PULLMAN, Wash. — Like good cheese, the Washington State University Creamery has aged well. After 50 years, its vast variety of cheeses and ice cream continues to capture the discriminating tastes of consumers. And there are more of them.
“Our production last year was around 168,000 tins of cheese,” says Creamery Manager Marc Bates, also a 1970 WSU graduate in dairy manufacturing. That compares to just over 30,000 cans in 1973, the year before he was promoted to manager.
The WSU Creamery, or simply Ferdinand’s, dates back to 1948.
When Bates began working in the creamery as a student in 1967, Cougar Gold and Cheddar were the only cheeses available. Creamery colleagues and classmates Paul Nelson and Joe Muller, both still employed in the state’s dairy industry, were continuing cheese experiments started by then creamery manager Ed Olson. Those experiments led to the introduction of Viking cheese in late 1973 or early 1974, and Smoky Cheddar in 1979.
Today, Ferdinand’s offers 10 cheeses, including Dill Garlic, Sweet Basil, Italian, Reduced Fat Viking and Cracked Pepper and Chive. Production is driven by a number of factors, primarily the need to get cheese to market quicker than Cougar Gold, which ages for a year, and the lack of storage space.
“Flavored cheeses only need to age two months before they are marketable,” Bates says.
Over the years, a number of other cheese varieties were tried. Tarragon was a hard sell, Bates said. “People just weren’t familiar with it.” Caraway was another. While people were more familiar with the seed spice, it was a “love-hate” thing. Mediterranean contained olives, but didn’t generate many sales. It was replaced by Cracked Pepper and Chive, which is doing very well.
Through the years, Cougar Gold has been the standard, commanding 75 percent of the production. None of the other nine cheeses claim more than 5 percent. Cheddar and Smoky Cheddar are in the 3-4 percent range.
WSU cheeses regularly fare well in U.S. cheese competitions sponsored by the Wisconsin Cheese Makers and the American Cheese Society. “We’ve placed in both competitions, first or second, at one time or another. Cracked Pepper and Chive earned second place in the 1997 American Cheese Society competition, and Cougar Gold won a second in the U.S. Cheese Championship last year. The ACS competition attracted more than 400 entries.
“We let the competition results speak for themselves,” Bates says with pride. “Cheese production is pretty uniform throughout the year. Our inventory has to be the shock absorber between production and sales.”
Most of the marketing is done in October, November and December. The run on cheese starts in August, when school begins, and increases just before Thanksgiving and through mid-December. “Our biggest shipments were 2,500 packages per day,” Bates says, “with four, 30-ounce tins being the average package.”
In addition to cheese, the creamery usually has up to 14 varieties of ice cream available at any one time. Cookie Dough is the most popular flavor. Chocolate Peanut butter is the best-selling chocolate ice cream. Tin Lizzy Classic is more exotic — vanilla ice cream with chocolate-covered candy and a caramel swirl.
The creamery provides an opportunity for students to work and learn while they take classes. The full-time staff numbers seven members, including Bates, but Ferdinand’s hires around 50 students to work up to 15 hours a week during the fall when mail orders are brisk. Six student-employees graduated in dairy sciences in May. All had job offers or commitments to graduate school.
Income from the creamery also helps support faculty salaries and research assistantships in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, according to Chairman Alan McCurdy.
In 1992, Ferdinand’s moved from Troy Hall to new facilities in the Food Quality Building.
“When I was hired as manager in 1974, they said there would be a new creamery,” Bates recalls. “What I didn’t pick up on was that I was going to be a major player in making that happen.”
The move and start-up required only two weeks of downtime as planned. Space increased from 10,000 to 13,000 square feet, and new equipment was installed throughout.
Bates credits Lloyd Luedecke, professor of food science and human nutrition, for sparking his interest in dairy manufacturing in an animal sciences course. Olson, who died May 30 at 87, was also his mentor.
Reflecting on nearly a quarter-century as creamery manager, Bates says, “There’s always been a challenge here. It isn’t always the same.
“I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to work with a lot of wonderful people … to see students come in, learn something and go on to be productive.”