The Cheese Insider

Janice stands beside a “mammoth wheel” of cheese at Henning’s Cheese.

Spring has finally arrived after a long brutal winter. Much of this off-season has been spent searching out new cheeses and visiting with a number of cheesemakers, some new and some old friends. With the explosion of artisan and specialty cheeses there are always plenty of opportunities for me to explore here in Wisconsin.

My wife Janice, a.k.a. Mrs. Spoon, and I recently visited a cheese plant that I have always wanted to visit: Henning’s Cheese in Kiel, WI. I am familiar with many of their award winning cheeses, and know that their head cheesemaker, Kerry Henning, is a Master Cheesemaker. I also knew that they are a multi-generational family owned business, but we had never set foot in the cheese plant, or met any of the family. The cheese factory is set amongst the rolling hills of east-central Wisconsin.

Kay Schmitz, granddaughter of the founder, Otto Henning, met us when we arrived and gave us a tour of the facility. We started the tour in the “cheese museum,” a one-of-a-kind treasure unlike any I have seen before. It is filled with mint condition antique equipment and implements, all related to the cheese industry from years gone by. Kay told us that this is her dad’s personal project and I must say that it is the most impressive collection I have ever seen. I need to go back just so I can take a closer look at many of the pieces displayed.

Henning Cheese just celebrated its 100-year anniversary in February of this year. Otto Henning took over a small dairy plant from August Hingiss in 1914. The original plant was located between two dairy farms, which was very common during the turn of the century. In those days milk was transported in cans by horse drawn wagons, so having cheese plants near farms made it much easier. During this same period of time there was a cheese plant located at virtually every four corners (roads) in the countryside.

At its peak Wisconsin had over 2,800 cheese plants, now it is somewhere near 125. With refrigerated milk trucks that can haul long distances, many of the small countryside cheese plants are long gone, replaced by large, high volume mega plants.

Otto’s son, Everett, became a cheesemaker and took over the plant in 1963. Everett built a “new” plant a few miles from the original, and that plant has been added onto several times, making it a first class, modern cheese plant. Hennings still make cheese the way cheese should be made, in open cheese vats where the cheesemakers actually hand craft the cheeses they produce.

In the late ‘60s into the late ‘70s the Henning plant was considered a large cheese plant, but not in today’s world. Most of the smaller cheese plants closed years ago because they could not compete with larger commodity plants that were being built. If you were a small plant, you had better make some very good, unique cheese or you could not survive. In recent years the specialty and artisan cheese movement has been a true revival for many of the smaller producers.

Henning Cheese has long been known for its high quality cheddars, including a variety of flavored varieties, including jalapeno, habenero, peppercorn, herbs, and many others. They also make mozzarella, Colby and jack cheese.

Henning is also known for making “mammoth wheels,” some as large as 10,000 pounds. They are the only U.S. cheese producer that make these monster size wheels of cheese that are often used in grocery store grand openings and special events around the country. If you have never seen a mammoth wheel it is truly amazing.

Henning Cheese now includes the forth generation of family members. Everett at 82 is still active in the company, although it has been years since he has made cheese. His son, Kerry, is the lead cheesemaker, while son Kert and daughter Kay work on the administrative and sales side of the business. A number of grandchildren (founder Otto’s great grandchildren) are involved in a variety of functions with the company. I applaud what they do, and support all their efforts in keeping a family owned cheese business successful here in America’s Dairyland.

Michael C. Thomas is co-owner of Schoolhouse Artisan Cheese with his wife Janice. With locations in Ellison Bay and Egg Harbor, they aim to bring the best of Wisconsin artisan cheeses to Door County, and with “The Cheese Insider” Michael hopes to bring all things cheese to readers of the Pulse.