Update 2007: Coelho Dairy has closed and is no longer making cheese.
Perhaps it reflects well on this site that John Coelho, Jr. asked me why he didn’t see Coelho Dairy listed under the category of “Oregon Cheesemakers." I told him it was because I hadn’t heard of any cheese made by Coelho Dairy; as it turned out, I had missed Coelho Dairy and its Quesaria brand Queso Fresco altogether. In fact, the Coelhos have been in the dairy business for the past 35 years, and began making queso fresco several years ago. So in order to rectify the situation and to find out more about the Coelho Dairy operation, I went to Woodburn a few weeks ago, met John and visited the farm and the cheesemaking operation.
Coelho Dairy is a true family farm. Patricia, John Sr., Michael, and Timothy and recently John Jr. and Jeffery all pitch in, taking on a variety of different roles from cattle management, business and marketing, to, in John’s case, Plant Manager. Coehlo Dairy has about 800 Jersey cows including milking herd and young stock at any given time on the farm. As I've mentioned before, Jerseys are often the cattle breed of choice for folks interested in making good cheese because their milk has a higher butterfat content than the more common Holstein. Coelho Dairy cattle are fed alfalfa, soy and fermented corn feed; John said that this diet keeps the milk more uniform and allows them more control over the cheese flavor than they'd otherwise have if the herd grazed exclusively on grass.
The Coelho’s cheesemaking business evolved over time. Years ago, Mexican families in the Woodburn, Oregon area (about 30 miles south of Portland) would come to the Coelho's dairy to buy milk – this was back when it was legal for dairy farmers to sell raw milk. (In the Mexican tradition, queso fresco is a fresh cheese made daily at home for immediate consumption). Around the year 2000 the prices farmers were able to get for milk plummeted dramatically, leaving many local dairies bankrupt and others struggling to survive. At this point, the family was forced to take a hard look at how they could diversify and continue to run a viable dairy operation. John told me that his Uncle Tim had once experimented with making cheese as a hobby, but at this point making cheese seemed like a more realistic profit making activity. Thus was the Coelho Dariy cheesemaking operation born. This story is a familiar one; using cheesemaking as an extension of an existing dairy operation is a common thread among quite a few northwest cheesemaking operations including Golden Glen Creamery in Washington and Hoo Doo Valley Creamery in Idaho. These days, the Coelhos produce about 1,000 lbs of queso fresco a week, with plans to expand production in the next several years. John said that they are also considering making other types of Mexican-style cheeses in the future, including Cotija and Oaxaca.
One of the most important aspects of a cheesemaking operation is creating an environment in which you can actually make cheese. This is not as easy as clearing a space in your kitchen or your back shed, making your cheese and selling it. A maze of state and federal regulations govern food made for commercial sale, and in the context of dairy products and cheesemaking, the rules are very strict and include multiple inspections and certifications. Creating a clean cheesemaking environment is complex, since the possibility of contamination is everywhere - not just on the equipment that touches the milk, but on the floors, the walls and in the air. The Coelho Dairy cheesemaking facility is an impressive area – and you’d expect nothing less from John Coelho, Jr., a nationally recognized expert on listeria who frequently speaks to cheesemakers and food companies about how to run a clean food production operation. Every aspect of the cheesemaking room and the cheesemaking process has been meticulously planned to avoid contamination – from the shoes one wears inside the facility, to the myriad soaps and foams and cleaners that clean both the equipment and the room, to the ventilation system, to the cool temperatures maintained 24 hours a day.
Queso Fresco (literally, “fresh cheese”) is a mild cheese with characteristics similar to Indian paneer – it’s slightly firm and crumbly and doesn’t melt. Queseria brand queso fresco is a rich, fresh tasting, slightly salty cheese that’s a nice contrast to the rubbery pasty tasting queso frescos from national producers that you see at your local grocery store. So look at it this way - Quesaria Queso Fresco is a locally made product, and it's better by leaps and bounds than what you might otherwise buy. Queseria brand Queso Fresco is available locally at Food 4 Less, Shop n’ Kart and other Hispanic grocery outlets, and soon to be available at New Seasons Markets. Another Oregon cheese to add to your list - now it's on mine, too.
Coelho Farms Dairy 18624 Arbor Grove Rd. Woodburn, OR 97071