How much would you pay for a slice of history? For only the third time ever, Hook’s is releasing a batch of its 20-year cheddar to a lucky group of lottery-winning cheese lovers.

In the caves beneath Hook’s Mineral Point cheese factory sits some extremely old cheddar– waiting, and almost ready, for its day in the sun.

How old is “old”?

When this cheddar was just a batch of baby curds bobbing in a tank of whey, Saddam Hussein was Iraq’s president, the space Shuttle Columbia was flying, and Johnny Depp was about to debut as Jack Sparrow. 

Was 2003 a very good year for making cheese? Some lucky cheese lovers are about to find out…

The Release

For only the third time in history, Hook’s is releasing a batch of its 20-year cheddar to the public. People who fill out a form online by the end of January will have a chance to buy the cheese at $209/pound. The first time Hook’s released 450 pounds of 20-year cheddar in 2015, it sold out in six days. The 2020 batch of 500 pounds sold out in 20 days, but because it was released during the COVID lockdown, Hook’s had a few wedges leftover to sell at the Dane County Farmers’ Market.

When Hook’s released its first batch of 20-year cheese in 2015, owner Tony Hook wasn’t sure what to charge.

“The 15-year cheddar sells for $100 a pound, so I thought I would just double that,’’ he said. But then Dale Curley, owner of Larry’s Market in Brown Deer, announced he would be selling the cheese for $209, so Hook decided to go with that and donate half the proceeds to charity. The first two batches helped build the Center for Dairy Research (CDR) at UW-Madison. 

The Cause

This year’s proceeds will benefit Little John’s Kitchen, a Madison non-profit that trains veterans and upcycles leftover food to fight job and food insecurity. 

The Process

So what does a 20-year-old cheddar taste like? Florence Fabricant, a food writer for the New York Times, described Hook’s oldest cheese as having “an aroma of toffee and herbs” with moderate sharpness and “an alluring hint of crunch.”

John Lucey, an Irish cheesemaker who leads the CDR, raved, “I’ve tasted some of Tony’s (20-year cheese) previously, and that one was outstanding. The flavors are incredibly complex, with one flavor on top of another flavor.”

He noticed caramel and sulfur flavors, and because the cheese is intense, cautioned, “you might want something to cleanse your palette afterwards.”

Lucey said that aging a cheese this long is almost unprecedented. 

“Typically, the longest stored cheeses were low-moisture, hard Italian cheeses, and those were only stored for several years,” he said.

Those cheeses, known as parmesan in the US, develop stronger flavors the longer they sit. With the advent of refrigeration and increased competition, cheese aging has become something of an arms race.

“People are saying, ‘If you thought two or three years of aging is good, what about 20 years?,’” Lucey posited. 

The reason that cheese changes so much is because of its “living fermentation system.” While the work of the cheesemaker is mostly done when the young cheese is formed into a wheel, bacteria and enzymes within the cheese stay hard at work– breaking down fats and proteins into component amino acids, and converting them into other compounds.

“It’s an endless process that can continue for years,’’ Lucey explained. “It could be a case study in organic chemistry.” Some of these reactions occur very slowly and take a long time.”

Back in 2003, Tony and his wife Julie selected the young cheddars they thought would age best. Then, at least once a year, they sampled the cheese to see how it was developing.

“There are definitely some that aren’t going to go the distance,’’ Hook said, saying those were sold off as five- or ten-year cheddars.

The Sale

In addition to ordering directly from Hook’s, the cheese will be sold at Larry’s Market in Brown Deer and Fromagination in Madison.

While the price tag is eye-popping, you’re buying a piece of Wisconsin history.

“There’s a lot of time, storage and care devoted to these cheeses, and it costs money to store them,’’ Lucey said. “These long-aged cheeses have phenomenal flavors, so they’re an experience. You don’t need to eat a lot of it to have the experience.”