The packages in a Washington State University warehouse are addressed to distant cities in Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania and Missouri. They’re consumer testimonials to the far-flung appeal of Cougar Gold.
The WSU Creamery will ship about 50,000 boxes of the crumbly, white cheddar – which comes in an iconic gold-striped can – and other Cougar-brand cheeses this holiday season. Some of the shipments are Christmas gifts for distant alumni, who yearn for a taste of the Palouse.
“Yesterday, it was a woman who graduated in ’52, who’s still ordering her Cougar Gold,” said Andrea Hefte, an assistant in the WSU Creamery’s call center, where 13 workers process phone and Internet orders.
But about half of Cougar cheese orders are placed by people with no WSU affiliation. They discovered the brand somewhere else.
“The cheese sells itself in a lot of ways,” Hefte said. “I take orders from Tillamook, Oregon; Vermont and Wisconsin. … I like to tell myself that those customers know good cheese when they taste it.”
The WSU Creamery sells about $5.5 million of Cougar-brand cheese each year, with the majority of the sales occurring between Thanksgiving and Christmas. A 30-ounce can of cheese costs $18, plus shipping and handling.
Last week, the WSU Creamery shipped out 8,000 boxes of cheese on a single day. After a 12-hour day in the shipping department, “I had a couple of dreams about boxing cheese,” said Brett Pinkleton, a student worker.
In addition to Cougar Gold, the WSU Creamery sells seven other varieties of cheese. Cougar Gold, however, remains the most popular variety, accounting for about 80 percent of the sales.
The recipe hasn’t changed in more than 60 years, when dairy professor N.S. Golding developed a white cheddar that could ripen in a can. Beginning in the 1930s, food scientists at WSU started researching how to package hard cheeses in cans. The U.S. government later funded some of the research in response to the need for more canned goods during World War II.
But carbon dioxide produced by the bacteria in cheese was an impediment, causing cans of cheese to bulge or even burst. Golding solved the problem when he discovered that adding a second starter culture to the cheese reduced the carbon dioxide output.
Cougar Gold was named for Golding. His namesake cheese is more crumbly than traditional cheddar, and the taste is more complex. Some people compare the flavor to Swiss or Gouda, said Russ Salvadalena, WSU Creamery manager.
“A lot of customers intentionally age it,” he said of Cougar Gold. “The flavor gets nuttier, but the cheese stays smooth and sweet.”
WSU Creamery employs between 40 and 75 workers in retail sales, production and direct marketing, depending on the time of year. Profits from sales of Cougar cheese support WSU’s School of Food Science, including student scholarships.
Cheese production takes place Monday through Friday, with the creamery turning out 1,500 pounds per day. One of the jobs is to pick up the milk at 4:30 each morning. The milk used in cheese production comes from 170 Holstein dairy cows managed by the Animal Sciences Department.
The cheese ages for a year in a climate-controlled warehouse, which is kept at 45 degrees. Until 2007, the WSU Creamery sold out of Cougar cheese each year, but an expansion has allowed the creamery to keep up with demand, Salvadalena said.
Cougar Gold got a plug from Women’s Day magazine this year, which recommended the cheese as a Christmas gift for food lovers in its December issue.
But once you give a gift of Cougar cheese, you have to continue the tradition, said Brandi Ellison, the WSU Creamery’s warehouse manager.
She sends Cougar Gold to her grandfather, chiropractor, babysitter and the Schwan’s man; dill garlic cheese to her parents; and a semisoft hot-pepper variety to her sister. Her in-laws get Crimson Fire, which has jalapeño and cayenne peppers.
“If you send them Cougar cheese one year and don’t send it the next, they think you’re mad at them,” Ellison said.