Mt. Townsend Creamery
The Bloom is in the Rind
BY CAROLINE FERGUSON
PHOTOS BY PAMELA TRAIL
Each of Mt. Townsend’s nine cheeses
could have convincingly come from one far-flung European countryside or another.
Mt. Townsend Creamery’s cheeses are transporting. Seastack, a silvery tomme lush with mushroom and citrus notes, could have been pulled from the cellar of a French chateau. The Red Alder is reminiscent of the nutty, complex cheeses of the high Alpine meadows. And you can practically taste the highland peat in the scotch ale–washed Off Kilter. Each of Mt. Townsend’s nine cheeses could have convincingly come from one far-flung European countryside or another. In fact, they’ve held their own against some of the finest cheeses in the world: at the World Cheese Championship, Off Kilter won second place in its class in 2014, and Seastack won fifth in 2010. But not only are they all made on this side of the Atlantic, they all come from the same tiny town on the tip of the Olympic Peninsula.
Port Townsend, population just over 9,000, is best known for its historic Victorian architecture and thriving community of artisans. Its downtown strip is lined with gourmet markets, kitschy boutiques, and the occasional brewpub, most opening at a lazy hour of the morning and closing whenever the last few tourists decide to head home.
When Ryan and Pam Trail first visited Port Townsend 15 years ago, they were smitten. They had recently married and were hoping to move away from their home state of Colorado for a change of scenery. Artsy Port Townsend seemed to be the perfect fit. There was only one problem, as Ryan discovered in a conversation with the owner of a local bike shop.
“When I told him we were going to move to Port Townsend, he asked, ‘Did you bring a job, or do you have a trust fund?’”
Ryan and Pam met as coworkers at New Belgium Brewing, whose Fat Tire amber ale was one of the early harbingers of the craft brewing renaissance. The company’s production had skyrocketed from 8,000 to 220,000 barrels per year during Ryan’s eight years as a process design engineer. Over the years, Ryan’s penchant for building things had developed into an interest in artisan food production, and he thought he might open his own brewery or distillery someday.
But Port Townsend had other plans for him. He ended up working in timber construction, drafting and building wooden frames for the lodges and craftsman bungalows that lined the Puget Sound coast. He eventually left to take up a job as a drafting engineer — it was the first “real” job he’d had in his field — but he found himself unsatisfied.
“All I was putting out were pieces of paper,” Ryan says. “I was just drawing plans on the computer and sending them off for someone else to build.”
All the while, he harbored an interest in food. But the state laws at the time were unfriendly to small distilleries, and Port Townsend, of course, already had a brewery of its own. But then Ryan thought of the cheeses he’d fallen in love with while traveling in France. His time at New Belgium gave him a working knowledge of fermented foods, and a few friends had branched off into cheesemaking over the years. Yet he still doubted that he’d have the business acumen to get a company off the ground.
That’s where Matthew Day came in. Matthew, a friend of the Trails’, was dissatisfied with his daily two-hour commute to Seattle. He shared Ryan’s entrepreneurial spirit and interest in cheese, and he had a master’s degree in business to match. Their plan to open a creamery seemed perfect.
That is, until they realized another Port Townsender had beaten them to it. Will O’Donnell, an organic farmer and fixture at the city’s farmers’ market, was already drafting plans to open a creamery. Ryan decided to chat up his competition in the unlikeliest of places: a childbirth class. Both Will’s and Ryan’s wives were pregnant at the time.
Will and Ryan hit it off, but it was clear that the town couldn’t support two large creameries. In time, they realized it wouldn’t have to. The dairy farmer who Will was partnering with had encountered permitting issues that eventually caused him to cease production, so the three men — Ryan, Matthew, and Will — decided to work toward their goal together. They found a dairy farm in nearby Sequim that was producing milk with the grassy flavors and butterfat ratio they were looking for, and before long, a business agreement was made.
By April 2006, the partners had named their company after a nearby Olympic peak, commissioned packaging design from Pam, and started producing cheese out of a refurbished DMV. Their makeshift factory initially turned out only three products: the simple tomme-style Trailhead, bloomy Seastack, and a camembert they called Cirrus. The Trails’ first child, a son, was born between their second and third batches of cheese.
“That was a busy week,” Ryan notes.
Not long after, they added creamy fromage blanc to their lineup. Next came New Moon, a buttery take on Monterey Jack. A friendly farmers’ market rapport with Pike Brewings’ Charles and Roseanne Finkel resulted in Off Kilter, an Italian-style toma bathed in the brewery’s Kilt Lifter ale.
The company tried to keep up with demand for its cheeses, which were growing more popular by the day. Seastack had garnered attention from Serious Eats, Seattle Magazine, a slew of artisan cheese blogs, and it took first place at the American Cheese Society competition in 2010. They scaled up equipment, purchasing professional cheese vats that took up so much room in their tiny production facility that they had to cease production on the space-hogging, slow-aging Trailhead.
“Our concept has never been to be teeny-tiny,” Ryan explains. “We have always envisioned growing into a regional business, not just a local one.”
Soon Mt. Townsend Creamery will have a facility to match its outsized ambitions. Ryan and Matthew (Will left the company several years ago to manage the Jefferson County Farmers Markets) have purchased land a few blocks from their current production facility, where they hope to create a cheesemaking and retail facility specifically designed for their production needs.
“It doesn’t mean we’re going to be that much bigger in the scheme of things, but it will give us the ability to be more efficient and keep growing at a manageable rate,” Ryan says.
What that will look like, he predicts, is two cheesemaking plants in parallel: one for soft cheeses, one for hard. They hope to serve prepared foods, as well as beer and wine pairings. They’ll also give more visibility to their cheesemaking process. The current production facility offers a small window into the vat room, but the new center will feature views into all steps of the process, from acidification to curd pouring to aging. It’s a good thing, too. When you’re making some of the best cheeses in the world, people are bound to want to take a look.
Caroline Ferguson is a freelance food and culture journalist. She recently graduated from Seattle University where she studied humanities and journalism and edited the university newspaper. Her writing has appeared in Seattle Met Magazine, Visit Seattle, and RENDER Feminist Food and Culture Quarterly.