The Big Cheese

December 16, 2019

The Big Cheese

Kerry Henning has a larger-than-life personality—a booming laugh, a huge grin, an endlessly cheerful attitude—and he makes larger-than-life cheddar to match.

Big into tradition

“Mammoth cheddars are any wheel of cheese 75 pounds or bigger,” says the Master Cheesemaker, whose fourth generation, family owned cheese factory in Kiel, Wisconsin is the last in the country making these glorious giants. “We've made them up to 12,000 pounds.”

If that sounds like your wildest cheese dream come true, get this: Kerry’s biggest mammoth wheel is just a curd compared to the 44,000 pound block his friends once toured the country with, hauling it from state to state in a glass-encased trailer. 

Henning’s mammoths take their rind-blowing, award-winning cheddar to epic proportions, and have become the stuff of legend across the country. Can you imagine a life-size cheese sculpture of Prince William and Duchess Kate Middleton? That’s a feat fit for a queen!

For Kerry, the cheesemaking process is a time-honored tradition. As with anything, you get what you put in, and Kerry invests time and energy doing things the old-fashioned way.

“We still do everything by hand and take our time with it,” Kerry says. “The time it takes to make cheese today is no different than a hundred years ago when my grandpa was making it.” 

The time, care, and love invested in each wheel of cheese is evidenced in every bite. It’s no surprise that Kerry’s cheeses have been celebrated the world over. His authentic Hatch Pepper Cheddar  even took gold at the World Championship Cheese Contest in 2018!

Kerry attributes a lot of Henning’s success to his family’s strong roots in cheesemaking.

His grandfather, Otto, started making cheese back in 1914 at a tiny wooden cheese plant just down the road, and Otto’s son—Kerry’s dad—went on to build the factory Kerry leads today. 

“My dad’s been so generous with the ownership of the company,” says Kerry, who has already passed on part ownership to his son, nieces, and nephews. “It’s fun to be able to do the same with that next generation.”

And keeping it in the family goes beyond the Henning name. Kerry still makes a point of supporting local family farms so he can craft his spectacular cheeses with Wisconsin’s secret weapon: the world’s greatest milk.

On the cutting wedge

Kerry is a stickler for doing things the old way, but he’s also on the cutting edge of his craft as a certified, three-time Master Cheesemaker

He was in one of the first-ever graduating classes of the Master Cheesemaking program back in the late 1990s and continues to build on his education through the Center for Dairy Research.

The Master Cheesemaker program is basically a Ph.D. in cheese. While incredibly rewarding, the rigorous course load is no joke.

“When we went through the Master program, we got a stack of books a foot high,” Kerry remembers. “Those resources really help. And having the expertise [of world-class cheesemakers] – not every state has that. It's the center of everything here.”

Beyond the books and the experts, Kerry’s classmates became some of his greatest teachers.

“We'd always head down to the local pub and have some beers after class—that's when the learning really began!” Kerry laughs. “It's a very close-knit community here in Wisconsin.”

Today, Kerry has joined the Board for the Master Cheesemaker program. He says getting in to the program is competitive, but for cheesemakers who don’t make the cut on their first try, he always encourages them to come back. The more Masters, the better.

“We want people to succeed,” Kerry says. “And we want people to make good cheese.”

We curdn’t agree more!

Whether he’s spreading joy with absurdly large cheese wheels or passing on the time-honored technique of traditional cheesemaking, one thing is for sure: the future of Wisconsin cheddar is in good hands with Kerry Henning.

Pick up one of Kerry’s handcrafted cheddars here.


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