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."
In addition to the couple's super-aged Cheddars, the Hooks are well known for their blues, which they first developed in 1997 after customers at the Dane County Farmers’ Market began asking for a Wisconsin blue.
The first result was Hook's Original Blue, 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, smooth blue.
Bloomin' Idiot followed a few years later, and then came Little Boy Blue, a sheep's milk cheese which won first place at the 2013 U.S. Championship Cheese Contest and Best of Class at the 2011 American Cheese Society competition. The Hooks have also just released two new blue cheeses: Barneveld Blue, a goat’s milk cheese named for the plant at which Tony apprenticed 40 years ago; and Ewe Calf to be Kidding, the first triple-mixed-milk blue in the nation, made from sheep, cow and goat’s milk. The Hooks’ award winning cheeses round out with a line-up of American Originals, including Sweet Contantine (parmesan/asiago-style), Red Errigal (mixed-milk Colby-style), and FitzSulTon (sheep milk white cheddar).
Having an array of Hook’s Cheeses to choose from on the retail shelf is a relatively new development. It was only in 2001 when the Hooks decided to “try and retire”–which in cheesemaker lingo means changing from making cheese six or seven days a week to only two or three days a week. The pair switched from selling their cheeses to a large distributor, where it ended up being sold under a variety of other companies’ labels, to selling it all under the Hook’s Cheese Company name.
"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."
Today, the Hooks continue to grow. Younger brother Jerry Hook and younger sister Julie Hook (Tony calls her Julie Marie to keep his Julies straight) have joined the operation, and nephew Brian, son of older brother, Tim Hook, now also works at the factory. And finally there's the next generation.
"The grandkids are coming up, so who knows?" Tony says with a smile. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to wait that long, but it sure seems like the cheese at Hook’s Cheese is going to be made by Hooks a while longer.”