Cowgirl Creamery - An Icon of America’s Artisanal Food Movement

By James Beriker

Cowgirl Creamery - An Icon of America’s Artisanal Food Movement

We’ve been told that “happy cows come from California”, and amongst the Bay Area’s family owned dairy cows, it may actually be true. Ethical producers like Tresch Family Farms and Bivalve Dairy own large swaths of land for their pasture-grazed cattle, producing high quality dairy for the region’s vibrant food scene. Perhaps none take advantage of this more than Point Reyes-based Cowgirl Creamery, whose organic artisan cheeses have gained world-renown.

Humble Beginnings

Cowgirl Creamery founders Sue Conley and Peggy Smith stumbled upon San Francisco’s burgeoning organic, farm-to-table scene in the mid 70s, and were hooked. “They were set on fire by what was going on in San Francisco in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” said Debra Dickson, the Creamery’s sales manager. They both established careers with some of the most revered restaurants in San Francisco, where local food artisans were appreciated and respected. In the early 90s their passion for the region’s bounty took form as a wholesale distribution business to help represent small farmers in the city’s finest restaurants.

They founded their business in tiny Point Reyes Station, inside a renovated barn, which happened to have a small cheese making room inside. At the urging of friend and future dairy partner Ellen Straus of Straus Family Creamery, the two began their hand at cheesemaking. The rest is history. 

Making cheese the right way

In Cowgirl’s infancy, the duo were making fresh cheeses, like fromage blanc, cottage cheese, and crème fraîche, which are quick and relatively easy to make. But as time went on, they employed their knowledge of classic aging techniques to produce cheeses that were on par with their European counterparts. A great NPR article describes the rather serendipitous moment when a visiting cheesemonger accidentally inoculated the creamery’s cheese with mites from Stilton. The result? Their famed Red Hawk triple cream, widely considered to be one of the best cheeses produced in America.

Red Hawk’s name is an homage to the mighty red-tailed hawk that soars above Northern California’s breathtaking coastline. It’s here, in Marin and Sonoma Counties, that Cowgirl Creamery sources their dairy and inspiration. They exclusively use organic, pasture-based cow’s milk from their local partner dairies, whose family farms have existed for generations. They’re “using milk as a vehicle, a part of a larger conversation about sustainability,” says Dickson. “It starts with the milk. It starts with what the farmland has to offer.”

Many of Cowgirl’s cheeses, in fact, are named after iconic NoCal locales. Their famous Mt Tam is named after Mt. Tamalpais, which rises over San Francisco Bay. Chimney Rock, their seasonal fall release, is an eastern spur of the Point Reyes Headlands. And winter-release Devil’s Gulch, the name of a narrow ravine at the base of Mt. Barnabe, is also the name of a famous Pinot Noir vineyard in Marin County. “Cowgirl Creamery is as much about showcasing West Marin’s agriculture to the rest of the world as it is about actually making the cheese,” says Dickson.

A sense of place is important to the Creamery, which acknowledges the unique terroir of their various dairy partners as if they were speaking of fine wine. John Taylor of Bivalve Dairy, one of Cowgirl’s dairy suppliers, speaks about how the landscape’s seasonal variations are reflected in each glass of milk. "As we taste the milk off of our ranch, at certain times of the year they will have different flavors depending on the grass component," said Taylor to NPR. "So when the cows go out to graze in the early spring and into the summer, there's some phenomenal flavors that come out. And ultimately, what we're trying to do is partner up with Cowgirl so we can get those flavors into the cheese."

Changing Times

In 2016, Sue and Peggy passed Cowgirl Creamery on to Swiss dairy company Emmi. Luckily the quality of the cheeses remains top-notch. They’re still using 100% organic and 100% pasture-based milk. 

Like most of the food and beverage industry, the Creamery is facing their biggest hurdle yet with COVID. Though Cowgirl has a strong presence in the off-premise market, in places like Whole Foods and specialty food stores, COVID has been responsible for shutting down their on-premise accounts, like restaurants and private events. And in a world where many are still bracing for the next round of shut-downs, specialty cheeses aren’t as big of a necessity as, say, meat and potatoes. 

A recent Food & Wine article revealed that America’s artisan cheesemakers are seeing revenue decline by up to 80 percent because of the pandemic. Though Cowgirl’s numbers aren’t that staggering, managing director Amanda Parker estimates that the company will see a 25% loss by the end of the year. 

That means that if you still want that beautiful selection of artisan cheeses at your local shop, keep buying them. We are proud to be featuring Cowgirl Creamery's products in our new Pantry Boxes.