Henning remembers hearing his father turning down the opportunity to buy milk from a farmer four miles from the cheese plant. “Dad said, ‘We aren’t driving that far to pick up milk.’” Otto would be in for a surprise today, seeing that Henning Cheese is now one of just two cheesemaking plants operating in Manitowoc County.
Henning Cheese purchases milk from 35 farmer-producers. At the heyday of dairy farming, the producer numbers reached 56. Today, while the producers are fewer in number, they supply higher averages of milk production.
Over the century, Henning Cheese has seen some interesting changes in numbers.
Everett recalls stories of the early days when Henning Cheese had barely enough milk on some days to cover the bottom of the vat. His guess is that meant around 1,000 to 1,500 pounds of milk for manufacturing.
Although no numbers are readily available for the first vat runs at Henning Cheese, Everett reels off the numbers of his first year at the helm with ease. Back in 1963, Henning Cheese received an average of 8,000 pounds of milk a day and turned it into roughly 800 pounds of cheese.
Today, production is about 20 times that volume.
“Thirty years ago, this would have been considered a big cheese plant in Wisconsin. Now, we are still considered a small plant. We didn’t stay small as
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much as the big ones just got a lot bigger,” he said.
Most of the cheese shipped by Henning Cheese these days is still the mild Cheddar. “We ship almost everything out as mild. Some of the stores age it a little bit. Once in a while a store will ask for three-or six-month-old cheese,” Henning said.
Locally, where cheese tasters are a bit more accustomed to the flavor of aged cheese, stores carry a lot more of the 18 month aged cheese.
In the Henning Cheese store, specialty aged cheeses can be found. “A while back we had quite a bit of six-year-old cheese available,” Everett noted.
But, as any cheese connoisseur will tell you, again cheese takes time and space.
“I had a lady ask me a while back, ‘Can you make some of that eight-year-old cheese for me? How soon can I have it?’”
I told her, “Eight years from now. Then she finally got it.”
When is it pink?
“Cheese is still made pretty much the same way it always was,” Everett said.
Today, however, equipment and technology have come to the aid of the process.
“We make bigger volumes in bigger vats. The whole thing is computer controlled, and that helps the consistency of the cheese,” he noted.
Today’s cheesemakers have the benefit of pH meters which help test for acidity in cheese. The appropriate acidity tells when the cheese has reached the proper transformation. Cheesemakers of old relied on phenolphthalein. A couple of drops placed into a whey sample would turn the substance pink to show the amount of acid in the sample.
“When it turned pink, you knew it was right,” Everett said. “The problem is that everyone has a different idea of what pink should be.”
One test Everett never got to learn from his father was the “hot iron test.”
In the earliest days of Henning Cheese, cheesemaker Otto Henning didn’t even have the benefit of using the neutralizer for sampling.
Instead of looking for the pink sample, the cheesemaker would put an iron poker in to the coal-fired boiler, until the iron was sufficiently heated. The poker would be touched to the cheese in the vat. When it pulled an elastic string away, the cheese was ready to be milled.
“We don’t do that test any more,” Henning chuckled. “We don’t have coal fired boilers, either.”
Some things remain the same
As much as some things change, some remain the same.
Today, Henning Cheese still depends on dedicated farmer producers to provide quality milk—the key to quality cheese.
Henning Cheese still relies on a great workforce, a team of employees that take great pride in their product.
And, mostly, Henning Cheese is still a place where family matters.
In addition to Kerry’s role as cheesemaker, Kert Henning and Kay Schmitz are third generation contributors to the Henning Cheese success story. They work in sales and administration. A fourth sibling, Kim, is a UCC pastor in Two Rivers. Everett likes to use the saying, “Three of my children work for me and the other one prays for me. I can’t go wrong.”
Fourth generation family members are part of the mix too, Mindy Schmitz, Rebekah Henschel and Laura Henning, Zachary, Kathryn, Leah and Michelle Henning and Alicia Kahl all help out. Mindy is primarily responsible for managing the cheese store. Rebekah has taken on a significant amount of the marketing to Wisconsin stores. The grandchildren offer flexible hours which can be helpful at peak times.
“It’s great to see the grandchildren involved,” Everett said. In fact, another of his grandkids, Joshua is studying dairy science at River Falls. He is already extending the Henning Cheese influence, along with his dad and grandfather, to help upgrade the university’s cheesemaking facilities.