CORVALLIS, Ore. — For Christie Alexandre-Zeoli, who is in charge of cheese purchasing at Market of Choice, the collaboration between Oregon State University and the high-end regional grocery chain “scratches every itch.”
The collaboration involves utilizing the cheese created in the OSU dairy program to teaching the store’s cheese stewards how the cheese is made.
“I really feel like land grant universities with these programs have so much to give retail organizations,” she said. “There is so much knowledge and talent available.”
Although stewards understand what they are looking for with the cheese, Alexandre-Zeoli said it’s a completely different experience when making it, and she wanted to provide them with first-hand experience. A cheesemaker herself — formerly involved with Washington State University’s Cougar Gold cheese — she said it’s a connection between the head and the heart.
“The head knows it’s a great cheese, but the cheesemaker has a different depth about what it takes,” she said. “The sweat and cleaning, the science and technology, as well as the artisan knowledge. This collaboration not only educates my stewards to be the best cheese retailers in the state of Oregon, it also teaches them what it means to make cheese.”
Alexandre-Zeoli said she has known Robin Frojen, the OSU food pilot plant and creamery manager, for years, and has watched her bring Beaver Classic cheese back to the forefront. Through their partnership, Beaver Classic Provolone was born.
“This cheese that Robin has created is a traditional style provolone aged for three months,” she said. “Provolone in this country — in my opinion — has become, and has been in the past, a highly processed standardized product, one that has not showcased traditional provolone the way it’s made in Italy. Robin was inspired to make it an Old World-style aged provolone.”
Alexandre-Zeoli said it’s a snacking and ingredient cheese that is creamy, with a butter flavor and a little funk. She’s often asked about the choice of provolone, and she said that everyday cheeses “deserve as much exposure and appreciation as a triple-creme brie.”
The process starts with getting the milk from the OSU dairy herd. The students pasteurize, culture and ferment it until it coagulates. The curds are cut and cooked for a specific time and a set temperature and acidity. A special aspect to this provolone: Instead of the curds being manually stretched out, it goes through a cheddaring process that does it for them.
The specialty cheese is available at Market of Choice for $16.99 a pound, a standard price for most of the Beaver Classic cheeses.
“We’re not an affordable cheese, but we have no business being affordable,” Frojen said. “It’s an excess agricultural commodity as a result of education. We’re not making to production needs. We’re teaching students how to make cheese and run a processing plant.”
She said the job is 90 percent cleaning and 10 percent glory.
“The excitement is the passion,” she said. “A lot of people end up being stewards because they took a job at the grocery store, then they catch the passion. Watching them interact with my students is amazing. The learning on both sides is critical.”
Although the creamery has been part of the university since the beginning but in the 1950s it was shut down out of concerns it would compete with the private dairy sector. It reopened in 2010 with a donation, and came out with its first cheese in 2012.
At the time, the cheese was called Beaver Classic, but over the years that has expanded to be the brand. Now, they have eight lines of cheeses, from classics such as original cheddar and Swiss to Pinot-, cider- and porter-soaked cheddars.
The milk comes from the dairy herd of around 125 cows, and the program has 20 students.
“We could not be more excited about this opportunity,” Lyn Ryse, Market of Choice vice president of marketing, said. “I don’t know of any other retailer in Oregon, or anywhere in the country, that’s doing anything like this. There’s really nothing more rewarding than actually making the cheese, bringing it into our stores and offering it to people who will take it home and enjoy it, then have them come back and tell us how much they loved it. It really is satisfying.”
Beaver Classic provolone is sold exclusively at the 11 Market of Choice stores in Oregon.
“For Christie and me, the reason we match so well is the passion that this means to us,” Frojen said. “This is what students and stewards are catching and that surpasses anything else. I encourage people to eat and think outside the box. Do something that scares you, eat something that scares you. That’s how they’ll find if this is for them.”