July 20, 2018
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Hook’s Cheese updates look with new labels, adds new distributors

THEY’VE GOT THE BLUES — Hook’s Cheese has spent the last two decades perfecting its blue-veined cheeses. It makes a variety of Blues using cow’s, goat’s and sheep’s milks.

CHEESEMAKING DUO — Husband and wife team Tony and Julie Hook have been making cheese together for more than 40 years. They formed Hook’s Cheese Co. in rural Mineral Point, Wisconsin, in 1976, and moved to their current facility in Mineral Point in 1987.

By Kate Sander

MINERAL POINT, Wis. — The concept of “slowing down” comes easier for some than others. Tony and Julie Hook, a husband-and-wife team and well-known Wisconsin cheesemaking duo, would fall in the category of “others.”

In the late 1990s, their company, Hook’s Cheese, was making 1.5 million pounds of cheese, primarily American-style, each year.

About the time of the new millennium, they decided to “slow down” and transition from making commodity cheeses to artisan cheeses with less output.

But the Hooks really haven’t slowed down. They may make less cheese, but the cheeses are critically acclaimed and sales of their specialty cheeses are growing at a pace of about 15 percent annually. This past year the family-owned and -operated business has brought on Sara Hill to handle national sales, revamped its labels and continues to look for and add new distributors.

Hook’s Cheese has always been known for quality cheese; in fact, Julie Hook was the first — and to date, the only — woman cheesemaker to win the top award in the World Championship Cheese Contest when her Colby won the top award in 1982.
However, Hook’s Cheese made a lot of cheese for other buyers, and in the late 1990s with debts paid off and their kids through college, Tony and Julie saw the opportunity to focus more on their Hook’s brand and try new and different cheeses. They launched their first Blue cheese in 1997 and began selling it at the Dane County Farmers Market, the weekly market around the Capitol Square in Madison, Wisconsin, where they had already established a presence. There — then and now — chefs, specialty stores and consumers alike seek out the Hooks’ traditionally-made, artisan products, which range from Colbys and aged Cheddars to Blues to mixed-milk American originals.

“People’s palates
are more seasoned,
and they are looking
for bigger and bolder flavors.”

Sara Hill

As the company has changed its focus, what Tony says he didn’t necessarily expect was the attention and support that he and Julie would get from smaller distributors, the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (now known as Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin) and the Dairy Business Innovation Center.

Hill, though, says it was a natural evolution. Hill, who previously worked for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board as manager of cheese education and training, says when she was doing culinary tours and working with cheese buyers she loved to include the company.

“Hook’s Cheese was always a special stop on the plant tours. We would walk in the door and often see milk in the vats,” Hill says. “Tony would greet us and then give a tour of the plant, going through the cheesemaking process, explaining the aging caves and answering questions. We would finish with a tasting of about 20 cheeses and there was always a line to buy their favorites to take home.”

Tilston Point, a washed rind, cave aged blue, with a nutty flavor and a nice “funky” finish, introduced in 2004, was a favorite for Hill to include in a flight of Blues. Hill notes that Hook’s Cheese ages most of its blues nine to 12 months. This is rare in the industry but a big reason why Hook’s Blues are so good, she says.

“People’s palates are more seasoned, and they are looking for bigger and bolder flavors,” she adds.

The late 1990s and early 2000s were a time of experimentation for the Hooks as they added several cave-aged Blues to their offerings. In addition to Tilston Point, they created Blue Paradise, a double-cream Blue, and introduced Gorgonzola. In 2009, they started making a sheep’s milk Blue called Little Boy Blue, which won first in its class at the American Cheese Society competition in 2011, 2012 and 2014. In 2012, they introduced a goat’s milk blue called Barneveld Blue.

“We age our cheese
in curing caves at just the right temperature and humidity
for a slow curing
process that allows
our cheeses to age
to perfection.”

Tony Hook

Shortly thereafter, they began working with mixed-milk cheeses in earnest.

In 2013, Hook’s Cheese introduced a mixed-milk Blue with cow’s, sheep’s, and goat’s milk called EWE CALF to be KIDding Blue.

Another mixed-milk cheese the company started making is called Triple Play, which was launched in 2014. This cheese uses cow’s, sheep’s and goat’s milks, three different starter cultures, and has flavor notes of Baby Swiss, Gouda and Havarti.

A couple of years ago, as an experiment, the Hooks set aside a few 40-pound rindless blocks of Triple Play for aging beyond the three to six months that it typically is aged. The end result was Triple Play Extra Innings that the company introduced last year. Aged more than one year, at this point the Gouda flavor becomes more prevalent and crystals begin to form.

“It’s one of the cheeses people go crazy for,” Hill says of Triple Play Extra Innings.

Another mixed-milk offering the company has developed is Red Errigal, a mixed-milk cheese made from cow’s and sheep’s milk made in the style of a Colby.

The company has worked with the same three cow’s milk producers for generations and sources its goat’s milk from LaClare Farms and its sheep’s milk from Hidden Springs so quality and continuity are maintained.

The Hooks, including Tony’s brother and nephew who are both licensed cheesemakers, continue to enjoy experimenting. Not everything works out the way they hope, but oftentimes the “failures” inspire something else, Tony Hook says.

“We have cheeses
that wow people.
At a show, people
will try it and walk
away and come back
and say, ‘that was
really amazing.’
That’s when you
know it’s a really
good cheese.”

Sara Hill

Not all of the cheeses are experiments, though. With quality and flavor in mind, the company continues to make plain and flavored Jacks and age its high-quality Cheddars, storing the best ones for years on end until they have reached just the right flavor profile.

“We age our cheese in curing caves at just the right temperature and humidity for a slow curing process that allows our cheeses to age to perfection. Every few months each batch is taste tested to ensure that only the cheeses of the highest quality are saved to age,” Hook says.

The company always has cheeses aged one to 12 years available, and often a 15-year Cheddar as well — although demand is high and supply is limited. The company also offered a 20-year aged Cheddar in 2015 and plans to do so again in 2020.

This year, Hook’s Cheese is centering more of its efforts on marketing, Hook says. The company launched its new labels at the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association show last month in New Orleans and is currently transitioning all cheeses to the new look. The new black labels focus on the Hook’s name and still have familiar hand-drawn pictures of animals that denote the source of the milk — retaining who the company is but with a fresh look that stands out in the deli case, Hill says.

Retailers, inundated every day with all kinds of cheese, have many choices, Hill acknowledges.

To make their jobs easier, the company recently began offering its cheeses in random-weight Cryovac packages for retailers who don’t have the labor to cut and wrap in the store.

While the company’s cheese is available in pockets nationwide, Hook’s Cheese has the capacity to produce more cheese and is looking to expand its distribution with the right partners, Hill says, noting she works with distributors to develop promotions and tell the stories behind the cheese.

“We’d like to keep growing at about this pace. I am up to retirement age, but I’d like to keep going for a few more years,” Hook says, noting that eventually he foresees the next generation of the Hook family assuming responsibility for the business.

Distributors who know cheese and who appreciate the artisan quality and handmade effort put into Hook’s Cheese will have the greatest success with the company’s cheeses, Hill adds.

“Our ideal customer is a distributor devoted to cheese,” Hill says.

“We have cheeses that wow people,” she adds. “At a show, people will try it and will walk away and come back and say ‘that was really amazing.’ That’s when you know it’s a really good cheese.”




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