Latino cheese producers pave the whey in Albany

A portrait of Froylan Ochoa hangs inside the tasting room at Ochoa’s Queseria. (Estefani Diaz Espinosa)

A huge steel vat of churning curds and whey sits in the center of a stark white room. Tall cooling tanks hum quietly. Nearby, factory workers in long, white lab coats and hair nets slosh across the wet floor in tall boots. Elsewhere in the factory, another worker stands over a red strainer crumbling soft cheese into small bits. A Spanish radio station blares overhead.

Cheesemaker Mariano Battro, dressed in a white T-shirt and dark washed jeans, walks into a refrigerator filled with dozens of 50-pound blocks of cheese. Knotted braids of queso Oaxaca made by the factory’s main cheese producer, Francisco Ochoa, sit on tall rolling racks.

In Oregon, it’s unlikely you’ll find another cheese factory like this.

Ochoa and Battro are among the few, if not only, large-scale Latino cheese producers in the state. Their shared production space and tasting room, Ochoa’s Queseria, in Albany is home to their two brands: Don Froylan and La Mariposa. Tradition is important to both Ochoa and Battro, who use their family recipes to continue their legacy and share their culture with the world.

“I’m happy that I can bring a tradition from my country to Oregon and share the recipes with others,” Ochoa, who is from Mexico, said in Spanish.

Battro comes from a family of cheesemakers. He started making European-style cheese in 1996 with his brother and dad at their family’s dairy in Chubut, Argentina.

He moved to Oregon 10 years later and started making cheese under the family’s La Mariposa label in 2009. That same year, he met Ochoa at a cheesemaker event in Portland and moved his production into Ochoa’s Queseria three years later.

Today, Battro estimates he makes 1,000 pounds of cheese every month, using raw milk from Lochmead Dairy, located just 30 miles south in Junction City. He makes, packages and sells all the cheese by himself, often in 14-16 hour shifts every other week. The cheese gets its distinct flavors from raw milk, Battro said.

“Raw milk has more good bacteria that you don’t kill during pasteurization,” he said.

Battro makes 11 styles of cheese aged anywhere from six weeks to a year, including a raw cow’s milk Swiss-style Gruyere, a sharp English clothbound cheddar his father learned to make in Somerset, and Chubut, an Argentine style of cheese inspired by the Welsh immigrants from his hometown.

Like Battro, Ochoa learned to make cheese from his parents, Froylan and Zoila Ochoa. They moved to Oregon from Mexico in 1995. Three years later, they started making and selling cheese door-to-door both because they loved it and to make money, becoming the first Mexican-style cheese company in the state.

“They knew how to make the cheese back in Michoacán,” Francisco Ochoa’s sister Margarita Ochoa said. “They started making more and more and doing well until my dad passed away.”

Francisco Ochoa took over the cheese business, which is named after his father, in 2002. Today, its 12 employees make more than 400,000 pounds of cheese annually under the label Don Froylan.

“It’s what my parents taught me to do, that always finding a way was part of our culture,” Ochoa said in Spanish.

Under Ochoa’s direction, Don Froylan has grown to include more than a half dozen types of fresh Mexican cheeses, like queso fresco, a crumbly queso cotija, queso Oaxaca and queso requesón, which is often used for desserts.

Inside the queseria’s sunny yellow tasting room, a refrigerator case houses a large selection of cheeses from both makers. A dozen framed awards from local and national competitions for Don Froylan cheeses hang on the wall.

Ochoa is proud of what they have accomplished at the queseria.

“The American dream is to own a business and to be able to live well with family,” Ochoa said.

–Tayaja Lovato, Parkrose High School
–Estefani Diaz Espinosa, Lincoln High School