Nearly 40 years ago, a pair of college sweethearts decided to make a living making cheese. Today, that same couple, Tony and Julie Hook, are still going strong, crafting more than 50 cheese varieties, including a stunning line-up of award-winning blues and aged Cheddars at their Hook’s Cheese factory in Mineral Point, Wis.
Renown to locals and tourists alike as the super enthusiastic duo who samples and slings cheese under the “Hook’s Cheese” tent every Saturday at the Dane County Farmer’s Market, the Hooks have developed a first-class model for making award-winning cheese by buying fresh milk from the same group of small, local dairy farmers for the past three decades.
“The farmers know what kind of milk we want, and we pay them a good price for it,” says Tony Hook. “It’s a system that’s worked for 35 years.”
It’s also a system that provides the basis for consistent, high-quality cheese. The Hooks know this well, as they started that system back in 1977. That was the year they were hired as cheesemakers at Buck Grove, a factory dating back to 1887, which was rebuilt after a fire consumed the original building in 1925. At Buck Grove, they made mostly Cheddar and Monterey Jack, but it was a 1982 Colby that put the pair on the map.
That year, Julie’s Colby entry won the “Best of Class” award in the World Cheese Championship, a medal coveted by cheesemakers around the globe. And, as if that weren’t enough, her cheese was then judged against the winners of all other classes, and was named the “Finest Cheese in the World.” It beat 482 entries from 14 states and 16 countries. Wisconsin Cheesemaker Julie Hook was, and still is, the only woman to win the World Championship Cheese Contest (see the list of world champions).
The Hooks continued to make their world-winning Colby and other cheeses at Buck Grove until 1987, when the factory was closed after its patron farmers could not afford the $24,000 to modernize the factory’s pasteurizer to meet new state regulations.
So the Hooks decided to purchase an idle factory in the village of Mineral Point. Their farmers followed, and continued shipping high-quality milk to the now Hook’s Cheese on Commerce Street. Their new factory – well, actually old, as the factory dates back to 1929 – allowed the Hooks to start aging cheese in the facility’s three aging caves, one of which is 16 feet underground.
“When we bought the plant, one of the things we really liked was that it offered a lot of cold storage,” Tony says. “So we started aging Cheddar. We thought we’d go maybe three or five years, which back then, was a good, aged Cheddar. Now we age it up to 15 years, and have some set aside to go up to 20 years.”
The latest batch of Hook’s 15-year Cheddar went on sale in early November at select specialty cheese shops — click here for the list — and retails for between $50 and $60 a pound. I’ve never tasted a Cheddar so aged, yet still a bit creamy amongst its crumbles and flavor crystals. Mmmmm … I say it’s worth every penny.
In addition to the couple’s amazing aged Cheddars, the Hook’s are also well known for their blues, which they developed in the mid ’90s after customers at the Dane County Farmer’s Market began asking for a Wisconsin blue.
Their first result was Hook’s Original Blue, launched in 1997, and still considered by many to be THE benchmark against which all blues are judged. In 2001, the Hooks’ followed with a Gorgonzola, which won a Silver Medal at the 2010 World Championship Cheese Contest. In 2004, they developed two new blue-veined cheeses: Tilston Point, a drier, washed-rind and some might say a “stinky” blue, and Blue Paradise, a double-cream and sweet, smoothy blue.
One of my favorites, Bloomin’ Idiot, followed a few years later. I still remember the first time Tony showed me this bloomy-rind, blue-rind cheese at his plant, back in May, 2009, when he let me make cheese with him (read: mostly let me get in his way).
Finally, the Hooks’ Little Boy Blue, a sheep’s milk cheese and a sister to Hidden Springs Creamery’s, Bohemian Blue, was launched a couple of years ago. Little Boy Blue won a Best of Class Award at the 2011 American Cheese Society competition. (I let out a “woot woot” for them at the awards ceremony in Montreal).
Phew. That’s a lot of cheeses, and I didn’t even mention their Sweet Constantine, Stinky Fotene, Parmesan or Aged Swiss. Too many cheeses, too little space. Let’s just say that from world-renown Colby to record-setting Aged Cheddar to award-winning Blues, the Hooks have seen it all in their 40 years of cheese production.
Tony sums it up this way: “In 1970, when I was apprenticing at the Barneveld Cheese plant right out of high school, we were still getting milk in cans – I think we were one of the last factories to do so. Then at Buck Grove, most farmers had switched to bulk tanks, so the milk got delivered in milk trucks. At our factory in Mineral Point, I picked up the milk until 1999, when I finally hired a trucker because I was too busy making cheese.”
“Too busy making cheese” led the Hooks, in 2001, to make a switch they say is the key to their success today. Ten years ago, they were making cheese six or seven days a week, selling all but what went to the farmers market to a large distributor, where it ended up being sold under a variety of other company’s labels. Today, they make cheese two or three days a week and it all carries their label.
“In 2001, we put everything under our own label and set our own prices,” Tony says. “We always made high quality cheese, at least I’d like to think so. We just decided to pay more attention to each batch and to grow into other varieties.”
I’d say the Hooks’ have accomplished that and much more. At more than 50 different varieties and at least three different walls full of awards, the Hooks are still going strong. They even have a succession plan in place: younger brother Jerry Hook has joined the operation and now has his cheesemaker’s license. And then there’s the next generation. “The grandkids are coming up, so who knows?” he says with a smile. Yes, I definitely predict there will be more Hook’s cheese in the future.