Meet the cheese whizzes of the Walla Walla Cheese Company (2022)

Jeff and Andrea Adams have advice you can take to the bank: Be careful what your kitchen hobbies are.

Almost two decades ago, after their son’s dairy cow, Toasty, began producing 12 gallons of milk a day, the family decided “just for fun,” to stir up homemade cheese on the stove top. Now, the couple steers a storefront in Milton-Freewater that encompasses a full-fledged artisanal cheese company and more, even as they both continue to work at their original, agricultural professions.

Andrea is a 24-hour, large-animal vet in Walla Walla. Jeff, besides being the full-time cheesemaker, commutes to Hermiston up to three days a week consulting for a dairy-cow replacement farm with thousands of heifers. They’re parents of two, now 25 and 27, Brennan and Kalie, respectively, and will celebrate 30 years of marriage this year.

Meet the cheese whizzes of the Walla Walla Cheese Company (1)

They call their enterprise the Walla Walla Cheese Company, but their shingle hangs on Main Street in more affordable Milton-Freewater. There, behind the gleaming, cool cases and clean-cut, black-and-white tile café, delicate and careful chemistry goes on in a commercial kitchen with a few rooms full of specialized equipment and temperature controls.

The factory is not really set up for tours, but private arrangements can be made to see the operation, though much takes place at night just by the nature of the time cheese chemistry takes. The recipes and enzymes they use are from Wisconsin.

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With the help of two full-time employees, a couple part-timers and summer interns, there all the craftsmanship occurs, plus curing, cheese cutting, packaging and labeling with the logo Andrea designed. And then Jeff delivers orders, now to at least 20 different retail outlets and restaurants, in the Walla Walla Valley, Tri-Cities and Pendleton.

The factory’s stainless-steel refrigerator cases hold tidy packets of local, grass-fed meats, including goat meat, containers of straight-off-the-farm pasteurized milk, and, of course, weighty wheels of classic cheeses stacked like the 25-pound gold coins they are.

The Adamses share the spotlight, however. Given the wine tourists who come, they have a convenient case of imported cheeses for those who want brie and other oozy cheeses too. The store makes up charcuterie boards also. Though the cheese company is a locovore’s dream, the Adamses do ship cheese ordered from their website. Very carefully, and very cold, Jeff underscores.

And no guest’s gaze can help but flirt with flights of freshly made ice cream, a frozen concoction Jeff considers “fast” compared to cheese making. He admits he has a fast-moving mind and welcomes thinking during the open moments that cheese making and driving to and from his consultant work requires.

Jeff has dreamed up at least 30 different flavors of cheese over the Adamses’ 17 years in the cheese making business.

Lifestyles caught up with Jeff and Andrea between their obligations to animals and the marketplaces to chat about what, how and why curds and whey.

Lifestyles: A not-unusual night for you, Jeff, is pasteurizing milk at the factory at 1:30 a.m., doing record keeping until 6:30 a.m., when you put the cheese enzymes in, waiting to cut the curd of the binding milk around 7:30 a.m., and then hooping the cheese. What is hooping?

Jeff: “Hooping” is an old-world term for packing soft curds into cheese-cloth lined molds that bind the cheese. Hooping in turn drains the whey, the excess milky water after cheese comes together. Sometimes this happens in round forms that drain, or in these big blocks we press under weights.

Andrea: We learned the hard way with the round molds and gouda. You need to flip the cheese like a pancake while it’s processing itself, or it sticks; you can’t get it loose and out of the mold. We’ve had our share of “chicken cheese.” We experiment, so the worst thing that can happen is chicken cheese. That’s when a batch flops. It goes to the hens.

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Jeff: As long as I know why it’s happened. We need to look at what happened yesterday. We don’t standardize our milk.

Andrea: All our milk is pasteurized and checked for antibiotics. If we find traces of antibiotics, we dump it. And all this work is done by hand, in small batches, which is part of what defines our cheese as an artisan cheese. No two batches are exactly alike.

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Jeff: Ten years ago, we went to intensive seminars at Washington State University and at Oregon State University on making artisanal cheeses. And us working 10 years on a dairy farm in Tillamook, we know dairy people, there’s been a whole network to talk to, gain experience from.

Andrea: We learned the science, the pH, food safety, all the basics of an artisanal cheese. We were inspired to try to make Greek halloumi, for example.

LS: Artisanal quality is synonymous with flavor, too. For example, tasting your Havarti cheeses, they’re truly rich yet have a fresh, grassy undertone. You’ve mentioned terroir influencing your cheese. That term is usually associated with wine, tying the geology of a vineyard, the climate and atmospherics, which contribute to wine grapes’ taste. What do you mean regarding the “terroir” of your cheese?

Jeff: It’s cows on the grass, the grass right around here. You can see the cheese change color depending on what time of year the grass is in. We partner with the last family dairy farm in the Walla Walla Valley, Creamline Dairy, just west of us. It’s Jersey milk. The fat and protein are higher than Holsteins’, especially this time of year.

Andrea: He drives this little tanker truck right to the farm. People need to realize the care that goes into the cows. You’d see what we know. The cows want to go to the milking parlor. We love animals. We’d be lost without them.

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Jeff: We’ve had experience with big cheese making in Tillamook, where it all has to taste the same from one batch to another. Nothing against Tillamook; it’s great cheese. Our cheese costs a bit more. It’s not for everyone. Still, we have all the traffic to the store and demand we can handle. The Valley is just perfect with tourists for wine. Wine and cheese feed each other. Though people get confused with our name, Walla Walla Cheese Company on Main Street. They look in Walla Walla, but we’re on Main Street here in Milton-Freewater. We could not afford Walla Walla.

LS: Jeff, it seems you’re working overnight making cheese and then working days. Do you sleep at all? There must be a time for cheese to just wait, just cure and age when you can coast a little.

Jeff. Oh, I find too many things fascinating. I drive too hard trying to figure it all out. And there’s a lot of record keeping. (He pats a fat white binder of daily records on temperature, humidity, PH and all the chemistry of each cheese-making session, about four times a week.) Excel might be good for doing that. Maybe some day. About 210 gallons of milk makes about 220 pounds of cheese. Our wheels of cheese weigh about 10 to 12 pounds.

LS: You’ve developed some 30 flavors of cheese over the past 17 years. That coffee cheddar is to die for, among other unusual ones.

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Jeff: We like to partner with locals. That coffee cheddar — we liked playing with that one. We worked with the Walla Walla Roastery. Been working on a sweet garlic and a sweet onion. Flavors come and go. We produce approximately 45,000 pounds of cheese a year. And we don’t make Monterey Jack. We make “Pepper Jeff.”

LS: What’s the hot item right now? And do you have a favorite cheese?

Jeff: It’s the fresh cheese curds. We sell up to 1,000 pounds of them a week, locally and as far as Kennewick and Pendleton.

LS: They’re so chewy they squeak!

Jeff: They’re full of moisture. But my own favorite cheese? Depends on my mood, but a smoked peppercorn cheddar, maybe. I’m a purist myself, give me the aged cheeses.

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LS: Do you plan on growing the company?

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Jeff: A small creamery is hard to sustain. It pays its way, but it’s not a living. Still, we’re evolving.

Andrea: Our question is how far do you grow it? I think if we’d tried to plan this, it wouldn’t have worked out.

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