Hook’s Cheese: World Champion Cheesemakers
By Jeanne Carpenter | Photo By Jim Klousia 0
More than 35 years ago, a pair of college sweethearts decided to try to make a living making Cheddar. 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, Wisconsin.
Well-known as the enthusiastic duo who sling cheese under the "Hook's Cheese" tent every Saturday at the Dane County Farmers’ Market, the Hooks have perfected a sustainable model for making and aging 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 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 them on the map.
That year, Julie's Colby won the Best of Class award in the World Cheese Championship, a medal coveted by cheesemakers around the globe. 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.
The Hooks continued to make their worldwinning 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.
The Hooks, however, were not ready to quit. The pair decided to purchase an idle factory in the village of Mineral Point. Their farmers followed and continued shipping high quality milk to the new Hook's Cheese on Commerce Street. The new factory—well, actually old; the building dates back to the 1850s and was converted to a cheese factory in 1929—allowed the Hooks to start aging cheese in the facility's three aging caves and large cold storage room, 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. We plan to release another 15-year batch this November."