University creameries are distinctive (albeit fading) outposts on the cheese world's highway. These institutions evolved to teach students all of the skills that go into functioning in an agricultural environment: animal husbandry, food science and business and marketing. While many are gone now (Oregon State University's creamery being a notable loss in the Northwest) some still exist and are thriving, such as the Washington State University Creamery.
WSU Creamery started during the early 1900s and was operated during the 1920s by a 3rd party to supply milk to the University's dining hall. During the 1930s WSU conducted research, in conjunction with the military, into the use of cans to store cheese. If you are familiar with WSU Creamery cheese you know where this is going...because today, WSU's cheeses are still sold in those signature cans.
It's not as simple as you might think to store cheese in a can....as cheese ages it gives off minute amounts of CO2. While this isn't a problem when cheese sits in an aging room, it is a problem when the cheese is in cans, which bulge and/or blow open. The challenge, then, became to develop a cheese recipe that didn't produce carbon dioxide in the aging process, or did so in such miniscule amounts that it didn't harm the can (which is a convenient shipping container).
Enter Dr. Norman Golding. He developed the famed Cougar Gold cheese using a type of bacterial culture that solved the 'gassy cheese' problem. This culture is still maintained at the Creamery as it has been for 60+ years, much like a perpetual sourdough starter maintained in bakeries. That culture makes Cougar Gold slightly different than a traditional cheddar, lending a slightly nutty, creamy flavor. In fact, so good is Cougar Gold that it is the model on which WSU alum Kurt Dammeier based his recipe for Beecher's Flagship.
Today, WSU Creamery is a thriving part of WSU's Food Science Department, making upwards of 200,000 cans of cheese a year, or close to 400,000 lbs. The Creamery is completely financially self sustaining, employing around 70 students a year from all over campus in the various areas of the operation - the retail center (Ferdinand's), the cheese production operation, and the customer service/packaging facility (that's in addition to 10 paid staff). Milk used to make WSU's cheese comes from a University owned dairy farm that milks about 140 Holstein cows. A student club called Cooperative University Dairy Students (CUDS) also supplies milk.
While many cheesemakers talk about expansion and product diversification, things are a little different at WSU. Here, it's really all about education, and the key to making it all work, according to creamery manager Russ Salvadalena, is predictability. "Since our workforce changes every semester, we try not to get too complicated. We try to keep the operation pretty simple and consistent." That's reflective of the tradition the creamery has built over the decades of its existence, tradition that is also reflected in the Creamery's popular cheeses that have come in cans since the 1940s. The Cougar Gold can even carries the same design it's always had, despite the fact that the colors (yellow and green) are more Oregon Duck than WSU Cougar.
In addition to educating college students, WSU has also played a critical role in developing the region's artisan cheesemakers. I can't emphasize enough how many local cheesemakers have gotten their start by taking one or more of WSU's cheesemaking courses, which show aspiring cheesemakers how it's done. (See an article on that subject here).Today, those courses are taught by former Creamery manager Marc Bates, who is a consultant familiar to many in the cheese community.
Cougar Gold accounts for the majority of WSU Creamery's production and sales, but the Creamery makes a traditional cheddar and a smoked cheddar as well. Also popular is their Viking line of Monterey Jack style cheeses which are available plain as well as in flavors such as dill, basil and hot pepper - and yes, these come in cans too.
WSU cheese is available in the Pullman area at select retailers, at Ferdinand's on campus, and at WSU branch campuses in Vancouver, the Tri-Cities and Spokane. In Seattle , you'll find it at the WSU Connections store at the Westlake mall. You can also order directly from the creamery.
Also available in Portland at New Seasons.