From Pasture to Cheese Board: How Cowgirl Creamery Cheese Is Made

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Behind the scenes at California's Cowgirl Creamery. [Photographs: Wes Rowe except where noted]

Maybe you first tried Cowgirl Creamery's cheese at a cheese counter, a dainty slice handed over on a square of wax paper. Maybe it was at a friend's house, a rapidly disappearing creamy round on a crowded cheese platter. However your first time happened, it's impossible to forget the first bite of Cowgirl Creamery cheese. Whether it was Mount Tam, their massively popular, decadent triple cream, named for the stunning, tree-covered peak in Marin County; Red Hawk, Mount Tam's funky cousin; Wagon Wheel, a savory, gouda-like pressed cheese; or one of their four, rind-coated seasonal cheeses, you probably became an instant convert to the Way of the Cowgirl.

But what is it about these cheeses, born and bred in California, that makes them so special, and so damn delicious?

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We were determined to find out. So we spent the day with Sue Conley, one of the two founding Cowgirls, going behind the scenes at Cowgirl Creamery's Petaluma offices, warehouse, and creamery; and over to Point Reyes in West Marin where the creamery was born in the early '90s (and where some of their cheesemaking still takes place). We saw Cowgirls' scrappy Northern California operation in action, met the team making it happen, and tasted a whole lot of cheese.

And we learned that the secret behind Cowgirl Creamery's distinctive flavor is two-fold. First, an incredible base of knowledge (honed through years of experimentation and testing), precision, and dedication goes into each and every batch. Even more importantly, though, Cowgirl Creamery cheese is a product of Northern California's unique terroir. This cheese could not be made anywhere else in the world and taste like it does. Everything from the hyperlocal products used to the specific bacteria found in the air at Point Reyes contributes to the composition and flavor of Cowgirl Creamery's cheeses.

In the Beginning

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Sue Conley

Cowgirl Creamery was founded by Sue Conley and Peggy Smith. The two college friends made their way to the West Coast in 1976 on a self-described "hippie trip," blue Chevy van and all. The two became deeply involved in the Bay Area food scene—Sue was the co-owner of Bette's Oceanview Diner (an early example of the 'fine' diner trend), while Peggy worked at Chez Panisse. 17 years later, they decamped for Point Reyes Station in West Marin—the tiny, charming town is located just south of Tomales Bay, and has long been a center for sustainable agriculture, ranching, and wildlife preservation.

The pair launched Tomales Bay Foods with the goal of helping West Marin dairies and ranchers sell their products to San Francisco restaurants. They became friends with one of their customers, Ellen Straus of Straus Family Creamery, and before long, they were inspired to try their hand at making cheese themselves.

"Our original mission was to show that you could make a living from cheesemaking," Sue tells us. "And for the first five years, we weren't sure that it was true."

Their original cheesemaking operation was based in a renovated hay barn in Point Reyes. At first they focused on fresh cheeses—cottage cheese, crème fraîche, and fromage blanc. Soon, they began experimenting with triple creams, leading to the creation of Mount Tam. Red Hawk, Wagon Wheel, and the rest followed. They expanded to a larger creamery operation in Petaluma eight years ago, and added a separate distribution center (with space for classes and seminars) last year.

Almost thirty years after their start, Cowgirl has 700 accounts in the Bay Area, national distribution through Whole Foods, relationships with restaurants, and a thriving direct-to-consumer mail order operation. When we visited in February, we were told that they had shipped out about 8,000 boxes of cheese during the holidays. Mount Tam makes up 50% of their total sales.

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Storage at the Petaluma office and warehouse

"We can't even think about making a brand-new cheese yet!" she says. "We're maxed out, facility-wise." She does mention that they're hoping to start making their cottage cheese again, which they put a hold on a couple of years ago (they felt it used too much water in the face of the drought).

Right now, the focus is on finding more refrigerated storage space, the biggest hindrance to a production increase. Sue tells us that the Petaluma creamery is due for a rebuild—they'd like to set up a system for water reuse, solarize, and may even move the whole Petaluma cheesemaking operation from its current location.

Milk Matters

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That early relationship with Straus Creamery is as integral to Cowgirl's success as the talent and creativity of its cheesemakers. "You have to have good milk to make good cheese," Sue explains. "When we'd go to Europe and meet cheesemakers in France or England, that was the first thing they'd ask about." Peggy echoes: "They ask about the land, about the animals, all before they'd ask us about the kinds of cheese we were making."

Cowgirl works with three dairies, all of which are no more than a half hour drive away. Straus is just up the road from Point Reyes Station in Marshall, California. Their milk makes up 80% of Cowgirl's production; their cows are a crossbreed of Jersey and Holstein cows, which Sue says offer a milk particularly rich in butterfat and protein. Bivalve Dairy in Point Reyes provides milk from grass-fed Holstein Cows solely for the Red Hawk cheese. Finally, John Taverna's Chileno Valley Jersey Dairy in Petaluma provides Holstein milk for the seasonal cheeses. The series of limited-time-only cheeses was born out of the desire to support Taverna when his business was struggling.

"He got a customer, which he needed, and we were able to create a cheese that allowed us to experiment with the changing flavor profile of the milk over the four seasons," Sue says. Taverna's Jersey Dairy is 100% pasture based; seasonal changes are directly reflected in the cows' diets, and overall flavor of the milk.

"In the spring the cheeses are brighter and have a lighter mouthfeel," explains Eric Patterson, Cowgirl's lead cheesemaker. "There is less fat and more lactose so the cheeses acidify more quickly—you get a brighter taste in your mouth;" he describes hints of fresh herbs and lemon. Come fall, there's more fat in the cheese, making for a richer flavor overall. "This is because the milk acidifies more slowly, leading to a rich earthy flavor from the rind."

The flavor of all of the milks that Cowgirl uses, and the relationships that the cheese producer has with these three dairies, are essential for understanding the specific quality of Cowgirl Creamery cheeses. The Cowgirl team has always worked with dairies that echo their own philosophies about food, the environment, and how the two work together—with careful attention paid to how things are made.

All of the dairies used by Cowgirl Creamery are certified organic, and all have nutritionists to make sure that the cows are getting the nutrients that they need with zero drugs. At Straus and Bivalve, the feed includes grass, hay, corn (in dry months), and silage (pickled alfalfa). Nutrition is the biggest balancing act for these organic dairies—"The farmer is dependent on a strong cow to both produce milk and to be able to fight off infection."

The Taverna cows do not eat silage—they eat directly from the pasture itself, and when that dries out, are fed hay (alfalfa or a grass-alfalfa mix). Eric notes that John [Taverna] also feeds them grain throughout the year, "to round out the diet of the cows and keep production steady."

Sue and Peggy are both quick to note that silage is often a "maligned" feed for cows, particularly in France. The Cowgirl team hasn't had any issues with it, and credit the attention paid by their dairies who use it.

"Like anything, it depends on the quality of the silage," Peggy says. "Albert [Straus] really works on his silage, makes his own combinations, and analyzes the elements."

The close proximity of these dairies is just as important as the quality of their milk. The milk is delivered from all of their dairies raw, usually on the same day that the cheese is going to be made. The Taverna dairy has a lower milk production than the other two, so their delivery will be comprised of two days' milkings. Bivalva and Straus deliver their milk "as soon as it cools," Eric says.

"You can't make cheese with old milk," says Eric. "It doesn't set properly and leads to smaller yields. Plus, you lose the richness of flavor."

Step by Step

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St. Pat, a spring seasonal.

The first thing we learn is that once you get the cheesemaking process started, there's no stopping. "It's really immediate," Eric tells us as he leads us into the changing room. "Once you start, it's off to the races."

We suit up in lab coats, shoe-covers, and hair nets to watch the cheese in action in the Petaluma creamery. We're guided into the cheesemaking facility, through a puddle of soapy water on the floor to ensure we're not tracking anything in that could affect the still-developing cheeses.

Cowgirl makes three major categories of cheese: fresh (creme fraiche, fromage blanc), short-age (creamy cheeses, including Mount Tam, Inverness, Red Hawk, and the seasonals, which make up the bulk of their production), and long-age (Wagon Wheel). All of the cheeses, except for Red Hawk, are made here in Petaluma (more on that later).

It's about 11 a.m. on a Monday and we're just in time to catch the seasonal cheese—right now, they're working on St. Pat (made with Taverna milk), the spring cheese that will be released right around March 17th. It's wrapped in wild nettle leaves; Pierce Point is coated with summer wild flowers, Chimney Rock dusted with wild mushroom powder, and Devil's Gulch is topped with dried, ground heirloom peppers.

The milk is dropped off right outside the dairy's pasteurization room, where it's fed directly into an 800 gallon pasteurization tank (all of Cowgirl's cheeses are made with pasteurized milk). The pasteurized milk is then moved into two 400-gallon batch tanks to cool. Each batch of cheese is 400 gallons, a relatively small size considering how much cheese Cowgirl produces. They process about five to six thousand gallons of milk per week, which results in about seven thousand pounds of cheese (the overall production varies on the season; they make more during the holidays, and slightly less during the rest of the winter).

"Our cheese training in Point Reyes was based in being in close contact with the milk at all times," Eric explains. "How does it look, how does it smell? We keep things at 400 gallons per batch to maintain that."

The large, wide vats are open, and filled with creamy, golden-hued milk. As the milk cools, cheese cultures and molds are added. After 30 minutes, rennet—an enzyme that causes the milk to coagulate, or form curds—is stirred into the vats. It takes about 30 minutes for the rennet to cause the cheese to "set;" as we look at the two batches side by side, we see that one has already set, while the milk is still slowly swirling in the other. The seasonal cheeses (along with the triple creams) use microbial rennets, which, in addition to being vegetarian-friendly, are very fast acting. Wagon Wheel and Inverness use rennet formed from animal protein which is common in traditional cheesemaking practices, and allows for a slower, more consistent solidifying process.

Because we're watching the process for a seasonal cheese, it's particularly fast—these cheeses are made with all whole milk. "Mount Tam and Red Hawk, our triple cream cheeses, have pure cream added for an additional whomp of butterfat flavor," Sue tells us; the thick cream makes these first steps take a little longer. Cowgirl gets the cream delivered weekly from Petaluma-based Wallaby Yogurt, who specialize in nonfat yogurts (Sue jokes that the seasonals are therefore their "lowfat" offerings).

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Stirring.

The seasonal cheeses need about 30 minutes for the rennet to set. The vats of curd are then cut and stirred using three mechanical 'knives' that rotate in a figure-eight formation, breaking the curd into three-quarter inch cubes. The whey is drained off, and the remaining curd is piped from the tanks underground into racks of round cheese forms. All of that happens over the course of 40 minutes. The piping process is a big change from the Point Reyes creamery, where the curds and whey are literally scooped from the tank to the molds, a process that Eric describes as "back breaking."

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Cheese forms.

The cheese sits in the forms for about an hour where it drains off more of its whey. (Gravity is all that's needed for most of the cheeses, though the firm Wagon Wheel uses the aid of pneumatic pressure to really get the moisture out.)

After an hour, the seasonal cheese is removed from the mold, washed with salt water, flipped, put back in the molds, and left to sit overnight. This step allows for even more draining, making Cowgirl's creamy cheeses a little more firm than, say, a brie.

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Brine baths.

In the morning, the cheeses are removed from their molds and transferred into brine tanks, which are filled with a saturated solution of whey and salt. This solution is never changed—they'll add more salt or more liquid to it to keep it consistent, but it's rich with the microflora from every cheese that's ever gone into it. Eric believes that this ever-growing collection of yeast and bacteria adds to their cheeses' distinctive flavor profiles. Brining—for a few hours in the case of Mount Tam and several days for the Wagon Wheel—helps to form the cheese's rind during the next step.

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The brined Wagon Wheel sits on a stainless steel rack (at room temperature) for a day to allow the moisture to evaporate, then goes into its own aging room (where it sits on wooden racks). The seasonals, Mount Tam, and Inverness go directly from the brine bath to steel racks in their aging room.

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"The Wagon Wheel has different rind microflora, and needs a different environment than the bloomy rind cheeses," Eric explains. "By aging them in different rooms, we are able to dial in the exact conditions needed for each cheese and rind type."

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These 50-degree rooms are where the rinds form; the smell of rich creaminess and funky cheese (lactic fermentation, Eric says) is immediately evident. We look at cheeses that were started three days before and have no visible rind; they're still creamy and golden looking. Cheeses that are one week in show a little bit of white mold growth.

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As the rind develops, it gets massive and puffy—Eric tells us that this is mostly air, and will be tamped down when the cheeses are wrapped. In the interim, the cheeses are rotated from one rack to another twice per week. Since the cheeses continue to drain slightly, the ones that sit on higher racks are a little more dry while the ones on the bottom are more moist. Turning them helps even out moisture.

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After eleven or twelve days, the cheeses are hand wrapped in freezer paper to stunt the growth of the rind—the paper flattens out the mold, prevents it from growing outward. "Wrapping also prevents the rind from getting too thick and crunchy," Eric says.

The wrapped cheeses are boxed and stored in a walk-in fridge (which is between 38 and 40 degrees). The team continues to turn these cheeses twice a week by flipping the boxes, all the way until the point that the cheeses are released to their distributors.

"Mostly, we want to keep in mind that the cheeses are living things," Eric says.

As for the Red Hawk...

{Photo: Vicky Wasik]

Red Hawk is the one cheese that's still made in Point Reyes (19 miles away from the Petaluma creamery), and for a very specific reason: the cheese gets its red hue, and delightfully funky flavor and smell, from a wild bacteria that's in the air in Point Reyes called Bacterium Linen (or b. linen). The team stumbled across b. linen and its tasty potential for cheese by accident.

When the entire Cowgirl operation was based in Point Reyes, space was even tighter than it is now. A batch of Mount Tam was aging in the same room as a batch of cheeses in from England that Cowgirl was selling in their shop, including natural rind cheeses. Natural rind cheeses have been known to have cheese mites and, as Sue recalled, the mites "jumped over" onto the still-developing Mount Tam and starting consuming the Mount Tam's white rind.

"I got very mad!" Sue tells us, explaining that she attempted to reinoculate the cheese by washing the rind off with a brine solution. She threw the cheeses in a tupperware, put them in the walk-in fridge, and forgot about them.

"Two weeks later, we found it... I was afraid to open it!" The cheese had developed a red hue, and, upon opening the container, one heck of a smell. It was delicious.

Now, they recreate this process on purpose—the cheese is made in the same manner as Mount Tam, but exclusively using milk from Bivalve Dairy in Point Reyes. This is in part due to geography—by using milk that is produced minutes away from the Point Reyes creamery, they're able keep their carbon footprint low. What's more, the milk is produced, per Eric, "in nearly the exact microclimate of the creamery. The Red Hawk is greatly influenced by the marine climate of the Tomales Bay," he explains. "It's great to be able to build those influences by getting a milk that's similarly affected."

The Red Hawk process is very similar to Mount Tam's for the first eight days—then, at days eight, 12, and 14, it's washed in a brine solution. The initial Red Hawk recipe yields a very slightly higher-moisture curd that helps its rosy rind develop. The cheese is wrapped a little later—after 16 or 18 days.

"That wild bacteria loves moisture and salt, so adding the brine immediately attracts it," Sue says. Red Hawk has remained in Point Reyes in because the bacteria is found here; it's also "heavily influenced by the salty marine air," Eric says. No bacterial inoculation is needed to get the rind started.

Sue also notes that keeping Red Hawk very separate helps prevent all of their creamy, white rind cheeses from turning red in the aging process.

Gotta Taste Cheese to Make Cheese

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Lead cheesemaker Eric Patterson tastes every single batch of cheese every week until it's released to be sold. During our visit, Sue and Peggy both participate, along with a few others on the team.

"By tasting the cheeses regularly, when they're still too young to sell, we can catch anything that's off," Eric tells us.

"Off" often has to do with salt level; how the texture is developing; how the flavor is developing over the season. A too-thick rind, with too much grit or chewiness, is also something Eric is careful to taste for as the weeks progress. Rarely, though, is a problem unfixable.

"We almost never have to throw out batches," he says. "Most likely, a cheese is ripening more quickly than expected due to high moisture. I send those cheeses to the shop more immediately to make sure they're sold and eaten when they're at their best."

The cheeses are all laid out on paper for the tasting—batch numbers are written above each wheel, which is sliced into hearty wedges. Tasting starts with the mildest flavored cheese and goes to the strongest to avoid knocking out the palate—we begin with youngest batch of Mount Tam and end with the oldest Red Hawk. All told, there are twelve batches of Mount Tam, six Red Hawks, three Devil's Gulches, and one Wagon Wheel.

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Various batches of Mount Tam.

The differences are remarkable: we taste two Mount Tams, just four days apart in their aging cycle. The slightly older cheese already has a creamier depth to its flavor and texture. As the cheeses age, the lactic acidity decreases and that a buttery quality begins to develop.

We try a "Red Tam," or a Red Label Mount Tam, which is about 45 days old and perfectly ripe, rich with a creamy, buttery flavor. "Red Labels are sold specifically to restaurants and and distributors who will turn the cheese around quickly," Eric says.

Each taster seems notably excited about each batch of cheese—cheeses that some of them taste every single week, and probably get a little sick of from time to time.

"It's just a wonderfully complex cheese," Debra Dickerson, Cowgirl's head of sales, says after a bite of the ripe Mount Tam. "It's incredibly complex for a cheese of its age. You can't just chomp it and move on! When you really taste it... you get this amazing flavor of butter and nuts."

They're all delicious, marvelous balances of salt and richness. And whether it's bringing back cottage cheese, figuring out a recyclable shipping alternative for perishable goods at the FedEx Test Center, or cutting the costs associated with the creamery's waste water, they're constantly thinking of how to make their processes, and their cheeses, even better.

"We're all constantly paying attention—to how things made made, and to the ingredients we use, " Sue says. "That's really the spirit that was behind the start of Cowgirl."