KIEL, Wis. (AP) — 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 cheesemaking 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: cheesemaking.

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.

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