The celebrated 20-year-old Wisconsin Cheddar released by cheese makers Julie and Tony Hook has a sharp, clean bite mellowed by a surprisingly creamy mouthfeel. This spring, the Hooks took proceeds from the sale of this limited edition Cheddar to donate $40,000 toward the construction of a new Center for Dairy Research in Madison.
The old Cheddar is a time capsule. It holds the memories of the year its fresh curd was pressed into a 40-pound block, when young Cheddar was selling for $1.20 at the National Cheese Exchange.
As the curd knit back in 1995, USDA changed its grade standards to allow few or no mechanical openings in Colby cheese. Hans Lehner was named winner of WCMA’s H.P. Mulloy Award. Dr. Frank Kosikowski passed away at age 79 and Walter V. Price at 98.
Hook’s Cheddar began its cure as a dairy industry article noted that three cheese companies had created “home pages” on the internet’s World Wide Web. A “home page,” the article explained, is the screen each WWW site prepares to appear on the computer when a user accesses that “site.”
While Hook’s Cheddar aged, an all-new Minnesota-Wisconsin milk price formula took effect for May 1995 milk. As the Cheddar grew older, USDA developed a Class III formula price for milk used in cheesemaking that incorporated the value of dried whey. This “improvement” is arguably more controversial, and more detrimental to cheese makers, than the antique M-W price.
Foremost Farms USA took shape in 1995, when Hook’s cheese was a mild Cheddar, with Don Storhoff taking the reins of the new merger of Wisconsin Dairies and Golden Guernsey Dairy.
Hook’s 20-year Cheddar was made just as Wisconsin passed new regulations on the definition of “aged cheese.”
For decades, any Wisconsin cheese more than 10 months old was defined as aged. In February 1995, Wisconsin opened the definition of “aged” to any time frame, as long as the cheese label included the age in days, months or years. Hook’s limited edition Cheddar reached Day 7,300.
An IDFA study called for deregulation of milk and dairy product pricing as debate over the 1995 Farm Bill began. US Rep. Steve Gunderson called the first public hearing on the Farm Bill in Eau Claire, WI. There, WCMA called for a consolidation of federal orders from 38 to “four to seven,” a national Class III price and elimination of government purchases of surplus dairy products. Hook’s Cheddar aged 19 years before the government stopped buying surplus dairy products.
In 1995, an audit meant the IRS was at your door. Today, cheese makers face a barrage of plant and quality systems audits demanded by cheese buyers, retailers and converters. As rival audit systems monetize food safety and pile on requirements in the interest of market share rather than sound science, older dairy plants like Hook’s will be challenged to pass muster.
Agropur, the Montreal-based cooperative and cheese producer, eclipsed Wisconsin’s world-record Cheddar mammoth in 1995. The 57,518-pound Canadian Cheddar topped the 40,060-pound Belle of Wisconsin made by Simon’s Specialty Cheese seven years earlier. Twenty years later, Doug Simon is president of the USA Cheese Business Unit for Agropur.
There was little chance Hook’s Cheddar would be exported when the 20-year product was first pressed. But that year, DMI created the US Dairy Export Council and US participation in international markets has steadily grown. Tiny cheese exports of less than 1 percent of US production in 1995 have grown by a factor of 10x, reaching more than 800 million pounds in 2014. Nonfat dry milk exports have grown 15x, reaching 1.2 billion pounds last year. Specialty cheeses like aged Cheddar from Wisconsin now reach Canada, Mexico, Japan, South Korea, China and markets beyond.
In 1995, WCMA introduced its first aged Cheddar class for the United States Championship Cheese Contest. That year, Tony and Julie Hook set aside some Cheddar for aging, anticipating a sure win in the 20-year-and-older class in the distant 2015 Contest.
John Umhoefer has served as executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association since 1992. You can phone John at (608) 828-4550; Fax him at (608) 828-4551; or e-mail John Umhoefer at
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