We pulled into the parking lot of the Tillamook County Creamery Association (TCCA) Visitor Center mid-day, mid-week, and were surprised how busy it was. Though we shouldn’t have been; more than one million visitors come to TCCA every year. A continuous stream of people was entering and emerging from the Creamery visitor center’s glass double doors. A Red Cross blood drive mobile was parked by the curb, and inside the center, a table where people could sign up to donate. Not much of a line there, but substantial lines had formed at the ice-cream counter and Farmhouse Café. We decided to take the self-guided tour first. Maps and wall signs make it quite clear where to begin and how to continue.
A brief video plays continuously, introducing us to the dairy farming traditions of the Tillamook area. Tillamook County Creamery Association (TCCA) is a cooperative that began in 1909 with ten cheese factories. Today it’s owned and operated by 150 local dairy families. Pride in the co-op’s history and high-quality products is evident from the video and the many entertaining and informative displays. Here’s an "udderly amazing" cow fact: The average cow yields 10,000 gallons of milk in her lifetime.
Getting in line for a taste of cheese was what we did next, deciding we were ready for a little snack before going upstairs to view production. Even waiting in line is educational and not boring at TCCA. Since not an inch of wall space is wasted, this is where I read that besides milk, famous cheese, and other dairy products, Tillamook cows create another less –um, tasty product: 322,500 TONS of manure annually. Manure management can be challenging. Though some of it is used to fertilize fields, excess animal waste can find its way into waterways, resulting in hefty fines (up to $20,000) for pollution.
Squeaky curds were just too rubbery for my taste, but interesting nevertheless. And yes, they really DO squeak when chewed. Far better were the other samples, especially the extra sharp and the vintage white extra sharp (aged 2 years). The cheese-tasting area ends too soon in the Northwest Gourmet Foods Shop, full of tempting products dairy and non (smoked seafood for one). We got even hungrier as we passed the fudge counter, which was too busy selling to hand out free samples.
Yep, we decided it was time for a bite at the Farmhouse Café. We grabbed a menu and got in line. I’d hoped for "cheesier" selections; this was your basic burger-sandwich-soup and salad menu, with the exception of the Favorites section, 7 sandwiches that included grilled cheese. I chose the Cheese Works, cheddar and Swiss on sourdough, accompanied by fries and chocolate milk. Bob chose a ham and cheddar. Suggestions for Tillamook: Add fondues and cheese and fruit appetizers to your menu. More truly cheesy choices, please!
No longer hungry, we went upstairs to view the cheese making and packaging areas. Shower-capped women and men in white stand at stations along the lines, efficiently separating, weighing, and watching. Forty pound blocks of cheese slide along large belts coming from beyond the observation area to cheese-cutting machines, where they are cut into two pound "baby" loaves, manually separated and placed on narrower belts, then go through a packaging machine, and are inspected yet again before being transported up and away out of the observation area.
Modern-day cheese-making at Tillamook is regulated by the high-tech Cheddarmaster. But before entry into its yaws, it begins with the many pastures of contented and well-fed cows easy to spot barely beyond city limits, in all directions. It continues with the freshness of Tillamook milk, quickly stored in silos after passing quality testing. After being cooked in giant vats, Amatto vegetable coloring and rennet for coagulation and ripening are both added to the milk until it curds. At this point, nascent cheese enters the Cheddarmaster, all automatically and computerized, draining the whey from the curds and matting, turning, testing, milling and salting the curd. Into the curd towers for compression, then cooling and aging. Old-fashioned dairy tools, products, memorabilia and cheese videos can be viewed in the center of the large hall and between the full-length windows overlooking cheese production.
Quality control: Lest you think cheese-making is purely automatic, Tillamook still employs real human Master Cheesemakers, skilled in their craft and dedicated to upholding the quality of their product. Apprentices are required to learn cheddaring the old-fashioned way, to gain an appreciation and true understanding of the intricacies and complexities of the process.
Dessert! The upstairs ice cream counter was doing brisk business, and we got in line where we could study the flavors. Bob and I shared a German chocolate cake ice cream cone, and as each creamy bite melted on my taste buds, I decided that never again would I buy cheap ice cream.
Address: 4175 Highway 101 North
Hours: Open daily 8 AM to 8 PM summer; 8am to 6pm fall, winter, spring