In 2010 The Lady won the opportunity to be a part of a Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board‘s junkets, visiting several cheesemakers throughout the state. One of the stops was at Henning’s Wisconsin Cheese in Kiel. You can read about her trip here.

Kay Henning Schmitz, Kerry and The Lady

Henning’s Wisconsin Cheese is a family owned cheese company (now in its 4th generation of ownership) making award-winning Colby, Cheddar and Monterey Jack under the watchful eye of Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker, Kerry Henning.

Henning’s began in 1914 when Kerry’s grandparents, Otto and Norma, bought a small cheese factory and devoted their time to making quality cheeses. Their son, Everett, took over the factory in 1963 and today his children, Kerry, Kay and Kert continue the tradition with two of Everett’s granddaughters who have also joined the “family business”.

One of The Lady’s favorite memories of the visit to Henning’s, is the enthusiasm that Kerry has for making cheese and his love for what he does. This is something that can’t be taught; it’s born from inside and infectious. The Lady and I suspect that Otto and Everett had the same passion and that Kerry caught the “bug” at an early age.

I was fortunate enough to sit down with Kerry earlier this week and ask him a few questions about his life as a cheesemaker.

Spaulding Gray: First of all, I’d like to thank you for taking the time from your busy schedule to answer a few questions.

A lot of my loyal readers have heard the term “Master Cheesemaker” but some probably don’t know what is required to become one. Please tell us about the certification process.

Kerry Henning:  To initiate the Master Cheesemaker process you need to hold a Wisconsin Cheese Makers license for a minimum of 10 years. To obtain your cheese makers license you generally have to make cheese for 2 years; attend a 1 week short course at UW – Madison and then take a state issued test. Once you have met this time requirement, you are first given an oral examination by two other experienced cheese makes to see how well versed you are in the entire cheese making process. Many applicants are rejected at this point because they might only know a couple areas of the operation very well but not the entire process.

When you pass this requirement, you begin a 3 year apprenticeship. During this time the facility where the cheese is made is inspected to make sure it exceeds basic sanitary standards; your cheese is evaluated at least 6 times by an experienced cheese grader to assure quality and you take a series of short courses again at UW – Madison to broaden your knowledge.

Once all this work is completed you are then given a take home exam that needs to be completed within 1 month. It took me 40 hours to complete my Master Test.

So between work, family and taking the test you need the month to complete it.

(Editor’s note: Kerry received his Cheesemaker’s License in 1980 and his first Master’s in 1999. He is is a Certified Master Cheesemaker for Colby, Cheddar and Monterey Jack, which means he has been through the above process 3 times… )

Spaulding: What is the first cheese you remember eating?

Kerry: The first cheese I remember eating would be Cheddar cheese that my Grandpa made. We grew up eating Cheddar and Colby cheese because those are the cheeses that we made at our factory. I am a third generation cheese maker and the 4th will be my son joining us in a few years after he finishes college.

SG: How old were you when you made your first cheese?

KH: Like most farmers, growing up in a cheese making family, kids were required to help out as soon as they were able to do certain chores.  I remember filling hoops of cheese and dressing them by the time I was in 3rd grade. My brothers and I were running the plant by the time we were in High School. Back then we would start making cheese by 1:00 am so we could spend the afternoons water skiing. I now sleep in till 3:20 am and get done making cheese by 1:00 pm.

Spaulding: You are known for making huge wheels of cheese. What is the biggest wheel you’ve made and for whom did you make it?

Kerry:  The largest wheels we have ever made were 12,000 pounds.

SG: Holy smokes, did you say twelve thousands pounds?

KH: Yes, that’s a 6 ton wheel of cheddar. We have made several of these. They are purchased by customers for special events.

Our 1st  went to Puerto Rico and toured the island for a year before it was finally cut up and merchandised. The chain of stores that had bought it had a specially-made refrigerated truck box that had glass walls on it. The cheese toured the island and  went from store to store.

After the year, my Mom, Dad, and my brother flew to Puerto Rico to help cut it.

Spaulding: What is your favorite grilled cheese combination?

Kerry: My favorite grilled cheese sandwich starts with well-buttered slices of hearty bread, grilled onions, a slice of 1 year old cheddar, and a slice of good quality ham.

SG: My final question is of special interest to myself and other felines and perhaps more than a few foodies of the humankind persuasion… What cheese and beer or wine would you pair with Hesperoptenus doriae ?

KH: Definitely our award winning shelf cured ½ cracked peppercorn cheddar  with a bottle of Spotted Cow beer from the New Glarus Brewery, brewed here in Wisconsin.

Spaulding: Kerry, Again, thanks for sitting down with me to discuss your life as a Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker. Perhaps the next time The Lady visits your factory, the health department will make an exception and let me tag along… probably not…

Please remember to “Like” Henning’s Cheese at Facebook…

And you can read our reviews of  a few of Henning’s Cheeses. This past April while celebrating National Grilled Cheese Month, we included Henning’s Mango Fire.

This is the second in my interview series with cheesemakers from around the world. Please check out my first interview with David Gremmels of Rogue Creamery.

Upcoming interviews include: Mary Quicke of Quicke Traditional Cheese, Jim Sartori from Sartori Cheese, John Fiscalini from Fiscalini Farmstead Cheeses, Mary Keehn of Cypress Grove,Vicky Brown from Little Brown Farm, Willow Smart from Willow Hill Farm, Stephen Hueffed of Willapa Hills Farmstead Cheese, Mat Willey of Sweet Grass Dairy, Rod Volbeda of Willamette Valley Cheese Company, Andy Hatch from Uplands Cheese, Rhonda Gothberg of Gothberg Farms, Russell Glover of Consider Bardwell, Jerry Heimerl of Saxon Homestead Cheeses and Mateo Kehler of Jasper Hill Farm… with more being added daily… it’s quite a line-up of Cheese Swells…