Adventure awaited this writer and 13 members of the media who were invited to the Pacific Northwest to experience all things dairy at the headquarters of Tillamook County Creamery Association (TCCA) in Tillamook, Ore. Founded in 1909 as a farmer-owned cooperative, TCCA, in partnership with a group of family farms, produces internationally recognized, award-winning cheese, as well as decadent ice cream, butter, cream cheese spreads, yogurt, and sour cream.

In addition to its rich and creamy dairy products, TCCA also prides itself on its stewardship, caring for its cows and farms, its 900 employees and products, the community, and the environment. Noting that stewardship has been engrained in its philosophy since the beginning, the company recently achieved the distinction of Certified B Corporation “B Corp,” which is a private certification for for-profit companies regarding environmental and social performance.

The event officially kicked off with a “meet and greet” reception where Dairy Foods enjoyed delicious food/wine and custom-made cocktails, mixing, mingling, laughing and sharing stories. What was so cool is that there was almost an instant camaraderie among the attendees. Everyone felt connected and like they’d known each other forever. 

A Day at the Creamery

After a light breakfast, Dairy Foods embarked for a busy day at the Tillamook Creamery visitors center, which is designed to look like a modern barn with big windows and resplendent with a large-scale photo of Flower, the creamery’s charming cow. A top Oregon tourist destination, the Visitors Center welcomes more than 1 million people from across the world to enjoy chef-inspired dishes featuring Tillamook products. For example, tomato soup and Tillamook’s award-winning Cheddar Cheese is one of the most decadent grilled cheese sandwiches I’ve ever tasted. That, and the company’s cheese curds, were so delish I’m still salivating!

On the day we visited there was a line out the door for the brand’s premium, extra creamy ice creams in such flavors as Peaches & Cream, Marionberry Pie, Peanut Butter Chocolate (one of my favs), Oregon Strawberry and Butter Pecan, its newest flavor.

There’s plenty of things to see and experience at the Visitors Center. Visitors are able to snap a photo or two inside the classic yellow Tillamook Road Trip bus, purchase Tillamook products, T-shirts, and swag in the expansive gift shop, grab a bite to eat in the café, and learn all about how the cheese they love is handcrafted.

The Hall of Fame on the first-floor details the growth of TCCA, from 10 dairy farms at its inception to today’s second-, third- and fourth-generation dairy farmers who own the co-op. The co-op’s farmer-owners also provide milk for Tillamook’s products, including its Cheddar Cheese Curds, Medium Cheddar, Sharp Cheddar, and Extra Sharp Cheddar varieties that are aged between 60 days and two years. (It takes 10 gallons of milk to produce 1 pound of cheese). 

Our guided tour officially began with Tillamook Brand Ambassador, Duncan Hernandez, a TCCA employee for eight years, welcoming us to the “House that Cheddar Built” and the creamiest place in the Pacific Northwest. Wearing headsets as we toured the second floor viewing gallery, we were able to see TCCA’s cheese processing operations in action, how the cheese is made — from cultured milk intake in large vats that each hold 53,500 pounds of milk to adding rennet enzymes that trap fats and minerals in the curd. Other steps were adding annatto, a natural color seed that gives cheese its yellow orange hue, and the Salter station, where we learned about the importance of salt in flavoring cheese and its pivotal role in controlling moisture as the cheese ages.

As the cheese went down conveyors, employees inspected the cheese at quality checkpoints. There was a metal detector station, as well as a giant eight-armed robotic machine — the “Blue Octopus” — designed to vacuum-seal each package before the spinning arm pushes each package onto a conveyor that runs through the heat-shrink tunnel where steam shrinks the bag around the cheese. In the packaging section, varietals of cheeses such as Medium Cheddar, Colby Jack, or Pepper Jack, each with its own distinct color packaging, are cut and wrapped.

After getting a birds-eye view of TCCA’s cheesemaking operations, it was time to sample some of the brand’s cult classics. Guided by Josh Archibald, the creamery’s executive chef, and the affable Steve Marko, senior director of research and development (R&D), who handles innovation in both food and packaging, we feasted on some truly decadent, cheese-inspired recipes. These included the Fried Cheddar Cheese Curds with a choice of three chef-made dipping sauces that seriously could be bottled. My favorite was the Pacific Northwest Apple BBQ. There was also a tasty Spicy Cheddar Chili Ranch and an Extra Sharp Cheddar Ranch. Other delectable dishes were a Triple Cheese Mac, the Double Cheddar Grilled Cheese, and the Fire Roasted Tomato Soup garnished with cheddar cheese curds.

After lunch, we headed to the TCCA Red Barn to learn more about sustainability and what TCCA, under the direction of Jocelyn Bridson, director of environment and community impact, is doing to reduce water use, waste, and energy across its food processing facilities. This also includes a plant in Boardman, Ore., TCCA’s second cheese manufacturing plant.

In its commitment to do right by every bite, Bridson discussed TCCA’s recently developed Climate Action Plan, with strategies to achieve a goal of net-zero GHG emissions by 2050, with an interim goal to reduce emission 30% by 2030.

Next up in the Red Barn, Ice Cream Scientist, Ian Moppert, introduced the brand’s clean-label, premium ice creams that contain 13.25% butterfat, and more cream and less air than other family-size ice creams, and are made with real fruit and other wholesome ingredients. He pointed out that the brand has 28 SKUs of ice cream and in 2021 introduced a new line of frozen custards in eight flavors, including Bing Cherry Cheesecake, Chocolate Fudgy Brownie, and Oregon Strawberry Shortcake.

To end our day at the Creamery, Dairy Foods took in an enlightening presentation from Jill Allen, director of product excellence in R&D and cheese judge at both U.S. and international cheese awards. At TCCA for more than 22 years, Allen manages the company’s unique Cheddar Cheese Maker’s Reserve aging programs. Allen explained how to indulge the senses when pairing various aged cheeses — 2012 Extra Sharp White Cheddar and 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 Extra Sharp White Cheddars — with wine and spirits and sweet and savory bites. For instance, the 2017 Extra Sharp White Cheddar was paired with a Pinot Gris white wine, sweet raspberries, and a savory cured Spanish chorizo with spiced raspberry jam.

With all the deliciousness and educational inspiration from start to finish, the Tillamook Experience is one that I won’t soon forget.