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The Cougar Gold rush is on: The holiday season means booming business for WSU Creamery and its signature cheese in a can

Nov. 1, 2022 Updated Thu., Nov. 3, 2022 at 11:30 a.m.

By Adriana Janovich For The Spokesman-Review

PULLMAN – Nial Yager lifted the lid on a stainless steel vat, revealing liquid Gold.

The milky mixture, he explained, will eventually become Washington State University’s signature cheese, cut into 800 rounds weighing nearly 2 pounds each. They’ll be aged for a year, ready for retail just in time for the 2023 holiday season.

“Our goal is to not run out at Christmas,” Yager said. “Last year, we ran out in early December.”

WSU’s famed Cougar Gold accounts for about 80% of the WSU Creamery’s total cheese production. Still, it’s difficult to keep up with demand. The award-winning sharp white cheddar enjoys a cult-like following, especially among WSU alumni.

“It is, frankly, one of the best cheddars ever,” said Jerome Parmentier, a Yakima banker who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business at WSU. “You’re not going to find a better cheese to go with wine than aged Cougar Gold.”

Next year marks 75 years of Cougar Gold. The coveted canned cheese has been made by students and packaged in cans since its début in 1948.

Sales spike this time of year, with Thanksgiving and Christmas just around the corner. Cougar Gold is a tradition on holiday tables and as hostess gifts and stocking stuffers.

In fact, WSU Creamery typically sells two-thirds of its cheese in the last third of the year.

But, in January 2021, near the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, sales saw “the most significant bump” WSU Creamery manager John Haugen, a 1993 WSU graduate, has ever seen. Bon Appétit magazine featured Cougar Gold in its “Highly Recommend” column, deeming it “absolutely incredible” and underscoring what Cougs and other Cougar Gold fans have known for decades.

“There’s nothing like it,” said Parmentier, who keeps several cans in his refrigerator including several that “date to 1999 and 2000, maybe 2001. It ages in the can. This is the only cheese you can take home and age on your own.”

More on that later.

Meantime, Haugen said, three days during the holiday season normally might draw 1,500 orders. Over the three-day weekend following the Bon Appétit review, the WSU Creamery received nearly 3,000 orders. And orders remained higher than normal for the next couple of weeks.

The WSU Creamery might see another bump. Last week, America’s Test Kitchen also reviewed the canned cheese. “It was ‘sharp’ and impressively ‘complex,’ with a milky sweetness that lingered. It had lots of the crunchy crystals we love in Parmigiano-Reggiano and other aged cheeses but retained a ‘buttery richness.’ One person went so far as to call it ‘phenomenal,’” Kate Shannon wrote on Oct. 27.

The headline: “Cheese in a Can That’s Actually Good.”

The subheadline: “Trust us. It’s delicious.”

(You can trust me, too.)

Buying Cougar Gold directly from the WSU Creamery saves customers money. Ferdinand’s Ice Cream Shoppe, which is attached to the creamery on the WSU Pullman campus, sells Cougar Gold for $24 per can, and there’s a 40-can per-person limit on the specialty cheese. (You read that right: A 40-can limit.)

Cougar Gold is $40 per can at the vending machine at the Moscow-Pullman Regional Airport as well as regional grocery stores. It goes for $35 at the Brelsford WSU Visitor Center and as much as $75 – or more – on Amazon. Stop by the Bookie at WSU-Spokane, in the Academic Center at 600 N. Riverpoint Blvd., and get a can for $34. Though maybe not today; they were out of stock of Cougar Gold on Monday, but had other varieties available.

The WSU Creamery will also ship it to customers far and wide, starting at $30 per can.

Cougar Gold that’s aged longer than a year costs more. At Ferdinand’s, Cougar Gold aged for two years sells for $32 and Cougar Gold aged three years sells for $37.

“Cougar Gold is even better if it’s got a few years under its belt,” Parmentier said. “You get that balance of sharpness and nuttiness and tang. It’s a unique tang. The only other cheese that even comes close is Beecher’s (Flagship), and it’s not the same.”

Beecher’s Handmade Cheese founder Kurt Dammeier graduated from WSU in 1982. Its Flagship cheese, inspired by Cougar Gold, offers slightly more butterfat, a creamier texture, and a sweeter, earthier flavor.

Sometime in the first decade of the 2000s, Parmentier opened a can of Cougar Gold from 1995. “It was far sharper than (year-old Cougar Gold) and much crumblier,” he said. “I recall making a mac and cheese with it that was to die for.”

Of the Cougar Golds he’s aged at home, “I’ve never had one be bad. They’re a little different. They’ve shrunk a little, and they’ve concentrated. But the experience is sublime. As long as you keep them cold, they just get better.”

Cougar Gold is No. 1. The WSU Creamery sold 194,629 cans of its top specialty cheese in 2021, up from 189,762 cans in 2020. Last year, it made 266,475 cans of cheese in all, including Cougar Gold.

Its cousins, Natural Cheddar and Smoky Cheddar, tie for the WSU Creamery’s next top-sellers. Crimson Fire! – the exclamation point is part of its official name – comes in third. That cheese gets its kick from a combination of cayenne and jalapeño peppers. It’s one of several in WSU Creamery’s line of Viking cheeses.

Viking is a creamy, white, semisoft cheese similar to Monterey jack. Flavored versions include Dill Garlic, Sweet Basil and Hot Pepper (with jalapeños). Seasonal flavors include Cracked Pepper & Chive and Red Pepper Garlic, flavored with garlic and cayenne peppers.

Cracked Pepper & Chive is a favorite of Kaitlyn Eslick, a 21-year-old WSU senior from Kettle Falls. “I like all of the Viking flavors,” she said. Actually, “All of the cheese is good. I like Cougar Gold, too.”

The architectural studies major has worked at the WSU Creamery for two and a half years and likes the job because “you get weekends off and they always work with your class schedule and you get a pay raise every semester.”

Another perk: “We try to keep cheese in the break room,” said Yager, who came to Pullman from Ephrata in the late 1980s for college and stayed for the cheese.

“One summer, my roommate and I decided to stay in Pullman. I needed a job to pay rent, and they needed someone to drive the milk truck. I applied and never left.”

WSU Creamery typically employs about 65 students at any given time. Most work in production. About a third work at Ferdinand’s. A handful do direct marketing. Last year, 101 students in all put in 41,800 hours.

Food scientists at what was then Washington State College began researching packaging hard cheeses in cans in the 1930s. Back then, cheese was traditionally sealed in wax, which sometimes cracked and spoiled the cheese. In the 1940s, responding to a need for more canned foods during World War II, the U.S. government and American Can Company, which manufactured food packaging, invested in the research.

Professor Norman Shirley Golding, who – along with WSU’s cougar mascot – was the namesake for Cougar Gold, discovered that adding a second starter culture greatly reduced the cheese’s carbon dioxide production, lessening the tendency for cans to bulge or burst. Golding’s starter culture not only made it possible to can Cougar Gold, it gave the cheese its particular flavor and finish.

“We’re still using his starter,” said Yager, who started working at the WSU Creamery in 1988 as a physics student, became a full-time staff member in 1992 and, in 2012, passed the American Cheese Society’s Certified Cheese Professional Exam.

That’s right, he’s a certified cheese whiz.

Not only is he a buyer, planner and quality control specialist at the WSU Creamery, he’s a bona fide cheese connoisseur who’s judged national and international cheese competitions in Wisconsin, the cheese capital of America.

“All the judges there know about Cougar Gold,” he said. “It’s a standard.”

Cougar Gold is made Monday through Thursday. Friday is for making Viking and flavored Viking cheeses. Those only take about eight hours to go from milk to can.

Cougar Gold takes a good 24 or 25 hours to go from milk to can. Aging the cheese a year or more further develops its crumbly texture and sharper, tangier taste.

Milk comes from WSU’s dairy herd. But it’s not quite enough. So WSU also buys milk from the University of Idaho, 8 miles away in Moscow. Last year, it bought 5,071,206 pounds, or 589,675 gallons, of milk. In addition to cheese, it’s also used to make ice cream for Ferdinand’s in flavors such as Cougar Tracks and Apple Cup Crisp.

Cheese-making starts early. Students are scheduled to work around their classes and exams. The first shift arrives at 7 a.m.

Milk is picked up daily and stored in five tanks: two that hold 25,000 pounds, another two that hold 6,500 pounds, and one that holds 40,000 pounds.

From those tanks, milk is pumped into a high-temperature, short-time pasteurizer, which heats the raw milk to at least 161 degrees Fahrenheit and holds it at that temperature for at least 15 seconds. It’s cooled to 88 degrees before entering the cheese vat, where the starter bacteria and coagulating agent rennet are added.

It takes about 20 minutes for the mixture to coagulate and another 10 for a mechanized blade to cut the future Gold into ½- to ¼-inch curds.

Then, the vat empties 15,500 pounds, or just over 1,800 gallons, of curds and whey onto an oblong finishing table, where student workers undertake the cheddaring process. They rake the curds, separating them from the whey, then cut them into loaves, turning and stacking them to drain off even more whey and allow acidity to develop.

After about two and a half hours, the loaves are cut into 1-inch cubes, salted, and pressed into hoops. Each hoop holds the equivalent of nine cans of cheese.

Once shaped, the curds are unmolded, wrapped in cheesecloth, then repacked into the hoops to be pressed overnight. WSU Creamery has four cheese presses: three that hold 60 hoops and one that holds 45.

In the morning, student workers will unmold and wire-cut the cheese, then place the rounds into 30-ounce cans to be machine-sealed, X-rayed, and placed in refrigerated storage to age for a year.

Parmentier isn’t sure when he’ll open the cans he’s been keeping at home. He’s waiting for the right moment with the right people, people who appreciate Cougar Gold as much as he does, people who understand the monumentality of cracking a can of 20-year-old Cougar Gold.

“You don’t really know what the cheese is going to taste like,” he said. “There’s a mystery behind it. You’re certain it’s going to be excellent. But how excellent is it going to be?”

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