By Christine Hyatt
Those familiar with Oregon cheese history have fond memories of the original Bandon Cheese Factory, once a hub of activity in this small coastal town located on the banks of the Coquille River, a traditionally milk-rich region.
When the factory stopped making cheese in 2002, it seemed the dairy tradition in this region was over, obsolete. Resident Greg Drobot had a different vision for this small town settled by Irish immigrants in the 1860s. After working in the region and befriending the Sinko family, owners of the shuttered creamery, he began to ponder a revitalized version of the legacy business, Face Rock Creamery.
With a background in real estate and business, he worked with the city in a public-private partnership, to construct a new facility on the site of the former creamery along Highway 101. On May 8, Face Rock officially opened its doors.
The new creamery includes another connection to the past: Brad Sinko, son of the previous owner, serves as head cheesemaker. After the closure of the Bandon factory, Brad made commodity mozzarella in Guatemala and spent the last decade at Beecher’s Handmade Cheese in Seattle, developing recipes for the award-winning line of cheeses, including Flagship and the 2012 American Cheese Society Best of Show winner, Flagsheep.
When Brad Sinko got the call, he didn’t hesitate, especially since his dad, Joe Sinko, was involved, too, as a consultant cheesemaker. Under a new name and ownership, the old factory was back and the Sinkos were thrilled to help revitalize the town’s rich dairy tradition.
According to the elder Sinko, in its heyday, small farms lined the Coquille River basin, and boats would traverse the waterways, picking up milk from small dairies that lined the banks. Using boats rather than horse and buggy allowed for fresher milk, and more of it, to be delivered to Bandon Cheese.
Over the years, small dairies consolidated or went out of business due to the vagaries of the industry, faced with soaring feed costs and a flat price-per-hundred weight paid to farmers based on an arcane federal milk market system. Today, the cost to produce a gallon of milk is just slightly higher than what the farmer can sell it for through traditional channels.
Small creameries have been a saving grace for family farms, paying a premium for high quality milk rich in fats and proteins, ideal for producing superior cheese. Face Rock sources its milk from the Scolari Dairy located in Coquille, about 15 miles from Bandon.
The dairy was purchased by Joe Scolari in 1925. Joe’s sons, Leonard and Bob, milk their herd of 140 Jersey and Holstein cows twice a day, making Scolari the exclusive milk supplier for Face Rock.
The creamery focuses on traditional cheeses with plans to produce a bandage-wrapped Irish Cheddar, a nod to the history of the region. Currently, Face Rock is churning out raw-milk block cheddar and flavored “squeaky cheese,” or cheese curds, a particular favorite of the locals who lined up in droves for opening day. Face Rock team had to scramble to keep shelves stocked with the mild, buttery snacks.
Face Rock’s long-term plan is to age enough cheese to distribute regionally and beyond. Visitors to the Southern Oregon Coast will want to stop at the creamery to sample cheese and other local products. A coffee bar, ice cream stand and beer and wine bar round out its offerings.
Adding, or should I say, revitalizing, another stop on the “Oregon Cheese Trail” bodes well for the exciting future of cheese in the state.