Henning's Road Trip

It was a wet, cold and early Thursday morning. Seven Sendik’s Cheesemongers – along with John Wollner (our brave leader) and Peter from the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (our safe driver for the day) – piled into the van and headed to Kiel Wisconsin, the home of Henning’s Cheese Factory, Museum and Store. This is a place rich in history, pride and family tradition.

Kert Henning was our tour guide and family historian for the Henning’s story and cheese making tour. The factory was purchased by Kert’s grandparents, Otto and Norma Henning, in 1914. As you can imagine, the work was hard and the family labored long hours to make quality cheeses. They purchased milk from local dairy farms and this practice is continued today.

Kert told the story of his father, who got a good union job when he was just a little boy. After his grandfather passed away, Kert’s father, Everett, came home from this good union job and told his wife, Jellane, that he was going to quit and make cheese. Now there is every wives dream! This was when Kert, along with his brother Kerry and his sister Kay, started working with their parents to continue the tradition of making the excellent Cheddars that helped make Wisconsin’s reputation of being the nation’s Cheese Capital.

Today, Kert continues to support the family business with his sales and marketing expertise. He visits our Sendik’s Cheese Department often, making sure we have the products that we need and are informed of what is new at Henning’s. His brother, Kerry, is the Master Cheesemaker for Henning’s. Wisconsin has set the highest standards for cheesemaking in the nation. This is one very important reason as to why Wisconsin continues to place as the number one cheesemaker in the nation and is competing “toe-to-toe” with the Europeans. The honors are astounding.

Kay is the sister of the family and she runs the business end by taking care of the office and ordering. When I call Hennings to order my mammoth wheels for our store, it’s Kay that I talk to – what a doll! She is always cheerful- wait a minute… now that I think about it the whole family and extended family of employees that we met that day were all very, very happy people. California may have “happy cows,” but here in Wisconsin we have the nicest cheese makers!

Henning’s Cheese primarily makes Cheddar, Colby, Farmers and curds. Each of these cheeses uses the same technique for making cheese. Cheese factories must decide what type of cheese they are going to produce and stick to that type. For example: it is not possible for a cheesefactory to produce cheddar one day and blue cheese the next.

The making of Cheddar involves a lot of very hard, hands-on work. I think that is what struck me the most. I had assumed that a lot of the manual labor was done with machines. But not so, it takes strong backs to make hundreds of pounds of cheddar daily. It starts with milk being delivered to the factory directly from the farms. Pasteurization is done immediately and the milk is transferred to the large stainless steel vats and stirred as it is cooling with two huge mixing arms that move back and fourth along the tubs. Soon the curds start to form and this is when the hard work starts. The workers use long handled wooden rakes to pull the curds to the outside edge from the middle of the vat, forming a river of whey down the middle. They keep pulling and working the curds into large valleys of curds. The switch is flipped and the whey is drained out of the vat. Now the men start dividing the curds into loaves and they start “cheddaring”. This process is done all by hand. The workers reach into the vats, pick up a large section of the curds and begin flipping the sections over and over again, compressing the curds tighter and tighter. The next step is stacking the cheddar loaves on top of each other, flipping them over and over all the while, compressing the curds tighter and tighter and working more of the whey out of the curd. By the time they have finished this process the curds have compressed into a large block of fresh cheddar. This is the way Hennings has been making their famous cheddars since 1914.

Today, the Henning family is the only producers of Mammoth Cheddars and Colby in the United States. Mammoth wheels range from 20lb “Daisies” to 1000lb Cheddar Wheels! Many companies from across the USA order huge mammoth wheels a year or more in advanced so that they may have a specific flavor or age of cheddar.

Master Cheesemaker, Kerry, is also very busy creating new methods and flavors of the famous cheese. The Heritage White Peppercorn Cheddar is one example of his talents. The cheese won top awards at this year USA Cheese Championships it is“bandaged wrapped aged cheddar” meaning that it is wrapped in cheesecloth before the wheel is waxed and then aged. If you have not had an opportunity to try the cheese, please ask your Sendiks cheesemonger to give you a taste. This cheese almost has a parmesan mouth feel and is great as a table cheese or uses it as parmesan in your recipes. Another new cheddar that you are going to see soon is Roasted Garlic White Cheddar. This cheese offers a wonderful balance of cheddar and the wonderful taste of roasted garlic. I am looking forward to using this cheddar in my recipes.

Our morning at the Hennings Cheese Factory was fun and educational. Seeing Kerry, Kert and Kay was great. This is a family that really loves creating cheese and working together as a family. The best news is that new generations of little Hennings are learning the business; ensuring this family’s strong work ethic, commitment to creating quality Wisconsin cheese and dedication to Henning family values is preserved.

Cheese | November 10th, 2009