Monday, November 28, 2011

Hook's Cheese: Almost 40 Years & Still Going Strong

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.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Cognac BellaVitano

This just in: Sartori will release a limited quantity (read: you're never going to taste it) of its new Cognac BellaVitano for the 2011 holiday season.

The latest take on its home-run BellaVitano cheese, an American Original boasting a creamy, fruity taste, the Cognac BellaVitano is pure marketing genius.

The cheese itself is extra aged - that means at least 18 months - and after the aging process, is submerged in a premium Cognac. It is removed only when Sartori Master Cheesemaker Mike Matucheski deems it to be just right (read: after he samples it several times - how do I get this gig?).

The end result? Sartori says it will be a: smoky, nutty, oaky flavorful cheese with hints of vanilla and caramel. Note, I'm getting this from the company's press release - I'm holding out little hope to actually find this puppy in a store, as only 20 wheels are going on sale, and a limited supply of 4 oz wedges have either already sold out, or are not yet available for sale on the company's website. The price? $75 a pound. Uff da.

Can't find the cheese in a store near you? No worries, you'll be able to buy it on eBay. Sartori is putting the first two 20-pound wheels on the auction site, starting today. Each will be signed by Master Cheesemakers, and all proceeds will be donated to local food banks.

CEO Jim Sartori, in a very classy statement, says: "This is a challenging time of year for some members of our community. We will be donating 100 percent of the proceeds to the food banks to help out families in need. The Cognac wheels at auction are wheels #1 andf #2, and we are only selling 20 wheels this entire holiday season. We expect the autciton to be very successful."

The auction for wheel #1 begins today, with wheel #2 going up for sale on Nov. 26. Each auction will last 10 days. Go wild, kids, and if you're the lucky winner, feel free to send me a wedge.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Koepke Farms Launches LaBelle Cheese

It may have spent 10 years on the "back burner," but the launch of a new cheese this fall by a Wisconsin dairy family has definitely made the wait worthwhile.

Creamy and mild, LaBelle is the fourth child of Oconomowoc dairy farmers John & Kim Koepke. (Their first three children are actually children ages 2, 7, and 10, but anyone launching a new cheese will  tell you it's about as much work as having another kid).

LaBelle's official description is a blend between a Gouda and Butterkase, but my official description is "yumtastic." Creamy, flavorful with just the right body and a perfectly clean finish, LaBelle is the kind of cheese that you can sit down and eat an entire package before realizing it. (Don't ask me how I know this).

"We wanted to make a cheese that was comfortable in the kitchen but okay to eat while watching the Packer game," Oconomowoc dairy farmers John & Kim Koepke told me last week.

Well, folks, I think you can consider that mission accomplished. Made at Cedar Grove Cheese in Plain, Wis., LaBelle is enjoying a successful run in local markets and continually sells out special dinners at The Pub in downtown Oconomowoc. The Koepkes are now experimenting with a Foenegreek flavored LaBelle, with other flavors on the horizon.

When they're not making cheese, the Koepkes are busy winning awards for their stellar dairy farm, located in Waukesha County. In October, they were chosen as the second-ever recipient of Wisconsin's Leopold Conservation Award, bringing with it a $10,000 cash prize and Leopold crystal. Before that, they scooped up the "Dairy Farm of the Year" at the 2011 World Dairy Expo.

The farm is a partnership between brothers Alan, David, Jim and Jim's son John. Kim is in charge of marketing and sales of the farm's cheese venture, and she certainly has an eye for logo and brand development, evident by the cheese's stunning packaging and logo, developed in partnership with consultants at the Dairy Business Innovation Center, a non-profit organization that helps folks just like the Koepkes launch their own value-added dairy products.

"The foundation of our business has always been on the principle of great animal care. Everything goes back to the cows," Kim said. "We wanted to show how the love of animals and land can result in a product worthy of having their picture on the label."

And while LaBelle is currently made at Cedar Grove, I get the feeling this farm couple will someday build a factory of their own, after the kids are grown and Kim can focus on perhaps getting her own cheesemaker's license.

"It's something that's never far from my mind," Kim says of making cheese. "But right now we're running a decent-sized farm 24/7 with three little kids. We try and remember what a vendor told us from the very first Fancy Food Show we attended: 'Don't go faster than it's fun.' So that's what we're doing. And we're having fun."