Chris Roelli: Redefining American Original Cheeses
By Jeanne Carpenter | Photos By Jim Klousia 2
One look at the stunning array of cellarcured American Originals handcrafted by fourth generation cheesemaker Chris Roelli makes it hard to believe that less than 20 years ago, his family’s cheese factory was shuttered and dormant.
Located on the corner of State Highways 23 and 11 between Shullsburg and Darlington (fondly known to locals as Hicks Corner), Roelli Cheese Haus has long been known as one of southwest Wisconsin's best retail cheese stores, offering almost every cheese produced in Green County and beyond.
Today, however, the store not only offers quality cheeses from around the area, it once again stocks the coolers with its own creations. Cheeses such as Roelli’s colorful, exterior molded Red Rock—which earned a gold medal at the 2013 U.S. Championship Cheese Contest—sit alongside an Alpine beauty named Little Mountain, a Cheshire-inspired cheese called Gravity Hill, and a bandaged-wrapped cheddar christened Kingsley.
And then there’s the brand new flashing highway road sign proclaiming Roelli Cheese Haus to be the “Home of Dunbarton Blue”—Roelli’s first and perhaps best-known American Original—an open-air, cellar-cured, earthy, cheddared-blue.
Add them all up and what emerges is one of the most successful, celebrated lines of inspired American Original cheeses made in the nation. And it’s coming out of the equivalent of a one room schoolhouse, a small artisan cheese plant and newly constructed state-of-the-art cheese cellar.
“All I ever wanted to be was a cheesemaker, and when I came home from college to find the family factory closed, I felt like I never got my chance,” says Chris. “Well, now I’m getting my chance, and I’m hoping to make it count.”
Retailing for $15 to $25 per pound, the new Roelli American Originals are a far cry from the commodity cheeses Chris and his dad, Dave, made together when he was a kid. Dave, a thirdgeneration and award-winning cheesemaker in his own right, had a successful decades-long run making 40-pound cheddar cheese blocks but got out of the industry in the ‘90s just weeks before Chris graduated from college. At that time, the cheddar block market was no longer profitable, and Dave didn’t want to saddle his son with what he knew would be a future failing business.
"I got tired of working seven days a week only to make pennies on block cheddar," Dave said. "But this artisan cheese, this is fun—working with your hands in the vat, making cheese and even making a little money. This was the right way to go.”