You know a company is serious about cheese when they have a visitor center, and quite a big one at that. I don’t know what I was expecting upon arriving here at Hilmar Cheese Company’s Visitor Center, but certainly it was not the ginormous gift shop-slash-cafe, nor the second floor “learning hub” they have. I also did not expect the very kiddie, slightly corny, but also shockingly informative video they show at the start of every tour lol.
Everything here at the Hilmar Cheese Visitor Center is indicative of a desire to infect all who come through the doors with the same love for cheese they have. But they want to take it a step further than just love, they also want people to understand the how’s and why’s. They want people to have a deep appreciation for cheese while driving home the point that there’s more to it than meets the eye.
Their aim is to give each visitor the complete experience as far as cheese is concerned: tour, taste, shop, and eat! And that is exactly what we did while we were here.
Cheese for you, cheese for me.
Hilmar is one of the biggest cheese manufacturers in the world, producing over two million pounds of cheese per day. TWO MILLION POUNDS! They specialize in cheeses like Cheddar, Jack cheeses, mozzarella, and Hispanic cheeses. But unlike Fiscalini, which is a company that produces own-brand cheeses, Hilmar makes cheese for other brands.
This means that those two million pounds of cheese they make each day gets distributed to all sorts of private, national, and retail brands, as well as foodservice companies throughout the world. When you walk into a supermarket in California, you’ll never see any cheeses with the Hilmar brand slapped on the front. It could well be that the brand of cheese you regularly buy was actually manufactured right in the Hilmar facility. They didn’t tell us which brands they supply to due to confidentiality issues, but I am going to be mindful of the “manufactured by” label of the California cheeses I buy from now on. 😉
Earth-friendly cheese is good cheese.
Of course, making that much cheese means they need to outsource a good chunk of their milk supply from the many farms in the area. Through this, Hilmar supports local family-owned dairy businesses, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t strict about their quality control. They prefer milk from Jersey cows (the brown ones), and they make sure that the farms they work with treat their cows with the best care.
Now we all know that good milk is used to make good cheese, but milk also happens to mostly be composed of water. So every time cheese is made, a lot of water gets discarded. Some of the milk gets turned into whey protein and lactose as well, which Hilmar’s subsidiary sells as food ingredients.
What they do with the leftover water is they recycle it and use it for landscaping, for biogas generation, for their boilers, and even for the water fountain they have outside. If you observe the diagram they drew up in the above pic, the most clever way they use this excess water (at least to me) is for irrigating crops that they then sell back to the farms that supply them with their milk. It’s a genius full circle!
Hilmar started out in 1984, but between then and now, there have been a lot of efforts made to change with the times, most specifically in the realm of sustainability. Investing in all the machinery and treatment ponds needed to convert the dirty water into something clean again must’ve cost a lot especially for a company at this scale, so it’s quite an admirable effort. If you look at it in the long run, it will benefit the planet that we all live in. I’m just glad there are more and more companies that are shifting to more earth-conscious practices nowadays.
There’s always time for a cheesy science experiment.
We actually got to do a little “lab experiment” while we were here. At Hilmar Cheese Company, not only will you learn about the science behind cheese-making, you even get to put these learnings into practice. Out group was split into two teams, and we were challenged to make cheese following a set of fill-in-the-blank instructions. (If you’re visiting here, make sure to pay attention to the video shown at the start of the tour so you’ll know what to do!)
You will remember I had some experience with this when I attended the California Milk Advisory Board event in Boracay a few months ago. This time though, we were using some starter cultures and rennet that would allow us to make cheese a lot faster than apple cider. I’m not going to go into the nitty gritty in case anyone reading this is planning to go and join this tour. All I can say is: you don’t have to be a science nerd or a cooking diva to appreciate learning about how cheese is made.
Eventually we produced a very tiny, almost pitiful glob of cheese. (And as mentioned above, most of it turned into water discard.) The kids who come here for educational tours probably do better lol. If you ever come to this area of California, a stop here at the Hilmar Cheese Visitor Center is certainly a unique experience. I would suggest booking a tour especially if you have kids so they can try their hand at making cheese. If not, you can still come here to take a peek at the production line, or visit the cafe and shop they have downstairs for free cheese samples galore!
An unlikely pairing of coffee and cheese.
I’m going to have to blame the free cheese samples for making me buy that bag of cheese in the photo above. Thanks to the unique effect of jetlag on my appetite, I wasn’t really in the mood to buy anything eat from the cafe (Thank God?), although I could not resist a cup of coffee. They have Peet’s Coffee here and I got myself a blessed sugar boost from the condensed milk in that cup of Black Tie. That became my drink for the afternoon, because I ended up snacking on cheese samples. And then I ended up buying the cheese that they had available for sampling… You know how it is.
Also, if you’re wondering, I did indeed manage to bring them all home. 😀
The shop at the Hilmar Cheese Visitor Center is the only place you will find cheese with the actual Hilmar logo printed on the packaging. Another unique offering they have here is called the Cheese Squeakers, which is made from fresh cheese curds. It’s basically a non-aged form of Colby Jack, with that striped white and yellow coloring on it. It’s kind of wet and squeaky when you chew it, but it doesn’t keep very well so if you’re thinking about traveling home with it, take precautions.
They also sell a slew of cheeses here at their shop, including the Oakdale Cumin-flavored Gouda which I highly regret buying only one slice of. I sampled it and loved how the cumin complemented the gouda, creating this spice-filled earthy flavor I can’t even explain. Never tasted anything like it before! It was gone within a week of my return home and I am crying inside as I type this. I need to go back! And I hope that when I do, it will be with family. I think they would really enjoy it here.
Full disclosure: This trip was part of the California Cheese Crawl organized by the California Milk Advisory Board. Facts and figures have been taken from the company’s website, but all opinions stated above are my own.