Tillamook Cheese and More

I had no idea that Tillamook  made ice cream. I guess I never noticed because I don't buy ice cream at the store. It turns out that they have 27 flavors! 

This ice cream revelation came to me recently when Tillamook was in town to give a group of bloggers a tasting of six of their flavors along with a little lesson on improving our "visual voice" with social media. After our session we were invited to try our skills at making ice cream sandwiches and photographing them for Instagram. 

The important thing was we got to eat ice cream! Including one of their new flavors, Fireside S'mores. I'm not a chocolate ice cream fan, but I must admit it was pretty tasty. It helps that Tillamook ice cream is made with higher fat content cream and mixed so that it is less fluffed up with air, meaning a smoother, creamier mouth feel. The other flavors they brought included Strawberry, Marionberry Pie, Chocolate Peanut Butter, Vanilla, and one more I can't remember. 

I happened to be traveling to Oregon the next week and so I talked to Kelly, their PR Rep, and asked if I could arrange a tour.

I arrived at Tillamook HQ with my friend, Karen, on a cloudy afternoon. The parking lot was quite full of all the tourists coming for the self-guided tour that is available seven days a week. Actual guided tours were discontinued in the 60s due to health and safety concerns. We did get a little personal attention when Lee Anne, a Brand Specialist, came out to take us around and answer questions. 

We go upstairs to the main observation area. If you've gone on the Jelly Belly tour, it's very similar to that - big windows looking down onto the production areas with a few videos playing overhead explaining the process. 

Lee Anne tells us a little history of the region. Tillamook sits on the Oregon coastline. At first the newly transplanted pioneers tried to farm the land, but the wet climate wasn't so great for growing many of the crops that grow well further inland. They soon realized that dairy cows did well. They started with the American Short Horn which was a breed that gave milk, but was versatile in that it could also be used to pull carts and be slaughtered for beef. 

Until the late 1800s the dairies were making plenty of butter that they transported to Portland via the schooner Morning Star. The Morning Star is now the logo for the Tillamook brand. In 1894 Peter McIntosh arrived and started making cheese, which was easier for transportation than butter. At first the dairies were making many variations of white cheddars until they all agreed to work together as a co-op and use one recipe. They formed the Tillamook County Creamery Association (TCCA) in 1909.

Lee Anne explains that what makes Tillamook cheese so special is that they use a bacterial strain that is specific to the region. That's why all the milk they use only comes from within the County and just a couple right on the edges of the next counties. The cows are eating what they need to make the flavor that is famous in Tillamook cheese. None of the cows are given growth hormone and if they are given an antibiotic because they are sick, their milk is not used again until it has been tested as clear of antibiotics.

The Tillamook operation is huge. After all, their cheese is shipped nationwide and internationally. They make millions of pounds of cheese a year. Unlike the more hands-on methods at Cowgirl Creamery, the Tillamook cheese is made in super huge vats. There are eight vats holding 53,500 gallons of milk each. They will each process at least three batches of cheese a day, totaling about 167,000 pounds of cheese a day from all of them. It takes 10 pounds of milk to make 1 pound of cheese and so about 1.7 MILLION pounds of milk come in every day! That's a lot of tired cows!

cheese curds

Rennet is the enzyme used to curdle the milk to create the cheese curds. Two types of rennet are used. Animal rennet is used in the aged white cheddars. All the other cheeses use vegetable rennet. If you are a fan of cheese curds, sometimes known as squeaky cheese, Tillamook only makes it for their factory tours and store. It is not available in grocery stores.

towers are hard to see at the far back of photo
These towers are where the cheese is pressed into 40ish pound loafs. They usually are about 41 or 42 pounds as some of the cheese will get trimmed in the packaging room. Each tower holds about 800 pounds of cheese curd and it's gravity and their own weight that presses them down. It takes about half an hour for the curd to go from top to bottom, where it is pressed out and sealed in plastic before going to the aging room. 

The cheeses will be aged anywhere from 60 days to 3 years, depending on the variety. The longer the aging, the sharper the flavor.

Once they have aged the appropriate length of time, they get sent to the packaging room. There are three lines running and the workers shift positions every 15 minutes so they don't get bored doing the same task all day long.  The cheese blocks are sent through slicers that slice them into one pound loafs. The trimmings are used to make shredded cheese or occasionally added back to a loaf if it is slightly underweight. That's why you might open a block of cheese and find it has an extra slice on it. 

Lee Anne took us downstairs where we went through the cheese tasting line. You started with the curds and then tasted a mild and a sharp cheddar and then a couple with some flavors. 

Because we were with Lee Anne, she was able to give us a couple more flavors to try at the end, including the Smoked Black Pepper White Cheddar and Garlic Chili Pepper Cheddar. She then gave us a coupon for a free scoop of ice cream!

The lower level has a gift store as well as the grocery store with every type of Tillamook product possible. There are also lots of other regional food products as well - mixes, jams, sauces, candies.  For those with a sweet tooth, there is a fudge counter and, of course, the ice cream counter.  I opted for the new flavor - White Chocolate Raspberry Yum. And yummy it was!

The Tillamook factory is about 90 minutes west of Portland. 

For other Farm-to-Fork style stories like this one, click here: Farm-to-Fork