Wheel Accomplishment

Vern Caldwell, president of the Oregon Cheese Guild, pours beer at a pairing class during last year’s event. Photo by Christine Hyatt.
The 10th annual Oregon Cheese Festival will take place at Rogue Creamery in Central Point on March 15. Photo by Christine Hyatt.
Rivers Edge won “Best American Cheese” at the 2013 World Cheese Awards. Photo by Christine Hyatt.

By Christine Hyatt

Ten years is an ample amount of time to witness big-picture growth, change and evolution, yet short enough to be amazed that so much has transpired. So is it with the Oregon cheese scene, showing all the signs of double-digit maturity.

A decade ago, March 2004, visionary entrepreneurs and Oregon cheese champions David Gremmels and Cary Bryant invited a small group of commercial cheesemakers to participate in the first Oregon Cheese Festival, held in a small tent adjacent to the historic blue cheese-making facility.

Only two years into their own cheese journey, Gremmels and Bryant shared their powerful vision of success and growing an industry with the small group at the forefront of the Oregon cheese renaissance. Decades of stagnant industry meant fewer small producers and little momentum but, they believed, a concerted effort could change that trajectory.

Predicting an opportunity to promote the high quality and diversity of products from a traditional dairy state like Oregon, Gremmels and Bryant proposed forming a guild to support cheesemaker education and marketing of varieties from the state.

The consummate networker with a strong belief in the power of vision and community, Gremmels had connected the small group of cheesemakers with Dairy Farmers of Oregon, the marketing arm of the state’s creamery producers, and with educational opportunities through Oregon State University Dairy Science program.

As the ranks of Oregon cheese have grown, the camaraderie, networking and educational opportunities offered by the guild and supporting organizations have helped new producers gather experience more quickly without having to re-invent the wheel.

And the proof is in the numbers: In 2004, there were six artisan creameries in Oregon. Today there are 25. At the time of the formation of the Guild, there was little awareness of Oregon’s artisanal cheeses beyond the borders.

Rogue Creamery cheeses have been ambassadors for not just Oregon cheese, but cheeses from around the country in food festivals like the cheese-focused Slow Food event in Bra, Italy. Today, international award-winning cheeses from Oregon producers are represented in specialty shops across the country and the state’s small producers are riding the waves of that success.

At the 2013 World Cheese Awards, Gremmels served as a judge and advocate for Oregon cheese. He championed Up In Smoke from Rivers Edge Chevre to his fellow judges and the small, leaf-wrapped round of goat cheese was named the 2013 Best American Cheese among a crowded field.

This sort of success was unimaginable a mere decade ago, and the upward trajectory continues. When the six founding members of the Oregon Cheese Guild officially organized and incorporated at the second Oregon Cheese Festival in 2005, Oregon was a maverick on the American cheese scene, with the lion’s share of awards and recognition going to dairy powerhouses Wisconsin, California and Vermont. Today, cheeses from the state are coveted in fine cheese shops around the country.

If you want to meet the cheesemakers and share in their delicious success, your best opportunity is Saturday, March 15 at the 10th annual Oregon Cheese Festival in Central Point. Committed cheese lovers can dive deep and make a weekend of it. Arrive Friday for the gala Cheesemaker dinner at the Ashland Springs Hotel and stay on through Sunday for the Double EE event featuring Oregon “chEEse and bEEr” pairings.

If you can’t make the festival but still want to support the Oregon cheese movement, you are in luck. Cheesemongers around the state proudly curate delicious collections unimaginable just a few years ago. Seek them out and celebrate the success of Oregon cheese.

Christine Hyatt promotes the wonders of fine cheese through food writing, recipe creation, food photography and video. Connect with her on Facebook or Twitter.

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