A report from the road by Emiliano Lee.

Amongst my duties as Specialty Buyer, Forager & Educator, I maintain close relationships with those artisans whose products we feature on our market shelves and menus… and sometimes this belabors me to tackle such daunting endeavors as eating cheese and drinking beer… sometimes at the same time!

This is precisely what I took upon myself this last weekend at the Oregon Cheese Festival hosted at Rogue Creamery in picturesque Central Point by the Oregon Cheese Guild. When my days off lined up and an email from Rogue Creamery owner (and past American Cheese Society president) David Gremmels found it’s way into my inbox saying they heard I was thinking about coming and had a room for me at the cottage across the street from the creamery; there was no further question as to what I was going to do!

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I flew up straight from work at Farmshop in Santa Monica on Friday and met my housemates for the weekend: Tim Healy (Rogue’s NW Sales Manager) and Steve Jones (owner of Cheese Bar in Portland, a must visit for any fan of fromage). Joining us throughout the weekend would be Rogue’s head monger and shop manager, Tom Van Voorhees. Aside from personally and professionally, as Trade VP for the California Artisan Cheese Guild, I was excited to see how our brothers and sisters to the north got down. I was certainly not disappointed.

Saturday was met with scores of visitors from near and afar. I met one fellow who drove all the way from San Luis Obispo specifically for the day’s festivities. Just outside the cottage, dairy farmers had brought a couple newborn Holstein cows in all their black & white cuteness and set up bales of hay so kids (and kids at heart!) could come and pet, hug, and be licked by the future milkers.

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Crossing the street to Rogue Creamery, we paid a visit to Tom at work, getting a little tour of the joint, exploring the selections he’s gathered for sale, and admiring the scores of ribbons, trophies, and awards Rogue’s cheeses have won. If you’re ever passing through southern Oregon, you should swing by Rogue Creamery for a visit. Alongside a bevy of their blue cheeses and cheddars, they also offer an impressive array of other wheels from either side of the Atlantic. Taste through with their hospitable mongers, browse the shelves for snacks and souvenirs, or grab a beverage and sit outside with a grilled cheese sandwich hot off the presses.

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From the shop, we strode into the big top and joined the masses in celebration of the curd. Hundreds gathered together meeting cheese makers, vintners, brewers, bakers, canners, and more in a fermentation festival of epic proportions. We tasted our way through the crowd, enjoying old favorites and new finds, reuniting with visiting colleagues, and greeting others on their home turf including our friends from River’s Edge Chèvre showing off their latest award for best American cheese from the World Cheese Awards for their Up In Smoke.

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Our friends Sarah & Jim of Briar Rose Creamery were down from Dundee, OR as well showcasing their cheeses which have been tasting especially lovely lately. It’s been wonderful seeing Sarah’s skills develop and mature and her cheeses along with them, and we’re proud to feature them when we can in our case and on the menu from time to time.

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Before overloading our senses and stomachs beyond recovery, Steve and I took a walk along the Bear Creek Greenway where in the stretch of a few miles we saw mallards, Canadian geese, skinks, muskrats, a stork, and even a great blue heron. Taking in the local wildlife and clearing our heads with the crisp clean air, we prepared ourselves for the evenings festivities at David and Cary’s place, a celebration not only of the 10th annual Oregon Cheese Festival but of Rogue Creamery’s 80th anniversary!

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Surrounded by our colleagues, a plethora of cheese industry luminaries including Peg & Sue from Cowgirl Creamery, Allison Hooper of Vermont Creamery, our hosts David & Cary of Rogue Creamery, authors Janet Fletcher and Max McCalman, and a slew of mongers, makers, and industry friends partaking of local cheeses, beer, wine, and a lovely spread from New Seasons Market’s Jamie Powell & chef Rodney Woodley. We watched the moonrise over the mountains, enjoying rare company sharing stories and talking shop into the night.

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Sunday brought day two with the inaugural “Double EE Festival” which paired chEEse and bEEr (get it?) by partnering cheese makers with brewers to present their perfect match of cheese and beer. We spent the afternoon listening to presentations from judges Janet Fletcher (author, SF Chronicle), Lassa Skinner (Culture Magazine), and Steve Jones (Cheese Bar) before each of the teams took turns speaking about their collaborations.

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At the end of the day, after all the scoresheets were tallied, and the top two picks earning the judges accolades and people’s choice were:

Pholia Farms’ Smoked Covered Bridge with Wild River Brewery’s Firefighter smoked red ale
Briar Rose Creamery’s Fresh Chèvre with Coalition Brewing’s Bourbon Dog imperial ipa

These two tied on my scorecard as both were tremendous pairings, but while the relationship and store of the first pairing was unmatched (the cheese was washed with brown ale from the brewery before being smoked, and the smoked red ale was made in tribute to Oregon’s courageous firefighters), I must say the flavor experience Briar Rose presented was one of the most dynamic and transformative pairings I’ve ever had the pleasure to experience taking two incredible elements on their own to create something more than just the sum of it’s parts.

A great end to the festivities! Afterwards, we all embraced our goodbyes until the next festival or conference fates to bring us all together again once more… likely at this year’s American Cheese Society conference which will be held in Sacramento, the farm to fork capitol of the country! Cheers to good cheese, good beer, and good friends!

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