KIEL, Wis. — Kerry Henning is on a quest.

It’s a search for a bloody mary-flavored cheese. It’s not quick or easy: He’s wrestling with getting the right tomato flavor.

“I bet you I’m close to two years on that, and I think I’ve still got a ways to go to perfect that one,” said Henning, a master Wisconsin cheesemaker and one of the owners of Henning’s Wisconsin Cheese near Kiel.

Flavored cheeses can take months and years to perfect — and sometimes don’t come to fruition at all — but the eight family owners of Henning’s Cheese aren’t afraid to chase new tastes in a rural Manitowoc County cheese plant.

“Coming up with flavors can be a lot of work. Some flavors I’ve invested two years of time into making them,” Henning said to the Green Bay Press-Gazette . “The one thing that makes cheese making and flavors different, than say a chef, is a chef can immediately taste his product as soon as it’s made ... but cheese is a living organism and is always changing.”

The first tasting is about 30 days after it’s made and flavors will change in the coming months and years. Taste is checked again at three and six months.

USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin’s State of Opportunity series spent 2018 talking to workers from around the state about their jobs and the satisfaction they take from their daily toils. Subjects ranged from cell tower technicians who work hundreds of feet in the air to the crews working on the Washington Island Ferry in Door County.

The series wraps up with one of the state’s most iconic industries: cheese making.

Wisconsin makes about 26 percent of the nation’s cheese, and 45 percent of all specialty cheese, at 144 plants around the state, according to 2017 figures from Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, formerly the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. At 3.17 billion pounds, the state was the nation’s leading cheese producer in 2016.

Dairy is valued at a $44 billion state industry annually and ranks No. 2 in milk production behind California. About 90 percent of Wisconsin’s milk is used for cheese.

The store in Henning’s Cheese plant is stocked with flavors ranging from the stalwart sharp cheddar and farmer cheeses to more exotic flavors like tequila lime and cranberry orange.

Over the years, the business has been asked to incorporate flavors like blueberry cobbler (a two-year process) and mild Hatch chili peppers into cheeses that have made it to market. Alcohol-flavored cheeses, like those infused with bourbon, have been a recent trend in the industry, Henning said.

“Just yesterday we had some folks in here from Mexico who said, ‘We like your pepper cheeses and chipotle, but here’s the hottest pepper right now in Mexico, look into this and we might be real interested,’” Henning said. “You get a lot of great ideas from your customers ... But not every idea is going to make it into cheese.”

More than 99 percent of the 3 million pounds of cheese produced by Henning’s annually stays in the lower 48 of United States. Grocery stores are the main retail outlet.

“Customers come to us knowing they can seek unique and different flavor profiles,” said Kert Henning, Kerry’s brother and another of the company’s owners. “We have the ability to try a lot of small batches.”

There are typically between three and seven cheeses under development at Henning’s, which employs between 30 and 40 people and purchases its milk from 23 small farmers in Manitowoc, Sheboygan and Calumet counties.

Both Kert and Kerry Henning say job satisfaction comes from feedback from customers, both grocers and individual consumers.

“The responses I get back are amazing. They say, ‘I never thought cheese should taste this good,’” Kert Henning said. “We still follow the old traditional ways of making cheese ... (and) your flavor profiles are uniquely different.”

Kert rattles off a half dozen ways the company’s cheeses can be prepared — from shredded into pancakes to dip in chocolate.

One of the biggest changes the industry has seen in recent years is a rapidly expanding number of flavors and choices at cheese judging events.

It’s not uncommon for the brothers to meet their customers directly at promotions and other events.

“I maybe get out of the plant four, five, six times a year ... and when the people say ‘Wow, this is really good,’ or ‘I never thought this would make a good combination,’ that’s the enjoyable part,” Kerry Henning said. “When you see the appreciation people have for your product, that’s a real rush.”

In their late 50s, Kert and Kerry — along with their dad, Everett, and sister, Kay Schmitz — are bringing in another generation of Hennings to make cheese and run the family business.

“Where does a small company fit in with all the big players out there?” Kerry Henning said. “Our job is to keep coming up with unique items.”

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