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You can’t really call yourself a Wisconsin cheese aficionado if you’re not regularly gobbling up the award-winning aged cheddar cheeses produced by Tony and Julie Hook of Hook’s Cheese Co. in Mineral Point. But as you pop another piece atop your wheat cracker, have you ever stopped to wonder what happens when cheese ages, and why a 5-year cheddar tastes so different from a 10- or 15-year cheese?
Fortunately, Tony Hook has fielded the question plenty of times.
Cheese is all about bacteria and enzymes, he explains. The bacteria convert the lactose in milk to acid — after a few months the bacteria die out and then enzymes take over, steering the cheese directly toward Sharp City.
“The sharpness, or bite, comes from acidity,” explains Hook. “A cheddar gets most of its bite between three and five years.”
As the cheese passes the 5-year mark, the flavor balance begins to shift away from sharp to smooth. As it ages into the 5- and 7-year range, crunchy calcium lactate crystals form and beat back the bitterness, replacing it with an almost fruity flavor.
Theoretically, says Hook, you can age a cheese as long as you like — provided it’s bagged, watched carefully and kept at the proper temperature. Hook’s released a 20-year aged cheddar in 2015, which was a velvety smooth offering that cost as much as $209 a pound. (The company donated half of the proceeds from the sale to the ongoing UW Babcock Hall Expansion.) Good news for cheeseheads who missed slicing into that double-decade bounty: Hook’s will do it again, but not until 2020. Hook started aging around 500 pounds in 2000. You might want to mark your calendars now.