Green Commuter Program. It offers a monthly incentive to those who commit 45 days a year to alternative transportation. They sponsor the likes of Allison Hooper of Vermont Creamery, Peggy Smith of Cowgirl Creamery, Brett Joyce of ROGUE Ales and Gene Pelham of Rogue Federal Credit Union.
“You think about the carbon that’s being offset, and that’s really important in our industry. Livestock emissions are a major threat to the environment and it is our duty to take every step to offset this,” said Gremmels.
Singing the Blues
While Rogue River Blue may get all the attention (and well-deserved), lesser-known Echo Mountain Blue comes in a close second with nearly a hundred cheese competition awards. A blended cow’s and goat’s milk blue, the story of Echo Mountain is a sustainable one. “We were approached by a dairy farmer who was not able to break even, because he didn’t have enough market for goat milk, said Gremmels. So Rogue decided to make a cheese, 20% goat’s and 80% cow’s milk, becoming Rogue’s second most popular cheese.
Terroir truly makes this cheese. Cows graze and goats browse on pastures and land bordering the banks of the Rogue River, giving an unrivaled taste. Fruity, earthy, spicy and tangy are just a few words to describe this complex cheese, which is aged for eight months in Rogue’s caves.
Besides blues, Rogue Creamery makes a collection of cheddars, featuring beer from partner ROGUE Ales, an Oregon brewery of the same name. They collaborate in making three unique cheddars. The first is Cheddar Chocolate Stout, using chocolate stout in the curds. The Morimoto Soba Ale cheddar uses a buckwheat ale, and the Hopyard cheddar uses hop petals resulting in true Oregon cheese.
Speaking with David Gremmels, it becomes clear he is extremely passionate about artisan cheese, as well as sustainability. He tells me it is the sense and connection of place, community, and people that makes Rogue Creamery, and I couldn’t agree more.