Seattle dairy kings

Locally made cheese comes to Pike Place Market

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Beads of moisture condense on the foggy windows of Beecher's Handmade Cheese, but that doesn't deter the small crowd that has gathered to watch Brad Sinko as he stirs and cuts curds for Flagship, the shop's signature, one-year-aged cheese. For the last 19 years, the fish throwers have stolen the limelight at Pike Place Market. Now they finally have some competition.

The former Seattle Garden Center space now houses a gleaming, glass-enclosed cheese kitchen owned by Kurt Beecher Dammeier. Here, three mornings a week, cheesemaker Sinko turns 10,000 pounds of milk into 1,000 pounds of cheese. In addition to the cheesemaking equipment, there's a retail shop and a deli-cafe where customers can choose from locally made foods to eat in or take out, including Beecher's own fresh butter and ice cream.

On mornings inside the cheesemaking room, the warm air smells like fresh, sweet milk, a scent that is replaced by the more savory aromas of macaroni and cheese and French onion soup as lunchtime approaches. Patrons sit on old-fashioned milk-can barstools, watching the activity in the cheese kitchen and munching on the shop's grilled sandwiches. Everyone has the air of contentment that comes from eating well.

"Your cheese is only as good as your milk," Sinko says. True to that philosophy, Beecher's gets all of its milk from the Cherry Valley Farm in Duvall, Washington. The store has even purchased its own truck to collect the fresh milk from the family-run dairy farm.

Milking a trend

The milk run is nothing new for Sinko. An Oregon native whose other passion is steelhead fishing, he has a long family history in the dairy business. His grandfather was a dairy farmer outside of Bandon, Oregon, who delivered cans of milk by boat to the local cheese factory when the Coquille River got too high to drive them there, and Sinko's father co-owned Bandon Cheese, a specialty cheese company. In 1993, after earning a degree in microbiology from Oregon State University and running a number of dairy plants, Sinko went to work for his father in Bandon, where he learned the art of small-batch cheesemaking.

"I had eight or nine years of experience and a college degree, and Dad started me at $6.50 an hour," he laughs. "He told me that everything he was putting me through would pay off, and it did. There aren't many open-vat cheesemakers anymore who actually touch the cheese."

Sinko's approach is not only hands-on, it's based on what else is available at Pike Place. He plans to flavor havarti and jack with herbs from the market, and in the summer he'll make fresh mozzarella to go with tomatoes.

In addition to making their own cheese, Dammeier and Sinko take pride in promoting other locally made products. The shop carries a selection of artisan cheeses from the Northwest, along with one from Colorado and a few from California, the established giant of artisan cheese.

"This is exactly what I wanted to happen," Dammeier says excitedly, pointing to a parchment-colored, blue-veined wedge. "These cheesemakers in Aberdeen, Washington, heard about us and brought us their cheese to taste, to see if we wanted to sell it in the store. I said I'd buy all they had."

Sinko and Dammeier's approach to cheese fits right in with the Northwest passion for farmers' markets and small-scale production. Even before Beecher's opened in November, the response was overwhelmingly enthusiastic. The shop's "apprentice cheesemakers wanted" sign in the window drew a flood of responses, and marketgoers regularly gather by the windows to watch the cheesemakers at work.

 

Apprentices aren't the only ones Dammeier wants to teach: He sees public education as a big part of Beecher's mission. Both he and Sinko hope that the shop will become an epicenter for artisan cheese in the Northwest. "The Pacific Northwest has always been a dairy region," Sinko says. "The cold, wet weather and the grass we have here make great milk. The artisan-cheese movement is going to crawl northward."

And Dammeier wants to be part of it. "I hope that in five years, we're a cornerstone of the market," he says. "That would be such a privilege."

Beecher's Handmade Cheese: 1600 Pike Place, in Pike Place Market; www.beecherscheese.com or (206) 956-1964.

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