Read any cheese blog or cheese enthusiast magazine (Culture or Cheese Connoisseur) and it is a sure bet there is some mention of Hook’s Cheese 15 year cheddar. This seriously aged cheese was brought to market back in February of 2009 and has skyrocketed to one of the most sought after and highly praised cheeses in the country.
Prior to all the praise, many had never heard of Tony and Julie Hook. Who are these pioneers of the cheddar world? Where did they come from? How did this 15 year cheddar come to be? Is cheddar all Hook’s Cheese has to offer? I had the opportunity to speak with Tony recently and discovered there is a whole lot more to this Wisconsin creamery than cheddar.
Tony Hook began his career as an apprentice for a cheese shop in Barneveld, Wisconsin in 1970. After getting his license, he and wife Julie began producing their own cheeses under the Hook’s Cheese name. Starting with cheddar, Swiss and Monterey Jack, they now produce over 37 varieties of cheese available country-wide.
House Mouse: How did this 15 year cheddar happen?
Tony Hook: When we bought this plant in 1987, we had a large enough cold storage area and we knew we weren’t going to utilize it all. So we decided we’d start aging cheddar and at that point we figured 7, maybe 10 was kind of the limit we’d go. As we put more and more stuff away and some of them were developing quite a nice flavor, we decided to age some out longer. So just set some aside for 12 years and some of that into the 15.
[This is not your typical cave aged cheddar. It is aged at 38 degrees and not exposed to air. The cheese is sealed into long-hold bags and stored in cold storage.]
HM: What’s the difference between cave aging and cold storage aging?
TH: With cave aging, you’re storing at 53 degrees and you are kind of speeding the process up. So you develop flavors a little faster, but sometimes you develop some off flavors you don’t want when you go that fast.
HM: So, people are wondering if you are shooting for 20 year cheddar.
TH: [laughing] I may, but I’d rather not tell too many people or they’ll be waiting for 5 years and there won’t be much there.
HM: Let’s talk about some other cheeses Hook’s Cheese has to offer. You make an aged Swiss. Is it harder aging Swiss than other types of cheese?
TH: It’s kind of hard to make the age out that long. I don’t know if I’d say it was harder to do than cheddar, but it’s just different. By the time you get to 4 years you’d have such a hard piece of cheese that I don’t know what it would take to cut that.
[Hook’s aged Swill is cured in a cave for 3 to 4 months before going into cold storage. There it remains for almost a year as it dries out.]
HM: What are the most popular cheeses you sell?
TH: On the blue side, the original and the Blue Paradise are the two most popular. In the cheddar, the 5 year because of the price and it’s still got some good age to it. And the 10 year because we won 1st place at the American Cheese Society conference (2006) with that and it’s become very popular too.
HM: You have a fairly extensive blue selection, including one called Bloomin’ Idiot (see photo above). What exactly is it and what makes it different from your other blues?
TH: Typically on our blues, when we salt it we use some additional mitomycin salt, which is an antimycotic [agent that destroys or prevents the growth of fungi] and keeps the mold growing down on the outside of the wheels. On the Bloomin’ Idiot we don’t use that type of salt so we just let the blue grow and develop what it might. The wheels are at peak at about 2 or 3 months. After three months it gets really soft. After about 5 or 6, it’s spreadable.
HM: Finally, with so many cheeses, have there been any happy accidents?
TH: The Tilston Point is a dryer and harder blue cheese with a tighter knit curd. The blue just goes down the pierce veins. Well, the first few batches we just planned on making a blue. The third batch we introduced it to brevibacterium linen, which is what gives Limburger its smell and taste. It has a washed, orange-colored rind [washed rinds aren’t common in blues, making this a truly unique cheese].
It was a pleasure talking with Tony about his vast line of cheese. You can learn more about Hook’s Cheese and its founders at www.hookscheese.com. Be sure to check out the video of the Bloomin’ Idiot.