As a Northeasterner, I spent many years laboring under the mistaken notion that dairying, and cheesemaking, was an exclusively East Coast and Midwest thing. I got into cheese in the 2000s, during which time I imagined California dairying as massive confinement operations milking cows to death in a short two years, with small, upstart cheesemakers defining themselves in opposition to that grim trend.
In truth, northern California has been a cornerstone of the American cheese scene since the 1920s. Several years ago I spent a fascinating if somewhat awkward afternoon with Ig Vella, often known as "The Godfather of Cheese" at his Vella Cheese Company. His dad was in the cheese business, buddies with J.L. Kraft back when Kraft was the good guy, paying fair milk prices to dairy farmers.
Ig passed away in 2011, but Vella Cheese Company continues to produce cheeses that typify traditional California cheesemaking: The American original Monterey Jack (invented in Monterey, CA), its aged counterpart Dry Jack, and Italian-style cheeses such as Asiago and Toma.*
* While the Northeast and Wisconsin historically dominated Cheddar, and Wisconsin recipes were influenced by its Swiss-German immigrant population, northern California catered to an Italian immigrant community.
In 1935, Ig's father Tom also brokered the takeover of a plant in Central Point, OR, creating a model where farmers could upgrade their milking operations, buy ownership of their cows, and Kraft (who financed the deal) could purchase premium cheese at a reduced rate, to be sold directly to US troops fighting in WWII.
That plant, Rogue Creamery, is in operation today, now owned by David Gremmels and Cary Bryant, who are making the broadest portfolio of blue cheeses in America (as well as a broad range of mostly flavored cheddars). Point being, West Coast cheese is anchored by several factories with a larger production scale and extremely deep and important roots in American cheesemaking.
In the Pacific Northwest, Washington State University was also focused on developed cheese for American troops. To produce their technologically advanced solution of Cougar cheese (packaged in a can), the cheddar recipe included cultures not previously used by cheddar makers. Some 60 years later, Kurt Beecher Dammeier began his Beecher's Handmade Cheese with the flavor profile of Cougar Gold front of mind. What made a cheese preservable in the 1940s made it sweet, brown buttery and compulsively edible in the 2000s.
Complementing these cheese icons are the makers I think of as "the goat ladies." Starting in the early 1980s, a handful of women inspired by the French began producing cheese that was positively freakish at the time: made of goat milk and often involving mold and yeast. These women were ahead of the market but cemented the possibilities for a new kind of European-inspired cheese, borne out of passion for place and flavor, not the demands of an immigrant community.
Laura Chenel of Laura Chenel Chevre and Mary Keehn of Cypress Grove Chevre, both in northern California, blazed the biggest trail. Their cheeses were purchased by Bay Area chefs, most notably Alice Waters, and established a model of collaboration between West Coast chefs and West Coast makers, continuing to this day with luminaries such as Thomas Keller and Soyoung Scanlan of Andante Dairy.
The smaller scale of these makers, combined with the temperate weather and ample retailers and farmers' markets of San Francisco, has also supported a higher concentration of goat and sheep cheese makers on the West Coast than in other parts of the country. But don't discount the "big" specialty cheesemakers, without whom today's "small scale" cheese industry would not flourish to the same extent.
West Coast Cheesemakers to Seek Out
Vella Cheese Company (Sonoma, CA): Originators of Dry Jack, a cheese coated in oil, cocoa, and pepper with a crumbly, breakable texture, fruity flavor, and richer quality than, say, Parmigiano.
Tillamook (Tillamook, OR): The West Coast equivalent to Vermont's Cabot: a farmer-owned cooperative making a broad range of typical but reliably consistent block cheddars.
Rogue Creamery (Central Point, OR): Saved by Ig Vella's dad Tom and sold to David Gremmels and Cary Bryant, Rogue originally made cheddar-type cheeses and was the among the first to bring p. roquefortii mold back from France to experiment with blue cheese production. Notable blues today include the hazelnut-shell-smoked Smokey Blue and seasonal Rogue River Blue, which is wrapped in pear-brandy-macerated grape leaves.
Pt. Reyes Farmstead (Pt. Reyes Station, CA): Known for years for their Original Blue, the farm now makes mellow, Stiltonesque Bay Blue and milky, buttery Toma.
Washington State University Creamery (Pullman, WA): Theirs is the only cheese in a can I'd ever eat. Cougar Gold is the recipe that directly inspired the famous Beecher's Flagship, and it's a remarkably dense, creamy cheddar type with intense sweetness and flecks of crystallization. It dates back to WWII and is fantastic to this day.
Beecher's Handmade Cheese (Seattle, WA): Owner Kurt Beecher Dammeier set out to make a cheese that was "clearly premium but ubiquitously likeable." Their Flagship is like Gruyere mated with Cheddar with a whiff of Aged Gouda sprinkled in. It's cheese candy.
Cypress Grove Chevre (McKinleyville, CA): Trailblazing "goat lady" Mary Keehn sold her business to Swiss dairy giant Emmi but you'd never know a change had occurred from the cheese they make. The goat milk Humboldt Fog is turning people into cheese fanatics one wedge at a time, and their Truffle Tremor is a true truffle-lover's cheese.
Cowgirl Creamery (Petaluma, CA): The Cream-enriched Mt. Tam and Red Hawk cheeses put this maker on the map. Their cheese is thick, rich, and made with organic milk from the Straus Family dairy farm.
Marin French Cheese Co (Pt. Reyes, CA): While his neighbors some 50 years later would pursue Italian types of cheese, Jefferson Thompson started on soft-ripened French styles back in 1865. Today they still make various Brie types, but the one cheese to taste is the washed rind Schloss.
If you're in the West, look for these "little local guys" that are more likely to be sold at farmers markets than big cheese shops: Andante Dairy, Ancient Heritage Dairy, Nicasio Valley, Penny Royal Farm, and Tomales Farmstead Creamery. Bleating Heart Cheese is another favorite, but they have recently undertaken a voluntary recall of their 2014 cheese and will be largely unavailable for some months.