Some people measure progress day to day.
Others hold a yardstick to their growth by comparing one year to another.
For Everett Henning, a unique view of progress in the cheesemaking business comes from the perspectives of a lifetime.
Henning, who recently celebrated 50 years as the owner of his family’s cheese making business, has seen a lifetime of changes. After all, it was his father, Otto Henning, who started the Henning family tradition. Born into the family of a cheesemaker, Everett’s 80 years have been steeped in cheesemaking tradition and history.
While he may be intrigued by the changes that have occurred in the nearly-century-long family business, it is the things that haven’t changed that matter most.
Those are easy for him to rattle off, including:
n the dedication of farmers who produce good quality milk, the main ingredient for cheese; and
n a terrific group of employees, each and everyone of them, those who are family, and the those who are part of the extended Henning cheesemaking family.
Memories in stories
Some of Everett’s memories of the earliest days of the Henning Cheese factory date back to stories he heard from his father.
Otto Henning was encouraged to get into the cheesemaking business, when he started working for August Hingiss. An injury to the owner prompted him to send Otto to Madison to take the dairy short course. “Even then, they needed to have a licensed cheesemaker on the premises,” Henning said.
That was 1914, a year short of a century ago.
Hingiss had been encouraged to start a new cheesemaking factory by farmers on either side of the current location. Both felt they were hauling their milk too far.
Henning recalls hearing a story from Wesley Thieleke, whose father was one of those that encouraged the start of what was to become Henning’s Cheese.
“I remembered his dad Ed as producer #4,” Everett said. “The numbers were always written on the milk cans we had to handle.”
Henning suggested that to Thieleke, who insisted that his father was at one time producer #1.
Stories told by neighbors over the years point to the fact that the lumber to build the new cheese factory came out of the woods to the north of the Thieleke farm. “Dad told me that the original cheese factory was built in a mere two weeks time. With the green lumber they used, the building got a little distorted over the years,” Henning said. Indeed, the first Henning Cheese plant was a bit more rustic than the modern cinder block construction.
Farmers originally brought their milk to the cheese plant by horse drawn wagon. But, the memories from Everett’s youth also tell him of the times, as a 14-and 15-year-old, he assisted in picking up milk with the Henning Cheese truck.
“Horses and wagons were before my memory, but I do remember seeing some horses an sleighs in winter time,” he said.
And, without refrigeration, the milk had to be used immediately in the cheesemaking process to avoid spoilage.
Cheese to market
For Henning Cheese, in the early days, getting cheese to market meant hauling by horse and wagon to Kiel, where railroad service was available.
The Kraft Company in Plymouth was a major early buyer of the finished product.
By the time he was 18, Everett was driving the old Chevrolet truck to Plymouth, taking the product directly to Kraft.
Cheddar the mainstay
Throughout the years, the bulk of cheese produced at Henning Cheese has been of the cheddar variety.
During Otto’s cheesemaking tenure, he started the tradition of making small batches of Colby cheese—40 pounds at a time. Everett remembers watching his dad dipping a bucket into the vat and pulling about the cheesy material before it could be matted in the cheddaring process.
The Colby-to-be curd would be cast into cold water, which would stop the acid development and add moisture. Normal Colby cheese has about two percent higher moisture than cheddar.
Henning recalled that his dad also produced the first flavored cheese in the Henning lineage—caraway. “I kept on with that, but the demand has really fallen by the wayside. All our caraway fans seem to be passing on,” he said.
Flavored cheeses are a tradition that has been embraced by current master Cheesemaker Kerry Henning, the third-generation cheesemaker at Henning Cheese.
“Kerry does a lot of research and development,” Everett said.
And, like his grandfather, Kerry is known to pull a bucket of curd from the vat to use for his experimental flavors.
He takes a small amount of cheese at a time and tries to tweak it to get to the right flavor.
“They don’t all make it to the cheese case right away,” Everett said. “Some end up in the fish bait barrel.
Through all the taste-testing, the cheese cases at Henning Cheese and their retail outlets show a wide variety of flavors including habanero, cracked peppercorn, jalapeno, blueberry cobbler, caramel, Mediterranean, garden vegetable and more.
Sometimes ideas for flavors come from other places.
One of the newest favorite flavors is Hatch pepper cheese, made with chiles from Hatch, New Mexico.
In another case, a Michigan customer asked whether Henning Cheese would try something with a product from that state. Though taken back by the suggestion of blueberries—the tip has parlayed into the popular blueberry cobbler cheese offering.
Making mammoth cheeses
Over the years, Henning Cheese has been known for making some of the largest cheeses—mammoths.
Everett made the first mammoth weighing in at 150 pounds. For a period of time, Henning Cheese was shipping mammoths of 300 and 500 pounds to Puerto Rico. Most of those came after the family cheesemaker felt he was no longer getting the best shake from the Green Bay cheese market.
Puerto Rico started asking for the large cheese mammoths after a Wisconsin cheesemaker produced a 42,000 pounder that almost made a tour to the island.
“The biggest we ever made was a 12,000 pound mammoth. It was six feet wide and six and a half feet tall, and it took a lot of planning and calculation just to make it work,” recalled Henning. The framework for the six-ton cheddar was made by Dufek Box Company in Denmark, Wis.
“When we started making our mammoth cheeses, there were four of us in the state that made them,” Everett said. “One of those cheesemakers went to all-mozzarella, and the other two closed down.”
Plant numbers decline
That reflects another numbers trend in the industry.
While transportation once dictated a cheese factory on every rural corner intersection, modernization paved the way for bigger plants. Refrigerated hauling allowed farmers to send their milk over the miles. Cheese plants got bigger and fewer in number.
“At our peak in Wisconsin, we had about 2,800 cheese factories,” Henning said. Today, there are approximately 120 cheese-making plants in Wisconsin. “It’s misleading in a way because a number of those are farmstead cheesemaking operations,” he said.