“When I get introduced to people for the first time and I tell them I make Cougar Gold cheese, they don’t believe me,” says Sarah Beale, head cheesemaker at WSU Creamery. “It’s kind of fun. Especially locally, everyone knows Cougar Gold.”
Beale has managed WSU’s day-to-day cheese-making operations for three years. One of the most difficult parts of the job: training and scheduling the approximately 40 student employees.
“Scheduling is crazy,” Beale says. “If we’re doing a double-batch day, a cheesemaker and pasteurizer need to be here by 3:45 a.m. on Mondays and 4:45 a.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The rest come in at 7.”
Because of classes, students often only work limited hours or in short blocks. Beale sometimes schedules students for as few as two hours at a time. They’re required to put in a minimum of 10 hours per week. But they’re capped at 20 hours per week.
“While they’re going to school, that is the priority,” Beale says. “We understand school comes first and often schedule around big tests. We have a totally different schedule for finals week.”
Summers, some 20 to 25 students help make WSU cheese. During the academic year, the number jumps to 36 to 40. And there’s plenty of competition for those positions. “We get around 80 applications each semester,” Beale says. “We have students from all different backgrounds and degree programs.”
They do a variety of jobs on the creamery floor—from pasteurizing raw milk to cheddaring, including separating curds and whey. “We try and mimic industry where we can because this is supposed to be a learning experience for our students.”
But Beale says, “Only a handful of students get to have their name on a can. That is one of the big perks of being a cheesemaker. It’s a really exciting thing for the students, too. We only choose a select few. We aim for five student cheesemakers, one for each day of the work week. It seems as soon as you get someone trained up, they’re graduating. It’s just continuous. We’re constantly training new cheesemakers.”
Most days, Beale leaves her home north of Colfax at 5:30 a.m. in order to be at work by 6:30 a.m. Washington State University’s signature canned cheese as well as its Smoky Cheddar and Natural Cheddar counterparts take just over 24 hours to go from raw milk to the can. Viking cheeses, with their higher moisture content and lower acidity, are processed and canned in eight to ten hours.
“We’re in the process of increasing production,” Beale says. “It’s half technology, half art. There’s a lot of science behind it, but it’s also a lot of feel.”
One of the best parts of her job: quality control (read: cheese tasting). “We taste it regularly just to make sure the flavor is what we’re after,” Beale says. “And we always save a can from each batch just in case we need to test it later. In three years I’ve been here we’ve not had to open one.”
Don’t ask her to pick one favorite. “I have a lot of favorite flavors,” she says. “The Gold is obviously very good. I probably prefer the Viking cheeses, which are closer to a Monterey cheese. And we have lots of flavors. We have a seasonal Cracked Pepper and Chive, and it’s so good.”
How long can Cougar Gold age in can? “As long as it’s refrigerated, indefinitely,” Beale says. “It just keeps getting sharper.”
Her favorite way to enjoy it is simply “with crackers and summer sausage. I like to savor it.”
Read more about WSU staff members and their work.
From the archives
- Crème de la crème: Ferdinand’s by the numbers
- How Washington tastes: The apple meets Cougar Gold
- How Cougar Gold made the world a better place