Last weekend, Mr. Cheesemonger and I took our first road trip to Oregon to check out the Oregon Cheese Festival, hosted by Rogue Creamery in Central Point. We set off after work on Friday, thinking we could maybe arrive in Central Point before midnight (the festival took place on Saturday). Fail! Because there was a snow storm during one part of the route, we made it to Rogue Creamery 15 minutes before our scheduled tour of their cheese making facilities on Saturday afternoon! Talk about perfect timing.
After a quick visit to the cheese shop, we were able to begin our tour! Our guide Anna took us first to the blue cheese building, which she says is so well-guarded, even many of Rogue Creamery’s own employees can’t normally visit. As you can imagine, I wasn’t permitted to take photos inside. However, I WAS allowed to take a photo of the members of our group after we put on our protective gear, consisting of a hair net, blue jacket, and plastic booties (to protect the cheese, not us). We walked through a foot bath to the first stop on the tour. It was then that I realized–artisanal cheese is not magical! Real human hands touch it, it comes from buildings with rooms, and it requires much more dedication than people realize. Anna explained that this room was originally a cheese making room, but it was difficult to regulate temperatures (for instance, when a door was opened, or during the summer). It was then converted to a packaging area, but since Rogue Creamery has recently acquired some new, temperature-controlled facilities, that operation has moved elsewhere as well. Now, it looks like it’s mainly used to store the hoops needed to shape and drain the cheese before aging.
We pressed on through a heavy plastic curtain to a hallway connecting the room with the vats, the cave, a drying room, and who knows what else. My husband pointed out some large containers of various salts in the hallway. What I noticed the most was the moisture in the air. I wish I had an explanation for it, but I’ll have to make a research project of it! Anna explained that the creamery constantly has 2 batches of milk (about 135-140 wheels per batch) turning through the creamery. As two batches are being sent out for packaging, they are filling their two 10,000 lb. vats with two more batches. In actuality, since the vats are only filled to about 7,000 lbs., the batches are not quite that large.
We were able to peek into the room where the vats were positioned on the far side. I could see the pipes where the milk is sent through from a milk silo on the other side of the creamery’s small courtyard, and a peculiar piece of equipment that Anna explained is to heat the milk to make temperature. Rogue makes all but one of its blue cheeses with raw milk, so this is not a pasteurizer. She explained that after the make is prepped, and the curds and whey are separated, they are hand ladled into hoops, then carted into the next room–the draining room.
What I loved about this building was that it clearly has lived through several generations of people and uses. Our guide explained that the facilities originally housed a creamery in 1928, then a brewery which was shut down during the Prohibition years, then a cheese making facility again. Each room in the building seems to have been used for all sorts of purposes in its history. The current draining room has seen days as an office, a storage space, and a dish room before its current incarnation. Here, the Rogue staff of seven cheese makers constantly monitor the cheese, flipping them every few hours (even coming in at night to do so!), and tilting them so the whey drains off properly.
For sanitation reasons (and probably to protect some trade secrets!), we were not permitted in the caves themselves. Anna explained that to enter that area, cheese makers must completely cover themselves (faces included!), so not to disturb the careful balance of bacteria so vital to Rogue Creamery’s success. This delicate balance is so important, it dictates Rogue’s business decisions. While it may be nice to begin farmstead cheese making, if they were to move facilities, or dramatically alter their current facilities, the bacteria equilibrium in the environment would likely be so radically changed, their product wouldn’t be as we know it today. It would be something other than Rogue Creamery cheese (it would probably still be delicious, though).
As we walked over to Rogue’s cheddar-making facility, I learned that Rogue sources its milk from Noonan Farms and Springlake Dairy. Many of the qualities that Rogues master cheesemakers seek (particularly for blue cheeses) are present in the fall milk, and so that is what we taste the most of when we purchase Rogue Creamery cheese for ourselves. As for the penicillium roqueforti bacteria that give Rogue Creamery blues their distinctive flavor, they are direct descendants of the original bacteria used to make true Roquefort cheese.
In the cheddar facility, I was able to take some photos, and so here you have them. The vats are of the same type in both the blue and cheddar areas–two 10,000 lb. vats. However, in the cheddar area, there IS a pasteurizing machine. There’s also a hydraulic press tucked between the two vats to press out whey overnight, before wheeling them into the back “boxing room” where they can age.
Anna explained that 90-98% of Rogue’s milk goes into blue cheese manufacture, so this cheddar area is only used about once or twice a week. After all, people want Rogue Creamery blue cheese the most! Those famous blues are usually aged about on year, but the cheddars are usually aged at least two years. Anna told us to be on the lookout, though, for their rare Brutal Blue, which is aged for 2-3 years, and has the pungency to prove it. I must get my hands on some the next time that comes out! If you care to do some cheese weightlifting, know that the blue wheels weigh about 5 lbs., and the cheddar blocks weigh about 40 lbs. You could do some nice bicep curls with that.
Our tour concluded on the discussion of raw milk and export. To access the Australian market, which forbids raw milk cheese in all of its commerce–applying to both domestic and international cheeses–Rogue had to produce a pasteurized blue cheese. That cheese is Flora Nelle, and sadly, I didn’t have the chance to taste it. For export into Europe, their raw milk cheeses must be aged a minimum of 90 days. The U.S. requires 60 days of aging. Consequently, all of their blue cheeses are aged beyond the 90 day requirement to avoid problems with either market. When I asked about the European reception of Rogue’s cheese, especially in France, Anna exclaimed, “They love it!” Europeans are surprised that Americans do make such delicious cheese. Except, because of high importation costs, Rogue Creamery’s blues are among the most expensive in the European shops!
I am so happy to have been able to visit Rogue Creamery’s facilities, especially since I know that they open their doors about once a year, and then only to a select few. Mr. Cheesemonger, who is French, was especially delighted to discover these new favorite American cheeses. A little something to fill the void from any homesickness. For any Europeans or Australians who spy Rogue Creamery cheeses in your local shops–please try them! They have been lovingly made by dedicated and expert cheese makers from quality milk, and taste amazing!
P.S.: For those of you who are wondering what to pair with these delectable blues, try some figs, sweetened cranberries, walnuts, or even Harvest Song whole preserved walnuts in syrup. For drinks, I’d suggest a port or Sauternes, or some bubbly!