(By Sarah English/For The Independent)
The bacteria culture of Cougar Gold holds its own with the bricks of Bryan Tower and nylon of the Cougar Flag on ESPN’s College GameDay when it comes to Washington State University icons. And Chewelah’s own Collin Kirk-Patterson is a certified icon maker with his name on the emblematic gold and white striped can to prove it. When people find out about his campus job, “most reactions tend to be, ‘No way—I love that cheese!”’ he said. “They also tend to ask me a lot of questions about the ‘secret’ behind the cheese,” Kirk-Patterson added.
That secret is in the bacteria culture, WSU’s own strain called WSU-19. “Once made and given time to age, those microscopic bacteria are what give Cougar Gold that extra sharp flavor,” Kirk-Patterson said. That sharp flavor has earned Cougar Gold many awards, including the World Cheese Awards Gold Medal, the United States Cheese Champion Silver Medal, the American Cheese Society Blue Ribbon, and Santé Magazine’s Gold Star Award.
Kirk-Patterson, a senior, had not tasted the award-winning cheese prior to working at the WSU Creamery. “It pains me to say this, but before I started working there I had not even heard of Cougar Gold,” he admitted. But true confession: “I’m now addicted,” he said.
Besides making cheese, Kirk-Patterson also performs other cheese production tasks, including slicing, canning, sealing and packaging. The tins that the cheese is sold in come marked with the name of the student cheese maker and the date that it was made. “I started making cheese officially roughly one year ago. The cheese is aged a minimum of one year, so consumers should start to see my cans shortly,” he said.
Cougar Gold shares its home at the WSU Creamery with Ferdinand’s Ice Cream Shoppe, which also benefits from Kirk-Patterson’s culinary talent. “Making ice cream is my favorite [activity],” he said. After making the base mix, sending it through a homogenizer, cooling it and adding flavors, “We get to taste the base mix before adding flavors, and when we make a chocolate base mix it is literally the smoothest and most chocolatey milkshake of all time,” he elaborated. That ice cream in the middle, any flavor, along with two soft oatmeal cookies on top and bottom, make a Ferdinand’s Grabber, a popular pre-football game treat. Ferdinand’s also sells sundaes, milkshakes, waffle cones, and Cougar cheese.
There are eight standard Cougar cheese flavors: Cougar Gold, Natural Cheddar, Smoky Cheddar, Viking, Dill Garlic, Sweet Basil, Hot Pepper and Crimson Fire (this reduced-fat cheese is the second-best seller after Cougar Gold), plus some seasonal and limited-edition flavors. Kirk-Patterson recommends the Hot Pepper, which he notes is “similar to Monterey Jack.” His runner-up favorite is a perk for Creamery employees only: aged curd Cougar Gold. If Kirk-Patterson could suggest a new flavor, he would make a full-fat Crimson Fire, which gets its kick from jalapenos, pepper flakes and cayenne. “If we did the full-fat, the texture would soften and the cheese would be creamier, especially over time when aging. It would be more similar to our other Jack-style cheeses,” he said.
Just like cheese gets flavor from spices, Kirk-Patterson appreciates the added value that meeting people from elsewhere brings to life in Pullman. “WSU and Pullman have been my home for the past few years, and to me what really makes it special is the diversity. The University brings in all kinds of ethnicities from across the globe and being able to meet folks who may not even speak English is a unique experience that most people do not get or are not willing to try,” he said. His favorite thing about Pullman is “the dedication from the community to bettering the city for all people, and not just those who are locals.”
His “unforgettable” experience at WSU will be coming to a close when he leaves his “home away from home” this May after graduation. His Food/Fermentation Science major, a nice pairing with his minor, Viticulture/Enology (grape-growing/wine-making), opens up several career options, including brewing/wine making, yogurt production, and product development. He also has some knowledge of the coffee industry, having worked at Paul’s Coffee while back in Chewelah on summer break. That experience might lead to his involvement with another icon: Starbucks.