The digital readout on the walk-in cooler displays 43 degrees as Lisbeth Goddik pulls open the door and steps inside.
Inside the dim, narrow room—Oregon State University’s equivalent to a European cheese cave—are vacuum-wrapped cheeses stacked nearly to the ceiling. For the next five months, the cheeses will slowly acquire their signature taste, texture, and appearance.
“This one was soaked in Pinot noir,” Goddik says, pointing out the rind’s deep red hue. “This one was soaked in hard cider.” All the cheeses were made by OSU students, as were the cider and Pinot noir. In the back of the cooler are cheeses that have been smoked on campus in the Clark Meat Lab; several more specialty cheeses are students’ research projects.
Cheese research conducted by graduate students is a vital component of Goddik’s Dairy Processing Extension Program, whose mission is to promote the production of safe, high-quality dairy products and to support a healthy, sustainable dairy industry in Oregon.
Goddik shuts off the light, closes the door, and resumes a tour of the dairy center. An endowed professor of dairy processing with an Extension appointment, Goddik revived OSU’s creamery in 2012. With help from the Arbuthnot family’s generous donation, Goddik built this cheese processing plant for students to experience industry standards of cheese-making. Now, there is a hum of activity. Student employees hose down the floor and scrub equipment. It is here that OSU students, under the direction of dairy pilot plant manager Robin Frojen, create award-winning Beaver Classic, a fully student-run line of artisan cheeses.
Twenty years ago, this was a storage space. Now, OSU’s dairy program has outgrown its 1,500-square-foot cheese processing area. Demand for Beaver Classic is outpacing supply. Production tripled in the last year; five varieties of cheddar are available in weekly on-campus sales and found in the upscale Market of Choice in Corvallis. McMenamins restaurants purchase hundreds of pounds of Beaver Classic each month. OSU dining services and athletics are other major customers—“students go through a lot of pizza,” Goddik laughs.
The pressure should ease, however, with the planned construction of an $18 million food and beverage facility, which will include space for innovative research, testing, and teaching related to Oregon’s dairy industry and other food and beverage industries important to Oregon.
“Our dairy processing program has been an asset to the Oregon cheese industry for more than a century; under Lisbeth’s leadership we have become a front-runner in dairy research,” says Bob McGorrin, head of the Food Science and Technology Department. “The program is integral to the success of OSU’s Oregon Quality Food and Beverage Products Initiative.”
Earlier this year, the Tillamook County Creamery Association, the dairy farmers’ co-op in northwest Oregon, announced a $1.5 million gift toward the construction of the new facility, which will propel OSU’s dairy processing program to the nation’s top echelon of university dairy programs.
“We are poised to be a premier training program in the Pacific Northwest for the next generation of dairy industry leaders,” she says. “The new center will also ramp up our Extension assistance to processors and research focused on the needs of regional dairies.”
The move to an expanded center is a milestone for Goddik, who has devoted a large part of her Extension appointment at OSU to help build an artisan cheese industry in Oregon. Artisan cheesemakers have long sensed that cheese made from locally sourced milk has a distinct flavor. It’s a concept known as terroir: the link between a food and the natural environment in which food is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography, and climate.
Terroir is closely associated with wine and studied in chocolate, coffee, tomatoes, and yes, in cheese. Cheesemakers in the Pacific Northwest, notably in Oregon’s Tillamook County, have long asserted the positive influence of terroir. In 2014, Goddik led a study that scientifically confirmed that cows in different areas of Oregon produce milk containing different lactic acid bacteria, which ultimately impact cheese characteristics.
“Terroir links back to the soil but it is more than that,” Goddik says. “It is the connection of food to its growing environment. It also connects to the traditions, the skills of the people in that region and their culture.”
Goddik’s team collected milk at different farms, brought it to OSU, standardized it so the protein fat was identical and made the cheese using the same method. Theoretically the only difference was where the milk had come from. Study volunteers who tasted the cheese weren’t asked to identify the flavors. Rather, they were asked to group them based on their differences and similarities.
The tasters grouped together cheeses made from milk from the same farm and distinctive from cheeses made with milk from other farms. OSU’s study was the first of its kind in the United States to confirm terroir in cheese.
“Oregon cheesemakers can now say, ‘Our cheese is unique. It is a reflection of who we are,’ ” Goddik says, adding that she would like to continue the research, to determine if all the cheese made here has a distinct “Oregon flavor.”
David Gremmels, president of Rogue Creamery in southern Oregon, says Goddik “has had a positive and sustainable impact on Oregon’s growing artisan cheese industry. She is educating and training the next generation of Oregon’s dairy industry leaders. For this we are grateful.”
Cheese has been around for millennia. It held a special status 5,000 years ago in Sumeria: only priests were given the knowledge of advanced cheese-making. In ancient Rome, soldiers brought cheese-making instructions with them as they traveled the empire. They developed 13 recipes from which modern cheeses originate.
“Cheese is really a miracle,” Goddik says. “Milk, salt, enzymes and bacteria—those four ingredients are in hundreds of different cheeses. Tweaks in the process result in completely different cheeses. That’s why cheese is really neat to work with.”
Making great cheese is a perfect example of applied sciences, Goddik says. “Certainly, microbiology is central; and biochemistry, as proteins and fats break down in the aging process. You need to know physics to understand the heat transfer of pasteurization. You need to know fluid dynamics to understand the impact of pumping milk and how you set up your processing facility. It’s really fun but it’s very complex.”
Danton Batty, one of Goddik’s students, is applying these sciences to his study of Camembert. Instead of a short fermentation period, he is letting the curd ferment for an entire day before it is scooped out of the vat. It’s the way the French made the cheese hundreds of years ago, and it helps the combination of moisture and drying time that gives the cheese its signature white rind.
In the dairy center, Batty opens an incubator to show a batch of his circle-shaped Camembert sitting on a tray, like cookies. The cheese will be ready to eat in three weeks.
“I eat cheese and I analyze cheese,” he says. “There’s more analysis than eating.”
Goddik provides training for all levels of artisan cheesemakers, including assistance with improvements in product quality, shelf-life, and safety. She consults closely with them to solve specific challenges, and she serves as a technical liaison with the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Division.
A number of artisan cheese entrepreneurs have also worked with OSU researchers to write business plans, a key step to success in a niche industry with high startup costs. Making cheese is a second career for many artisans so they seek out help. “They are really wonderful cheesemakers,” Goddik says,“but running a cheese business can be challenging.”