Like A Fine Cheddar, Tillamook Creamery Only Gets Better With Age

Tillamook Creamery is not your typical dairy operation. Veritable dairy queens of the industry, this pioneering company has been operating along the Oregon coast for more than a century. Along the way, they have amassed a revered reputation as a farmer-owned co-op that creates a sustainable economy for farming families as well as everyone involved along the subsequent production chain. Considering Tillamook Creamery has been dealing in dairy since 1909, sustainable success is clearly a company tenet, and like any of the Tillamook's prized cheddars, it only gets better with age.

Nowadays, while a far cry from its scrappy roots, "The House Cheddar Built" is an epicenter of dairy, all diligently produced with the company's holistic philosophies while continuing to innovate, evolve, and raise the bar on the industry standard. Upon a recent immersive visit to this creamy wonderland, I got a taste — literally and figuratively — of how Tillamook toes that line between wholesome tradition and dazzling innovation, all while prioritizing the health and well-being of cows and the farming community at large.

It's basically dairy Disneyland

"The House Cheddar Built" is more than a mere creamery — it's basically dairy Disneyland. Last summer, when I drove from Portland to the coast for sunset, I drove through Tillamook and passed the colossal creamery, unmissable with its theme park-sized parking lots and mosh pit-like ice cream crowd. I had no idea the public could even visit Tillamook Creamery, let alone tour it. Apparently, I'm late to the party, because the creamery is one of the most visited tourist attractions in all of Oregon — with well over 1 million annual visitors, and up to 17,000 per day, it attracts more than double the annual visitors to Oregon's Crater Lake National Park. 

Tillamook's main creamery is a breathtaking piece of architecture. Far more modern than I was expecting, it looks more like a Smithsonian-sized museum. The striking facility, designed by Seattle architects Olson-Kundig, is made to resemble a contemporary barn – so contemporary, I'd say, that I could see The Met Gala taking place here. A billboard-sized portrait of a cow named Flower greets guests at the entrance, beckoning them into a dairy dreamscape bedecked in cheddar-esque art blocks strung from the ceiling. I felt like I was entering a safe version of Jurassic Park, curious about what lay behind those mighty doors.

It's like exploring Willy Wonka's cheese factory

Setting foot inside the colossal creamery, clad in cheesy art (literally) and history exhibits, I felt like I won a ticket to the Wonka factory — but instead of chocolate and Oompa Loompas, it was cheddar and cows. Like a kid in a candy store, I was free to explore, shop, taste, and get hands-on with cow replicas and other interactive exhibits. I swung by The Morning Star ship, anchored out front, for a photo op, then hit up the FAO Schwarz-sized gift shop. A far cry from your run-of-the-milk gift shop (pun intended) though, this sprawling space feels more like a dairy toy store, featuring hundreds of flavors of cheddar, yogurt, and ice cream, along with cone-shaped mugs, quirky butter trays, Oregon-shaped cutting boards, cow-clad socks, cheesy cookbooks, and much more. My pup can personally vouch that the cheddar-shaped dog toy was a real winner. 

To dig a little deeper, I joined a tour (the creamery offers them for free) and learned about the timeline of the cheese-making titan at the Farm Exhibit, and watched how the cheddar gets made from the Viewing Gallery. I felt like a voyeur overlooking a sea of cheese — cheddar whirling along conveyor belts like some kind of roller coaster. There are other experiences available as well, like a guided tour with a cheese tasting and an exclusive ice cream experience that includes the inside scoop — and actual scoops — from on-site ice cream experts.

Ice cream worth screaming over

It might be "The House Cheddar Built," but ice cream played a crucial role in expanding Tillamook Creamery's prowess as a dairy destination worth screaming for. And indeed, I screamed. Although ice cream wasn't part of the original business plan, the surplus of farm-fresh milk leant itself to some inevitable recipe tinkering, and I'm so glad it did, because even as someone who doesn't really care about ice cream generally (I know, I know), this stuff is utterly habit-forming. 

I recalled my summer drive to the coast, seeing a line for ice cream longer than those for rides at literal Disneyland. After one bite of buttery-smooth Neapolitan, the flavor of Oregon strawberry as bright as sunshine, I understood the hype. That's kudos to Ian Moppert, Tillamook's Ice Cream Scientist, who uses his background in food safety, fermentation science, and dairy chemistry to develop recipes using a higher butter fat content to create a creamier and richer product that coats the palate. It's on deck, in a dizzying array of flavor options, at the ice cream counter in the creamery, where you'll probably need to wait in a line — but trust me, it's well worth it. While Tillamook ice cream can be found in freezer aisles all over the country, nowhere else will you find the full slate of flavors — both seasonal and evergreen — then at the on-site scoop shop, where more than two dozen flavors are available for tasting, including birthday cake, banana split, monster cookie, and mountain huckleberry. 

Tillamook's sustainable savory food is just as scream-worthy

From literal farm-to-table, Tillamook is a brand that walks the walk. Enter: Jocelyn Bridson, Director of Environment + Community Impact, who I met over dinner at nearby Meridien Restaurant & Bar, where I learned about the company's strategies to reduce water, waste, and energy from farm to plant. Brisdon also oversees community investments, including causes that enrich the agricultural economy and food security. Tillamook's Climate Action Plan is a goal to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 — and reduce emissions by 30% by 2030 — as well as transition 100% of its electricity to renewable sources, cut food waste in processing plants by 50%, switch delivery trucks to low-carbon fuels, and employ dairy biodigesters to convert manure into renewable natural gas. 

From those sustainable roots comes Tillamook's commitment to quality. This became apparent meeting Jill Allen, Director of Product Excellence in R+D, who oversees the cheddar-aging program and employs a sommelier-like savvy while tasting cheeses to ensure consistency. Then comes Josh Archibald, Tillamook's executive chef, who creates menus for the sleek dining hall that honor its prized products. My favorites were fried cheese curds with spicy cheddar chili ranch and apple barbecue sauce, a triple-cheese mac & cheese with crispy sourdough pretzel crumbs, and a double cheddar grilled cheese on thick sourdough and toasted with seasoned butter (during a tasting, Archibald noted that the sandwich is brushed with kewpie mayo, enriching the sandwich even further once it hits the sizzling griddle).

The future of Tillamook

Organic growth has been a core philosophy for Tillamook Creamery since day one way back in 1909 and ever since. That ethos continues apace today, as the brand continues to carve a sustainable path forward for itself, its farmers, and the dairy industry at large. In 2001, Tillamook added a second creamery in Boardman, Oregon, to meet consumer demand. Additionally, it wasn't enough to merely open a cheesy cafe at the airport, the company launched a full-blown market and "interactive playground" at Portland International Airport in 2020, offering educational and entertainment opportunities before flights. There's also a market, slinging essential eats like cheddar, ice cream, and cheese curds, and wholly upping the ante on quality airport cuisine.

Next up, the lucky ducks in Illinois will soon welcome a new Tillamook ice cream plant in Decatur. Aiming for a late-2024 debut, it's the next rung in the ladder for a company that's become the fastest-growing family-size ice cream brand in the nation. All of this, coupled with a few in-the-works items that Tillamook has yet to announce, continues a legacy of sustainability, quality, and commitment — not to mention incredible tasting products — for a singular organization that's truly aged like a fine cheddar.