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Holiday season drives high demand for Cougar cheese

Photos by Chelsea Newman, WSU Today intern
PULLMAN – The holiday season is here, which means it’s time for warm family gatherings, delicious home-cooked meals and, of course, mass amounts of Cougar cheese.

Russ Salvadalena, WSU Creamery manager, said nearly 40,000 packages of Cougar cheese are shipped between the months of October and December, which accounts for nearly two-thirds of the creamery’s annual cheese sales.

“This is our busy time of year,” Salvadalena said. “We often run out of cheese by the time Christmas arrives.”

Big is cool and sweet

Yet, Salvadalena said the past few years the creamery has approached the holiday season with months of preparation – nearly 12 to be exact.

“We recently built a 13,000-square-foot refrigerated warehouse specifically for cheese storage,” he said. “This allows us to store up the cheese for the holiday season nearly a year before it’s here.”

Not only does this storage space allow for more efficient production during the season, but it creates an environment for the cheese to age properly, resulting in a more savory taste.

“Similar to wine, well-aged cheese is considered a delicacy,” Salvadalena said. “We age our cheese at least one year before selling it, allowing it to obtain a much sweeter taste.”

This successful aging process is due to a specific bacterium discovered in 1940, known as WSU-19, which has been preserved by the WSU Creamery and is still used in Cougar cheese.

“Most traditional cheddar cheeses develop a bitter flavor during the aging process,” Salvadalena said. “Thanks to WSU-19, as our cheese ages it develops a sweet taste rather than a bitter one, allowing white crystals – referred to by some customers as “flavor crystals” – to form. These amino-acid crystals help give the cheese its award-winning taste.”

Aging up to 50 years

Salvadalena said new packaging allows the cheese to keep longer.

“In the past, our cheese’s expiration date was limited by how long the cans could last,” he said. “But with new, more durable cans, the possibility exists that the cheese may be able to age for nearly 50 years – or more.”
Customers looking to buy the cheese have eight flavors to choose from:  Cougar Gold, American Cheddar, Smoky Cheddar, Viking, Hot Pepper, Crimson Fire, Dill Garlic and Sweet Basil.

“We are always experimenting with new flavors, yet Cougar Gold has remained the number-one seller throughout the years, making up nearly 80 percent of our annual sales,” Salvadalena said.

Marketing team increases sevenfold

While the production department is busy crafting nearly 1,800 gallons of milk each day into world-famous cheese, the creamery’s direct-marketing department is diligently taking phone calls and orders for cheese shipments – especially during this time of year.

“While we are sure to keep three full-time direct-marketing staff throughout the year, we hire almost 20 students during the holiday season to keep up with sales,” Salvadalena said. “During those months, our marketing department stays busy receiving up to 14 phone calls at a time.”

In spite of the high demand for Cougar cheese throughout the country, Salvadalena said shipping standards remain concrete.

“Our rule of thumb is to only ship to places that are 70 degrees and below,” he said. “And wherever it’s shipped to, it must be back in the fridge within a week.”

Ultimately, with the chilly weather during the fall and winter months in the Pacific Northwest, buyers should have no trouble receiving their shipments of Cougar cheese – as long as purchases are made soon.

“So far, we seem to be on par with last year’s sales,” Salvadalena said. “With an increase in production and plenty of preparation, we hope once again we have enough to go around.”

For more information on Cougar cheese or to place an order, please visit

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