KIEL, Wis. — For more than a century, Henning’s Cheese has made award-winning artisan and specialty cheese from the fresh milk of local, small family farms. Through their steadfast devotion to the dairy farmer, four generations of the Henning family have carved a niche in the industry.
“We handcraft small batches of cheese using time-honored, traditional methods,” Kert Henning said. “We make a limited supply, allowing stores to order exactly what they need from us.”
Henning’s Cheese near Kiel was the first of three stops Oct. 26 on the Professional Dairy Producers Dairy Processor Tours. The family owned and operated company is a place where family values and respect for employees are woven into a commitment to ensure a livelihood for the farms it buys milk from.
Henning’s Cheese pays above-market prices for milk. By ensuring a minimum price for farmers, Henning said they have not lost any farms due to economic reasons, demonstrating the company’s long-term sustainability.
Approximately 20 small family farms within a 30-mile radius of the plant supply milk to Henning’s Cheese. The smallest dairy produces 1,500 pounds of milk per day while the largest produces 6,000 pounds daily. Henning’s Cheese manufactures cheese Monday through Friday and processes around 800,000 pounds of milk weekly. The majority of milk comes from Holsteins and contains 3.5% to 3.9% butterfat.
“We make 85,000 pounds of cheese per week, which makes us very small in the dairy industry,” Henning said. “We make different sizes of wheels and blocks and a wide variety of flavors. That’s what separates us from everyone else and makes us unique.”
Henning and his brother, Kerry, are third-generation owners of the business started by their grandfather, Otto Henning, in 1914. From its humble beginnings in which farmers dropped off milk via horse and wagon, Henning’s Cheese grew with the times — expanding and updating to accommodate growth and meet changing state and U.S. Department of Agriculture standards for dairy plants.
Kerry is a certified Wisconsin master cheesemaker, holding master’s degrees in colby, cheddar and Monterey Jack. Licensed cheesemakers from the fourth generation of the Henning family include Joshua and Zachary. Henning’s Cheese employs about 40 people in various areas of the plant. The company’s niche is wheel cheese, and every wheel is a special order.
“Round wheels of cheese are labor intensive, and not many cheese factories do this,” Henning said.
Henning said their mammoth wheels have been as large as 12,000 pounds, which is 6.5 feet tall and 6.5 feet wide. They sell many wheels to Puerto Rico and Texas.
Henning’s Cheese makes cheddar, colby, Monterey Jack, farmers, mozzarella and gouda cheese along with approximately 26 flavors, such as apple, garlic dill, onion chive and tomato basil. Henning’s Cheese is not afraid to add heat to its cheese with flavors like Mango Fire, Dragon’s Breath and Rattlesnake. Tequila blended with excessively hot habaneros makes Rattlesnake suitable for only the bravest of cheese connoisseurs.
“We make specific cheeses for specific customers,” Henning said. “The quality of our cheese and flavor profile is one of those things that makes us unique. You may not agree with all of our flavor profiles, but that’s why we do so many to target different markets throughout the country.”
The cheese manufacturer makes a blueberry cobbler fruit cheese, which Henning said is great on a grilled cheese sandwich dusted with powdered sugar. Henning’s Cheese also offers seasonal, limited-edition cheeses like maple bourbon and strawberry.
“The way we make cheese is something like using a slow cooker at home to marinate flavors,” Henning said. “We limit the amount of milk coming in so that we can put the brakes on and allow that cheese flavor to come through. It makes a world of difference.”
Henning’s Cheese has stood the test of time and is the last surviving cheese manufacturer in Manitowoc County — a county that was once home to 110 such manufacturers, according to Henning.
“Wisconsin used to have 2,800 cheese factories,” Henning said. “Now, there are approximately 125 making more cheese and more varieties than ever before.”
In addition to its manufacturing facility, Henning’s Cheese also includes a storefront and museum. The store offers fresh, warm curds and a wide variety of cheese and cheese spreads as well as breaded cheese curds for deep frying. In addition, Henning’s Cheese carries Wisconsin and California wines; brats, bacon and other sausages; along with Wisconsin souvenirs and charcuterie items.
“I’m proud of where we are and the decisions we’ve made along the way,” Henning said. “Could we make more cheese? Yes. But, do we want to make more cheese? No.”
Labor is one reason for not growing bigger. Another reason is the family’s desire to spend time with loved ones while remaining dialed into quality.
“We are a fourth-generation family cheese company that prides itself on quality versus quantity,” Henning said. “Getting larger is not always the answer to everything. Focusing on what you do, and then doing it very well, makes a difference. What we do here is extremely unique.”
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