Nearly a decade ago, Oregon State University reopened its dormant creamery in Withycombe Hall and students started making Beaver Classic cheese.
The gourmet dairy product has remained something of a secret to many mid-Willamette Valley residents, however, said Robin Frojen, creamery and cheese plant manager.
“Years later, I still struggle with the fact that people don’t know we make and sell cheese here,” Frojen added.
That low profile could be about to change.
OSU’s College of Agriculture Sciences is doing a relaunch and redesign of the Beaver Classic brand, and jerky, honey and other products created on campus will be sold online under that umbrella.
“We hope that beer gets included,” Frojen said. “This is only the beginning. In the College of Ag, we produce a lot of things,” she said.
As part of the rebranding effort, starting in the fall, agri-business students will help with facets of Beaver Classic such as inventory, marketing, sales and distribution, said Alan Sams, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences.
Currently, Frojen and her students fulfill those duties for Beaver Classic, taking orders and delivering products to local stores, wineries and breweries.
The relaunch is part of the vision of Sams, who joined OSU 2½ years ago after spending much of his career at Texas A&M. “As a new dean, I realized that we were doing lots of these different products as part of our curriculum,” Sams said. “The cheese is a great foray, but we have so much going on.”
Another major change is on the way for Beaver Classic. The university will soon embark on an upgrade and expansion of its dairy program with industry and state funds, and that includes a new creamery. “The cost of the project is about in the $20 million range,” Sams said. He stressed that the figure includes seismic enhancements and other structural improvements.
Groundbreaking is tentatively planned for 2022 with the facility opening in 2023, Sams added.
The new creamery will have modern equipment that should be able to double OSU’s cheese production of 15,000 pounds per year, Frojen estimated. And that will be critical, since she expects demand for OSU products to skyrocket.
That’s already happened to a certain degree, just due to an announcement earlier this month about the Beaver Classic relaunch.
“I spent this morning doing 100 orders,” Frojen said on a recent weekday. In years past, the volume would have been typical for the peak holiday rush for Beaver Classic. Now it’s a regular occurrence.
The university will step up its efforts to promote and sell its Beaver Classic cheese and other items, but Sams said that the cheese also will promote OSU, and not just because of the quality of the product.
The food illustrates the hands-on learning that happens on campus and boosts the visibility of the College of Agriculture, he added. “It’s a great vehicle for us to tell our story about our student experience,” Sams said.
“Our curriculum has a lot of experiences in it. Our students can only learn so much out of a book,” he said.
Frojen agreed the experiential learning that happens at the OSU creamery and cheese plant is something that can’t be taught in a textbook, such as the way a cheese curd feels when it’s ready.
“This allows me to teach students how to be successful out in the real world,” Frojen said.
And that helps attract students to the Corvallis campus.
Melanie Hanlon, a graduating senior from Petaluma, California, said she chose OSU to study food science in part because of the cheese program, and the fact that Beaver Classic is sold both on campus and in local stores, such as Market of Choice and the First Alternative Co-op.
Kadi Atiyeh of Boring, who also is studying at the OSU Creamery, said she’s taking a food safety class right now. “Actually doing it is different,” she added. Atiyeh said it was important for her studies to learn what life was like in a processing plant.
In much the same way, agricultural business students will get a taste of the real world with the Beaver Classic line, Sams said. And there aren’t many opportunities like this throughout the nation, he added.
Students in the fall will begin to build the Beaver Classic brand and then operate the business. “To do it year-round, to do it and have a retail presence, that’s really unique about the Beaver Classic program,” Sams said.
“I think it would be very appealing to a prospective student to get actual business experience,” he said.
There are currently 100 agribusiness students at OSU, and Sams expects between a dozen to two dozen to work on Beaver Classic — roughly the same amount of undergraduate students Frojen has at the creamery and cheese plant.
The creamery on campus used to be well-known around Corvallis and a spot for out-of-towners to visit due to an inexpensive and tasty treat. “Anybody over 60 remembers coming here and getting ice cream,” Frojen said.
But when Frojen studied food sciences at Oregon State as an undergraduate, the facility had been mothballed for decades.
Things started back up in 2010, the first Beaver Classic cheeses hit the shelves in 2012 and Frojen started managing the creamery and cheese plant seven years ago.
There currently are 16 undergraduate students under Frojen at the creamery, with some focusing on dairy and others studying fermentation. They mainly come from the West Coast, but there also have been students from all across the United States and even other countries.
“We’re producing some of the more sought-after students in the country. This year, we have 100% job placement,” Frojen said.
OSU’s impact on the Oregon dairy industry is similar to its influence on the tight-knit microbrewing field, Frojen explained. There isn’t a creamery in the state that doesn’t have an OSU graduate as an employee, she added.
The Beaver Classic cheese sold at the relaunched online store now includes three varieties: cheddar, dill garlic cheddar, and gochu cheddar.
The offerings will soon include smaller batches, however. Students are constantly “fiddling” and playing with new flavors and varieties, including spiced curds, Frojen said.
“I don’t stop my students from playing. The brand new dill garlic was from a ‘play date,’” she added.
She said that, in a way, her students have the coolest job on campus. “It’s a bunch of foodies doing exactly what they want to do,” Frojen said.
Students also get to see their cheese out in stores, and that’s a big boost for the ego. “You can’t beat that. For some people, that’s a dream to get their products on the shelves,” Frojen added.
The field isn’t all excitement, of course. Between flavorful aha moments, cheese production can be dull, and 90% of the effort is put into cleaning vats and tables. On May 17, “A lot of our morning was spent looking at milk like you’re watching paint dry,” Frojen said.
Her favorite variety of cheese from the OSU Creamery is smoked Swiss, which was created specifically to be used on Reuben sandwiches. OSU’s Swiss cheese is made via a process that results in a creamier cheese with fewer “eyes,” and it melts better than the Swiss cheese found in stores, Frojen said.
Frojen also is fond of the gochu cheddar, made with Korean chilies. “This is my new favorite thing to put on tacos, any tacos,” Frojen said.
Frojen said if she could eat one cheese for the rest of her life, it would be Rogue River Blue, which was recently named the best cheese in the world.
“When I was a student, I’d go to the (First Alternative) Co-op and get the tiniest of slivers because that’s all I could afford,” Frojen recalled.
The new facility will give OSU the ability to do blue cheese and other products, which Frojen is looking forward to.
During construction of the new creamery, however, Frojen will have to figure out how to maintain orders for Beaver Classic, since cheese production will shut down.
She’s currently trying to stockpile cheese to meet that future demand.
The closure, however, will allow her to turn students’ attention on a brand new retro product for OSU.
“When they have the creamery shut down, we’ll be making ice cream,” Frojen said. She’s hoping to sell Beaver Classic ice cream in stores and re-create a scoop shop to draw people to campus, just like in the old days.
Frojen describes herself as a mix of old school and new school.
“We’ve got a lot of old traditions that come with dairy and cheese making in general. We pasteurize milk the same way they did 100 years ago,” she said.
At times, Frojen is out at farms picking up milk in milk cans — she even has a tattoo of a milk can on her left arm, which is covered with food-related tattoos, as well as a character from the movie “Despicable Me.”
“They call me Dairy Fairy, Queen of the Milk Minions,” Frojen laughed.
Like any foodie, Frojen is trying to stay ahead of the game.
“The fun thing is trying to pay attention to trends and see where food flavors are headed,” Frojen said.
Kyle Odegard can be contacted at 541-812-6077 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter via @KyleOdegard.