MILWAUKEE (AP) — Two months ago he accomplished the rare feat of coaxing cheddar to mature for a full 15 years. Now a prizewinning Wisconsin cheesemaker is preparing to sell a second batch of similarly aged cheese, and the orders are already pouring in.
Tony Hook, co-owner of Hook's Cheese Co. in Mineral Point, previously made 1,200 pounds of the special cheddar. Even at $50 per pound, it sold out in two weeks last December.
A new batch is nearing completion and will be shipped to a handful of stores Feb. 22. This batch is 1,600 pounds, and pre-orders have already locked up about 75 percent of that.
"I think it's pretty close to identical to the previous one," Hook told The Associated Press. "It's got a nice cheddary flavor. It isn't acidic. It's got a nice smooth flavor to it."
Hook's 15-Year Sharp Cheddar is believed to be the most mature cheese of its kind for sale in the country. If there are older cheddars they're in private collections, said John Umhoefer, the executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association.
Teenage cheddars are so uncommon because the cheese typically goes bad as it ages, Umhoefer said.
The regular cheddar that grocery stores sell is usually one to two months old.
Hook says he nurtures his batches by carefully controlling moisture and temperature to ensure the taste remains smooth and flavorful.
The release of the latest batch comes as more than 40 Wisconsin middle-school students are trying to persuade state lawmakers to designate cheese as the official state snack. The students were scheduled to testify about the issue Wednesday before a state Senate committee.
Hook sold his first 15-year-old batch for $35.95 per pound, then raised the price to $50 as it drew rave reviews. Despite the high demand for the new batch, he's keeping the $50 price tag.
"I just figured it was a fair price," he said. "In this economy there are some for whom that's still awfully high-priced, but for that age cheddar I don't think it's out of range."
Customers can buy the cheddar at Hook's Cheese in the southwestern corner of Wisconsin, or through a handful of stores in Wisconsin and Southern California.
One California supplier is The Cheese Store of Beverly Hills, which sold 80 pounds of the first batch for $75 per pound. Saleswoman Jennifer Crowe, a self-described cheese connoisseur, described it in terms one might use for a fine wine.
"There's a matureness, a richness, a decadent flavor," she said, noting that even those who think all cheddars taste alike can detect a difference in texture and finish. "It's incredibly smooth."
She recommended serving the cheese by itself to avoid diluting the taste, though she said it could pair well with apples or other tart flavors.
Hook agreed the cheddar is best eaten plain, or maybe with a hearty bread, red wine or stout beer.
Hook's first batch sold out in less than two weeks, although the cheesemaker attributes some of the interest to Christmas demand. The second batch is selling well but Hook speculated the timing means it will be in stores a little longer.
A third batch is due out in December; Hook said it's even more flavorful than the first two. He said he'll keep a few blocks from that batch in hopes of aging them for as long as 20 years.