SHULLSBURG — Chris Roelli is continuing the family legacy at Hick’s Corners.
This is where, five miles east of one of the state’s oldest cities, a vat that can hold 32,000 pounds of milk was used for much of the 1900s to make up to 11,000 pounds of bulk commodity-grade cheddar on a daily basis. None of it was aged, most was sent to food production facilities and the profits were only a few pennies a pound.
For Walter Roelli and his grandsons, Dave and Paul Roelli, mass production was the key for a livelihood in this rural area of Lafayette County just a few miles north of the Illinois border.
Chris Roelli has changed the business model and created demand for the plant’s cheese in a way his grandfather likely never dreamed.
The 2,500-square-foot facility was founded in the 1800s as the Hick’s Cheese Cooperative and later purchased by Chris Roelli’s great-grandfather Adolph Roelli, who had emigrated from Switzerland.
Over the past 12 years, the cheese plant has been completely renovated and it’s where Chris Roelli oversees five cheese caves and the making of only about 1,000 pounds of cheese a day. But the returns, notoriety and awards have propelled Roelli Cheese Haus into the stratosphere of the artisan cheese world.
In July, Roelli’s Little Mountain, a Swiss alpine-style cheese, took best of show at the American Cheese Society contest in Des Moines, Iowa, beating out 1,841 other entries. Roelli’s Dunbarton Blue and Red Rock cheeses, blue-veined cheddars created in 2008 and 2011 respectively, have become stars of cheese cases not only in Wisconsin but in New York, San Francisco and Denver. A year ago, at the World Championship Cheese Contest in Madison, one of Roelli’s select cheddars took a gold medal in the bandaged cheddar division.
The Red Rock, a gold medal winner in 2015 at the U.S. Championships, has even made an appearance on “The Bachleor.”
So, when the 19th Biennial U.S. Championship Cheese Contest begins Tuesday in the atrium of Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Roelli’s cheeses will be among the many favorites to take home top honors in what is considered one of the three major cheese contests in the country.
“There are places that have never heard of us but we’re on their radar now,” Roelli said last week during a tour of his plant at the intersection of Highways 11 and 23. “After the ACS win, we probably had calls from 40 states.”
Center for Dairy Research assists development
There is a waiting list from around the country for Little Mountain and only a few half-pound chunks are available at the Roelli Cheese Store next door to the cheese plant. Little Mountain was developed beginning in 2012 with the assistance of John Jaeggi at the Center for Dairy Research at UW-Madison.
Jaeggi, a Wisconsin cheesemaker with more than 30 years of experience, helped Roelli create the recipe and hone the microbiology, a move that brought the cheese to market in months, not years.
Past accolades, however, will guarantee little this week, as the competition is stoked with some of the best cheese not only in the country but in the world, much it from Wisconsin. Presented by the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association and founded in 1981, the U.S. championship features 2,303 entries, an increase of 22 percent from 2015. The contest has drawn entries from 33 states and totals 37,000 pounds of cheese, butter and yogurt in 101 categories that will be tasted by 48 judges from around the world.
The entries come from many of the same cheesemakers who took part in the ACS last summer and the World Championship Cheese Contest a year ago. That includes the Grand Cru Surchoix made in Monroe by Fitchburg-based Emmi Roth USA that took home best of show at the world contest, marking the first time since 1988 that an American-made cheese had won the top honor. In addition, Wisconsin cheesemakers took first place in 38 of the 110 categories and grabbed the top three spots in 17 classes.
Admission to Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s judging at Lambeau Field is free and open to the public, with the winners announced Thursday night at a ticketed gala at the KI Convention Center in downtown Green Bay. The event will include 40 cheeses from around the country paired with craft beers from northeastern Wisconsin.
More growth predicted
For Roelli, who turns 47 on Monday, the contest is another opportunity to showcase his products and tout the state’s craft cheese industry that he believes is still in its infancy and has plenty of room in which to grow.
“I think we’ve barely scratched the surface,” Roelli said. “Consumers now are becoming more and more educated and are more conscious about where their food comes from. We have the greatest milk in the world here in Wisconsin and some of the most knowledgeable cheesemakers. As long as we continue to evolve and continue to make great products I don’t see where it’s going to stop.”
Roelli (pronounced Rolly) grew up at the cheese plant and, after graduating from Darlington High School, obtained his state cheesemaking license in 1989. He also attended Madison Business College where he obtained an associates degree. In 1991, his family closed the cheese plant but continued to operate the cheese store and the Roelli Milk Transfer Co., which hauls bulk dairy products.
In late 2005, as artisan cheese was taking off, the Roelli family spent $350,000 to rebuild the empty cheese plant to focus on small batches of hand-crafted cheeses. Three aging cellars were added in 2012, and in 2013, Chris Roelli and his cousin, Jason, purchased the company from the family. Last spring, prior to getting the ACS award, Roelli invested another $300,000 that included a new air handling system and a 10,000-pound capacity deep-make-vat and a matching cheddaring table from Darlington Dairy Supply. The additions will help double production to 250,000 pounds a year and improve efficiencies.
Cheese plant is small, efficient and focused on craftsmanship
This year Roelli hopes to make about 5,000 pounds of Little Mountain, which sells for up to $35 a pound. He could likely sell 100,000 pounds of the cheese, aged for seven months in 12- to 15-pound wheels, but is limited in part by cave space. Bacteria in the cellar is unique and would be difficult to replicate in a larger setting.
“It’s the science behind it,” Roelli said. “Could I partner with somebody and mass produce it? Yeah, but it wouldn’t be the same. But that’s what makes it special.”
Roelli has 30 employees, most of whom work in the trucking company. He is assisted at the cheese plant by his wife, Kristine, who tackles the books. Mark Nelson, a cheesemaking assistant, and Jake Niffenegger, a three-time master cheesemaker, are full time, while Mike Schwartz works on a part-time basis. Milk for Roelli cheese is sourced from a small herd of Holsteins on the Peter Cernek farm south of Gratiot.
Roelli balanced his work this winter while cheering on his son, Cole, 16, a sophomore on the undefeated Darlington junior varsity basketball team, and his daughter, Reagan, 18, a senior on the Darlington girls basketball team that played in Saturday’s sectional final. In addition, Roelli, a master cheesemaker in cheddar, is working on two other master cheesemaker certifications in cheddar blue and hard alpine cheese. He’s also been working with the Center for Dairy Research on developing a havarti blue and is hoping to begin production this summer.
“It’s been keeping us busy,” Chris Roelli said. “Really busy.”