Way back in 1933, an entrepreneur from Portland, Ore., worked with the city of Central Point, Ore., to open the Rogue River Valley Co-op — the first artisan creamery cooperative in Southern Oregon. Eighty-eight years later, following several ownership and name changes, that Central Point cheese plant is still in operation — albeit in a modernized form.
And it is where Rogue Creamery has been making its award-winning organic artisan cheeses since 2002 — when David Gremmels purchased the Rogue River Valley Creamery from Ignazio Vella (See the Processor Profile). Today, the 7,000-square-foot plant produces 11 varieties of blue cheese (including Rogue River Blue, deemed the World's Best Cheese at the 2019 World Cheese Awards) in numerous formats, as well as nine varieties of hard cheese (cheddars plus Rogue Creamery’s original Touvelle cheese) in multiple formats. In addition, it makes blue cheese powder in three formats.
The cheese — with names such as Brutal Blue and Chocolate Stout Cheddar — are as unique as the company.
“We bring the flavors of the Rogue Valley to life through the creativity and skill of our teams and rely on our tried and true method of graceful ripening to let those tangs and notes of Southern Oregon truly flourish, says Tara Croswell, quality manager.
Long road to ‘world’s finest’
As part of its mission, Rogue Creamery aims to create the “world’s finest handmade cheese.” And the artisan cheesemaking process to fulfill that portion of the company’s mission is neither quick nor easy. The facility’s cheesemakers must undergo extensive training.
However, employees who have a willingness to “learn and ask hard questions,” are able to relay information to the appropriate personnel clearly and quickly, and demonstrate a trend toward self-progress — as well as a sense of humor — are good candidates, says Croswell.
“It is our goal to have processes in place that allow us to be able to teach almost anyone how to make award-winning cheese,” adds Tyler Bare, Rogue Creamery’s finance controller. “Even if you have never tasted cheese before, we believe that, through our training program, you can become an excellent cheesemaker after a few years of on-site training.”
Cheese production begins with the receipt of tanker trucks of organic milk — with much of that milk sourced from Rogue Creamery Dairy Farm in Grants Pass, Ore. — the company’s own 68-acre USDA certified organic dairy farm. The milk is then transferred to Rogue Creamery’s on-site silo, notes Marguerite Merritt, the company’s marketing manager and self-titled “cheese emissary.”
“Because we don’t standardize our milk, we use metrics from our milk to determine which product we should produce on any given day,” Bare explains.
The milk is pumped from the silo to the pasteurizer. The pasteurized milk then goes to a vat, and cultures are added. To ensure even curd size, the vat is continuously stirred.
To create Rogue Creamery’s signature blue cheese — Oregon Blue — the resulting curds are salted and then distributed evenly to circular hoops, which help shape the cheese and assist in whey draining. The cheese hoops eventually are flipped to promote even curd knitting, Merritt notes.
When the cheese wheels are ready, the hoops are removed. Next, the wheels are salted before being placed in the aging caves to ripen. During the cave-aging process, the affinage team tends to the wheels to ensure even maturation.
“Our long process of ripening makes our blue cheese unique, requiring cave aging for an average of 90 days per wheel, followed by cool storage,” explains Cyril Feroul, former plant manager. “The evolution of pH in our wheels from day one until the packaging date is key to our signature recipes and very specific to each particular cheese we make.”
Following the cave-aging process, the facility tests each lot via a 23-point organoleptic sensory analysis to determine whether or not the ripening is complete, Merritt explains.
“When cave-ripening is deemed complete, the wheels are packed for cooler storage,” she says.
The blue cheese wheels then are prepared according to the particular customer order — they either remain in their whole wheel format or are cut into wedges and resealed. Before they are sent out for shipment, they are labeled, boxed and palletized, Merritt notes.
Adapting to change
The cheese plant might be almost a century old, but it has undergone plenty of updates over the years. Perhaps the most significant of those took place in the early 1950s. It was then that the facility was renovated to add blue cheese production “while not compromising the factory’s other non-blue products,” says Tyler Bare, operations controller.
Today, that separation of blue cheese production from hard cheese remains critical, Bare points out.
“We would hate for our cheddars to turn blue! This requires detailed planning and a good flow to our plant,” he says. “For example, once an employee or visitor steps foot into a designated ‘blue area,’ he or she is not allowed to return to a ‘non-blue’ area until after they have showered and changed their clothing.”
Much more recent improvements include a new curd distribution pump in the blue cheese make facility, which was installed this past June, notes Croswell.
[It] “allows for a “more ergonomic-friendly work space — saving the backs of cheesemakers — and promotes more uniform curd distribution, resulting in higher output per make day and more consistent wheel sizing,” she explains.
Also new to the facility for 2021 are a metal detector for foreign material detection and a shrink-wrap tunnel that quickly seals cheese “to promote shelf life and preserve optimum flavor,” Croswell says.
And the addition of a new packaging machine is in the works. As Feroul explains, the machine will help the facility to increase both output and efficiency.
“The increase of retail wedges in our portfolio is pushing us to find additional solutions to improve our packaging area,” he says.
That increase can be attributed, at least in part, to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“COVID changed our environment immediately,” Feroul says. “We adapted quickly, moving from selling cheese in whole wheel format to [selling] retail-driven prepackaged wedges in a very short time. We have diversified our production with new cheeses that do not require extensive aging.”
Despite the plant’s modern touches, Rogue Creamery does not believe in shortcuts when it comes to cheesemaking.
“Historically, Rogue Creamery has been about as handmade as it gets at every step of the process, from making cheese through hand-wrapping each wedge for individual sale,” explains Bare. “It’s a very slow process that requires a lot of labor.”
Protecting its own
New cheese formats and varieties have not been the only pandemic-spurred changes for the Rogue Creamery plant. Croswell says the facility’s employees had to make “rapid shifts and quick-thinking adaptations” to handle the pandemic’s ongoing impacts.
“For example, we temporarily relocated certain processes such as wrapping or labeling to maintain two separate work teams at all times,” she says. “These changes have been made with the utmost positive and health-centered focus possible to protect our teams and allow Rogue Creamery to continue making cheese.”
The pandemic-related modifications fit in with the plant’s overall focus on employee safety. Facility management ensures that safety practices are top of mind for plant personnel from the time their employment starts.
“We have veterans on our team who help coach the new employees,” says Bare. “We provide monthly trainings to ensure the health and safety of our employees and customers alike.”
Employee safety education includes “robust training” related to safety protocols specific to work location, as well as protocols tied to potential exposure to equipment, cleaning agents and other potential hazards, Croswell points out.
Moreover, the plant’s safety committee gets together on a regular basis to share observations and discuss any near misses. That information is shared with plant employees. It’s all about “holding each other accountable in a positive, attentive state of awareness,” she adds.
A food safety champion
Food safety is of utmost importance to cheese factory operations, too. And a thoroughly documented and clean facility is critical to all food safety efforts.
Croswell notes that both the make and processing portions of the plant are cleaned and sanitized daily, as are key areas of the aging caves.
“Monitoring of our sanitation is done throughout the day by personnel and use of monitoring equipment for trace of residue,” she says. “We also have a robust environmental monitoring protocol and sample many areas of the facility for pathogen prevention.”
Key to those efforts is robust employee food safety training. Feroul explains that all new employees must pass a food-safety training course and attain a Food Handler certificate.
They also receive one-on-one food safety training from the plant’s quality management personnel, as well as “continued constructive guidance from the team leads, who teach by example,” Croswell says.
The efforts have paid off. According to Bare, the facility’s GMP audits “have received consecutive scores of 99% or better.” He says that reality is a testament to the plant’s push to maintain “superior documentation” and institute “rigorous procedures” that every staff member must follow, regardless of department.
The cheese itself is a major food safety (and quality) focus, too.
“We test every lot of cheese before it leaves our facility to confirm it meets the preferred organoleptic tasting profile, and all product is food safety-tested at multiple stages throughout the process of cheesemaking, aging and packaging,” Bare explains. That food safety testing covers both pathogens and contaminants.
Because traceability is important, Rogue Creamery’s cheese plant also tests all of its ingredients and other raw materials, Feroul notes. Within its Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) plan, the facility has key indicators that validate production safety.
“Our robust HACCP plan outlines in detail the critical control points to ensure we consistently produce the safest cheese we can,” Croswell says. “Traceability monitoring is done internally at all stages, from initial make to final pack and pre-ship, to ensure that if for any reason we need to look closer at a batch, we can find it quickly and easily.”
A sustainability standout
Rogue Creamery’s cheese factory deserves accolades for more than its outstanding employee and food safety efforts — and award-winning, handmade organic cheese. In line with its B Corporation status, Rogue Creamery is always looking for ways to minimize the facility’s impact on the environment (sustainability is also a key part of the company’s mission statement). Therefore, the company ensures that the cheese plant is also a sustainability standout.
Case in point: Rooftop solar panels supply 30% of cheese production’s energy needs, Feroul notes.
“Back in 2011, when our photovoltaic solar panel array was installed, we were setting a statewide example, unveiling the largest solar project in Southern Oregon,” Bare points out.
The cheese plant also segregates its waste to improve byproduct recyclability and has a program in place for its employees to reduce their commute-related carbon footprint, Feroul says (see the Processor Profile).
“We have worked on new and improved ways to reduce packaging, plastics and other materials that cannot be recycled,” Bare adds. “Our e-commerce/direct-to-consumer packaging has recently evolved to reduce our carbon footprint, moving to a new insulation made from post-consumer-waste plastic bottles that is recyclable.”
And to reduce freight- and pollution-related impacts, the plant works with local vendors whenever possible, he adds.
Operations closely tied to the cheese plant also are a sustainability focus. For example, Rogue Creamery worked with the city of Central Point to remodel the front of its cheese shop “to capture rainwater and divert flow to the wetlands nearby,” Bare says. It also planted drought-resistant plants and trees outside the facilities to lessen the need for irrigation during the dry season.
“At our dairy farm, we actively track the amount of carbon sequestration in our pasture and have set goals to increase this total every year,” he adds.
Going forward, Rogue Creamery’s status as a B Corporation will very likely prompt implementation of additional sustainability measures.
“We have a strong mission to reduce our own carbon footprint by enviro-conscious daily operations in all aspects of our facilities: daily waste, water monitoring, revitalizing our pack and shipping methods to save on cardboard waste, encouragement of personnel to walk or bike between destinations — just to name a few,” Croswell points out.