BERLIN, Ohio — Something about cheese is unique, maybe the distinctive dairy smell, the milky taste or the smooth, creamy texture that makes it easy to chew.
Whatever it is, cheese has its own draw, and to the Holmes County region in northeast Ohio, cheese is an important slice of tourism and commerce.
At Bunker Hill Cheese Co., visitors can sample nearly 50 varieties of the stuff, buying some to take home and watching master cheesemakers mix it up.
Saturdays often bring shoulder-to-shoulder crowds of people who want to know their product is made from pure milk.
At Walnut Creek Cheese in nearby Walnut Creek, 10,000-20,000 people will go through the store a week, taking cheese, meats and other staples home.
With expansion projects in the past few years, these same businesses have grown their retail outlets and constructed new facilities, all to keep up with the growing demand of local customers, especially tourists.
Shasta Mast, director of the Holmes County Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Bureau, counts the cheese companies a blessing — one that combines the county’s top three industries.
“In Holmes County, the top three industries in terms of economic impact are manufacturing, tourism and agriculture,” she said. “Cheese-related businesses are the perfect example of how these three industries rely on each other in our region.”
Millions of pounds of cheese are produced in the county each year, from many more millions of pounds of locally produced milk. What that equals in dollars is unclear, but the math suggests it is great.
Many producers have found niche markets, and work with consumers to supply what they want.
“We like to accommodate our clients with special requests,” said Bunker Hill’s Lisa Troyer, vice president of sales. “Because of the (traditional) way that we manufacture, it affords us the opportunity do a lot of custom manufacturing.”
Bunker Hill is believed to be one of the most visited cheese factories in the state, but is not alone.
At Guggisberg Cheese in the Doughty Valley area, tourists can tour the retail store and watch production through windows, and can dine across the street at the company’s Swiss-theme restaurant, Chalet in the Valley.
Larger cheese companies produce a considerably higher volume, but often do not have the same appeal to tourists, who want to see the product, how it’s made and sample it.
Some cheeses, like Alpine Cheese Co.’s Jarlsberg cheese, are manufactured by only one licensed company.
“There’s no doubt that many of the 4 million folks who visit every year come here for the high-quality, locally produced cheese,” Mast said.
“I don’t think the importance of the cheese industry to Holmes County can be overstated.”