MINERAL POINT, Wis. – A 15-year-old cheddar made in Wisconsin, possibly the most mature cheese for sale in the country, is selling well despite the $50-per-pound price tag, its producer said Saturday.
Hook's 15-year Sharp Cheddar, produced in 1994, went up for sale in a handful of outlets on Friday and has proven popular, said cheese maker Tony Hook.
"It started moving a lot faster than we expected," said Hook, 57, who — along with his wife and brother — runs Hook's Cheese Co in Mineral Point, Wisconsin. "People have been so excited about it."
The cheddar began as part of a gigantic batch that weighed 5,200 pounds. The Hooks let much of the batch age, and sold large chunks at the 10- and 12-year marks. But they felt it was aging so flavorfully that they saved 1,200 pounds to let it mature a few years longer, Hook said.
It's rare for cheddar to last that long, said John Umhoefer, the executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association.
"Fifteen years is a good stretch of time to hold a cheddar — perhaps as long as a cheddar can hold for most people's palates," Umhoefer told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "Making a cheddar that ripe, without it turning bitter or acidic, is a rare skill."
Umhoefer said he thought Hook's cheddar could be the oldest available on the market. There may be older cheddars, he said, but those would be in private collections.
The average cheddar fan is probably used to fresher samples. Shredded samples available in grocery stores are probably one to two months old, Hook said.
But anyone who has cleaned moldy cheese from their refrigerator knows that even well-sealed samples don't keep for long, much less 15 years.
The secret is starting with precisely the right sample, Hook said, a sample that has no "off flavors" and progresses smoothly.
"Many cheddars will develop enough flavor, a bitter flavor in five to six months or a year. You wouldn't want to age something like that because it's going to get worse," he said. "You have to know what you're looking for when you're sampling."
The Hooks kept their samples vacuum-packed in plastic bags, which Hook said helped the aging process but kept the cheese fresh and edible.
But how does it taste?
"It's smooth, it isn't bitter, it doesn't have an off flavor. It doesn't have an acidic bite like a three-year. It's very flavorful," Hook said. "It's got a lot more cheddar flavor."
Hook recommends pairing the cheddar with wine and a good cracker or bread.
"I certainly wouldn't put it in anything. It would be a waste of flavor to put it in mac 'n' cheese or something like that," he said with a laugh.
At least one customer bought the cheese on principle.
"Cheese making is an art form," Brian Morello, who bought a 3/4-pound hunk of the vintage cheddar at Larry's Market in Milwaukee, told the Journal Sentinel. "I consider my purchase to be a form of cheese philanthropy. For $50, I supported the arts and got a great piece of cheese."