No matter how you slice it, the Tillamook Cheese Factory is a mooooving experience.
People make pilgrimages for all sorts of reasons, but for 86-year-old MikeMcCoy, the reason was cheese.
This past summer, McCoy came across a loaf of Tillamook cheddar that he had somehow lost track of after storing it away in 1974. A longtime fan of naturally aged Tillamook cheese (a brand sold mainly in the western United States), McCoy grabbed the block of cheddar and traveled from his Idaho home to the small coastal town of Tillamook, Ore.—perhaps the one place where people would look at a 26-year-old hunk of cheese and reach for a cracker.
In Tillamook, where cheese is so revered that the high school football team is named the Cheesemakers and where cows in the region outnumber people two to one, ground zero for cheese mania is the Tillamook Cheese Factory on Highway 101. It annually churns out more than 60 million pounds of cheese and attracts nearly a million visitors. Given Tillamook's passion for all things lactose, cheese factory employees beheld McCoy's Nixon administration-era block of cheddar with an awe usually reserved for unearthed Pompeii artifacts—and started lining up for a nibble. Despite the cheese's extremely sharp aftertaste, those who sampled the antique chedder were amazed at how well it had held up.
If you associate the Pacific Coast more with Monterey Bay than Monterey Jack, Tillamook—which lies in a valley sandwiched between a broad bay and jagged mountains—might seem like an odd site for a cheese-making industry. In fact, Tillamook is to cheese what Napa is to wine. Early pioneers recognized that the valley's long rainy season produced lush grasslands that were ideal for dairy farming. With so much milk on hand, it was only a matter of time before small, local cheese-making businesses sprang up. Through consolidation, those enterprises evolved over the years into the county's one remaining—albeit massive—cheese factory.
The best way to savor your visit is to stop off first at one of the factory's two ice cream counters. They feature dozens of Tillamook brand flavors, including Oregon strawberry, marionberry pie, and wild huckleberry. Trek upstairs to the observation area, which provides an unobstructed view of the airplane hangar-sized factory floor below. Video screens explain the cheese-making process from start to finish.
First, barracks-sized vats gently heat and stir 25,000-gallon batches of milk to a custardy consistency. From there, a contraption called the cheddarmaster—imagine a clothes dryer as big as highway billboard—separates the curds (milk solids) from the whey (the frothy liquid) and slices the curds into finger-sized pieces. Pillar-like pressing towers then squeeze the curds into 40-pound blocks of cheese.
In contrast with the cheese-making room, where a half dozen white-garbed workers go about their jobs with hushed intensity, the tempo in the adjoining packaging room is reminiscent of Lucy Ricardo in the candy factory. There, some two dozen workers oversee an array of whirring machines that weigh, slice, and package the 40-pound cheese blocks into smaller sizes. Along the serpentine conveyor belts, fast-fingered workers can process more than one hundred cheese bricks a minute. If you happen to see someone walking around in a white lab coat embroidered with "Rabbi," you've arrived on a day when the factory produces kosher-certified cheese.
Be sure to stop at the factory's tasting room and two gift shops, which sell an array of bovine-themed memorabilia (Bossie-shaped salt and pepper shakers, coffee mugs, and Holstein-colored socks with udderly whimsical pink toes), as well as a full assortment of Tillamook cheddar, sharp, and extra sharp cheeses that have been aged for more than 15 months. Of course, compared with Mike McCoy's private stock, 15-month-old cheese is barely out of the cow.
To find out more, phone (503) 815-1300 or go to
Photography by C. Bruce
Forster/Viewfinders and Viewfinders
This article was first published in January 2001. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.