In Wisconsin, we love our traditions – but we also love to build on and reinvent them. And few capture Wisconsin's spirit of reinvention quite like the Roelli family.
The spirit of reinvention
When the first Roelli, Adolf, came to America in the early 1900s, he was a trained cheesemaker looking for a better life. And like so many other European immigrants, he discovered that Wisconsin was the perfect place to reinvent the cheesemaking tradition he learned back home.
“The rolling grounds, the water, the forage – a lot of the area here is very much like where they came from,” says Adolf’s great grandson, Master Cheesemaker Chris Roelli. “They settled here, and they brought their craft with them.”
In the 1920s, Adolf got a job at what was then Hicks Cheese Factory in Shullsburg, Wisconsin, and went on to become the owner.
Today, that same factory – now Roelli Cheese Haus – remains in the Roelli family: first passed down to Adolf’s son, then his grandson, and now to Chris.
His forefathers' footsteps
“I grew up as a little kid playing in the cheese factory,” says Chris. “But I didn't really get serious about it until I was like 10, 11, 12 years old.”
The fact that 10 years old was a late start speaks to the Roelli family’s work ethic, and shows how long Chris dreamed of following in his forefathers’ footsteps.
But shortly after he earned his cheesemaking license and was about to graduate college, Chris’ father, Dave, delivered devastating news: the family factory was shutting down.
“We were a big block, commodity cheddar producer through the' 70s and '80s, into the early '90s,” says Chris. “The market was flooded, there was a lot of competition, and the equipment that we were working with was worn out.”
Ripe for a shake-up
Chris walked away from cheese for years, but it was always in the back of his mind. As he watched the artisan industry blossoming in Wisconsin, he decided it was time for another reinvention: both of his family’s factory and of a classic cheese that was ripe for a shake-up.
“Dunbarton Blue is the cheese that I really built the business on,” Chris says of his now legendary reimagination of blue – an English-style cheddar spiked with Penicillium roqueforti that put Roelli Cheese Haus back on the map. “It was my first jump into artisan cheese. And it didn't happen overnight.”
Tireless trial and error for over a year brought Dunbarton Blue to life, and it was just the beginning.
Chris went on to create cult favorite, Red Rock, another exceptional cheddar-blue hybrid, and Little Mountain, an alpine-style award show darling that beat 1,842 other hopefuls to be named the best cheese in the nation by the American Cheese Society in 2016.
Becoming a master
Somehow, in the midst of reopening his family’s factory and turning out some of the country’s most beloved and imaginative cheese, Chris also managed to get his Master Cheesemaker certifications in cheddar, blue, and alpine-style.
“It challenged me. It taught me to pay more attention to the details. It taught me how to find answers to problems,” says Chris of the Master program. “And made me head and shoulders a better cheesemaker from start to finish within the process.”
Not to mention, it marked the beginning of Chris’ domination at award shows.
“Every medal on the wall out here was earned after the Master's Program,” he says. “I think that's a testament right there.”
But Chris isn’t one to dwell on accolades. After decades of dreaming about becoming a cheesemaker, he’s finally doing what he was born to do.
“It's not work to me,” Chris smiles. “I can put my true talents to use.”
One bite of Dunbarton Blue, and you’ll know he’s right: this comeback story was meant to be.