Calling All Cheese Lovers: Cowgirl Creamery on Sustainability and Transparency

Nestled between the many shops in San Francisco’s Ferry Building, Cowgirl Creamery is not a store you’ll want to miss.

The plethora of cheese in the shop and the aroma of their famous grilled cheese sandwich being made in the cafe simply cannot be disregarded. As you walk in, you’re drawn into the middle of the shop where one can sample an array of cheeses and watch employees cut and package products for eager customers. Next door, you’ll find the cafe with a bar where people sit and enjoy their food as others pass and stare with envy (it’s not unlikely they’ll step in line to order something for themselves). Owners Sue Conley and Peggy Smith wanted to offer their customers a new experience with artisan cheeses made in their very own creameries. In addition to their local fare, they also curate other fresh cheese and cheese pairings from all over the United States and Europe. Two decades and four retail stores later, they’re celebrating the anniversary of their best seller, Mt. Tam, and have gained some very loyal customers (along with a hefty 70k+ followers on their Instagram.) So if you’re looking to create the perfect cheese board to show off at your next dinner, look no further. 

Q

Cowgirl Creamery sources their cows milk exclusively from organic pasture-based dairies in West Marin and Sonoma, correct?

A

Yes, we work with three dairies and each is specific to a cheese that we make. Many of our local dairies transitioned to organic and now 80% of our local dairies are certified organic. There are not many places that have access to really good milk and that’s why our area has become a real center for artisan cheese making. 

Q

Why is this organic milk important to the Cowgirl Creamery brand? 

A

Well, you know, it’s really the baseline for our philosophies that the farms are healthy farms and certified organic is the only method we have of tracking how food is raised. There might be many other very good farm practices, but they’re not monitored. We think certified organic is really important. It also addresses wildlife habitat, humane treatment of animals, and no GMOs.

Q

What are some other sustainability initiatives that are central to Cowgirl? 

A

We are very conscious of water use which has been important in California, so we take many measures to use water wisely. Both of our production facilities are powered by solar energy and we use all waste products – so a farmer will come pick up the waste and use that for feed. We’re also very involved with the community in trying to secure affordable housing for working people. Our leadership team is even on the boards of the California Artisan Cheese Guild, Marin Agricultural Land Trust, the American Cheese Society and many other food and agricultural organizations that are really trying to change the food system. 


The Cowgirl Creamery stall in the Ferry Building.The Cowgirl Creamery stall in the Ferry Building.

The Cowgirl Creamery stall in the Ferry Building.

Q

The creamery has gained a huge following on social media and you’ve also maintained a very loyal customer base. Why do you think that is? Why do you think people have become so loyal to Cowgirl Creamery? 

A

Because we are honest and real and from the very beginning people could watch the cheese being made. Nothing is behind closed doors. I think it’s because of our transparency and honesty and we also have a certain sense of fun in our work. It kind of speaks many words that all of the food at our little deli is local, mostly organic. We make many friends and I think that spirit is evident to our customers. You know, the cheese, it’s delicious and very high quality. 

Q

In 2020, you guys are going to be celebrating the 20th anniversary of your number one bestseller Mt. Tam. Congratulations!

A

We are! It’s actually named after Mt. Tamalpais. It’s the mountain that you pass when you’re coming up the Golden Gate Bridge. That’s Mt. Tamalpais.

Q

Why is this anniversary so special for you?

A

Well because it was our first foray into aged cheeses. Before Mt. Tam we made only fresh cheese – it’s just an expression of concentrated delicious milk. The Mt. Tam was much more complicated. That was the first cheese that we made in that category of aged cheese and it remains in our stores over all these years. It represents more than half of our sales, even though we have six or seven or sometimes eight different varieties, Mt. Tam is over 50% of our sales. So we just need to celebrate it. It’s really helped us. 

Q

I noticed that you were asking staff about what it means to be a Cowgirl on your socials in honor of American Cheese Month. So I wanted to ask you, what does it mean to you to be a Cowgirl? 

A

Well, to be a cowgirl is to be really proud of what we make, but equally excited about the cheeses other small producers make, especially in our area. We’ve always had that in our mission and it makes me so happy to help promote artisan cheese as a category.

Q

What is your favorite thing to pair with cheese? 

A

Well, I am kind of a wine nut! I do usually have some nice wine with my cheese. 

Q

What are some of your must haves on a cheeseboard? 

A

So I like the idea of having a cheeseboard before dinner. I think it’s more to our American style. And I always like to have a toasted nut – it could be almonds, walnuts, pecans on the board. And then something a little bit sweet. So this time a year I would want to put on some poached pears, maybe some Zinfandel and depending on what cheeses I had, I like to have some crostini or something very plain that will help the cheese stand out. 

Q

What are your favorite cheeses to put down on a cheeseboard? 

A

A soft fresh goat cheese and then something like a Mt. Tam or another mold ripened style, and then something with a little punch at the end. That could be an aged sheep cheese or  something like a cheddar. At the end of a meal I would have some blue cheese with a sweet wine. 

Q

Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know that I didn’t touch on? 


A variety of cheeses at the Cowgirl Creamery in the Ferry Building.A variety of cheeses at the Cowgirl Creamery in the Ferry Building.

A variety of cheeses at the Cowgirl Creamery in the Ferry Building.

A

Well, something interesting is that this whole artisan cheese movement is very young in the United States. Our American Cheese Society was started in 1980 and it was because a professor at Cornell was upset by the quality of American cheese. You know we’ve all been into the Kraft Singles, just commodity cheese. But what we do is more in the artistic realm. It’s farm food and it’s really unique to the place, the farm and the cheese maker. We get our training or our ideas from Europe, from Italy and France and England, traditional cheeses that are made for hundreds of years. But in the United States we didn’t have that tradition. It’s really just getting going and it’s very exciting. People just think we’ve always had amazing artisan cheese. Cheese making wasn’t even a career path when I was a young cook, you know, in restaurants. I mean, nobody thought “I want to grow up and be a cheesemaker.” That is changing. We really have people who are so committed and excited about this world of cheese. 

// Check out Cowgirl Creamery at the Ferry Building and make sure to follow them on Instagram to keep up with their latest updates @cowgirlcreamery; One Embarcadero, San Francisco, California 94105 (Ferry Building) and 80 4th Street, Point Reyes Station, CA 94956 (Point Reyes); Photography courtesy of Cowgirl Creamery.


Calling All Cheese Lovers: Cowgirl Creamery on Sustainability and Transparency
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