Photo: Maxim Golubchikov/Shutterstock

A Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker Explains How To Find the Best Cheese in the State

Wisconsin Food + Drink
by Nickolaus Hines Aug 2, 2023

Every state in the United States is known for something. Beaches in California, for example, or craft beer in Colorado. For Wisconsin, that something is cheese. And one thing is clear on even the most brief visit to America’s Dairyland: no trip is complete without indulging in all things cheesy.

Wisconsin makes more cheese than anywhere else in the country. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the state is responsible for 25 percent of total cheese production in the US. Sure, there are the facilities that make cheese for massive pizza and other restaurant chains here. But concentration leads to specialization, and the true heart of Wisconsin cheese is the smaller, more specialized producers. Just over a quarter of Wisconsin’s cheese, or about 930 million pounds, is classified as specialty cheese, according to the USDA.

“Through those specializations there is a lot of ingenuity and a lot of flavor that gets brought forward in the products, and we’re very proud of that,” says Chris Roelli of Roelli Cheese Haus in Shullsburg, Wisconsin. “We have some of the best shops in the country, too, for some of those really high-end products that you might not be able to get at just about any other place.”

He is a fourth generation cheesemaker whose family story with cheese starts with his great-grandfather, who came from Switzerland to make cheese stateside in the early 1920s. The family’s commodity cheddar factory closed in 1991, and Roelli brought the focus to the artisanal side with a new factory in 2006.

“I’m 53 years old, and I’ve been around the cheese industry my entire life,” Roelli says.

He’s far from alone when it comes to a career passed through the generations. Roelli notes that he knows at least three families that have followed four generations of cheesemaking.

“Cheese is a lifestyle job,” Roelli says. “You’re working with the cheese seven days a week, from the milk hauling to aging. It’s not a nine-to-five job. It’s something that requires a tremendous amount of energy and passion really.”

Roelli’s shop and production is situated halfway between Monroe (widely considered the cheese capital of the state, though Roelli adds people in Plymouth might disagree) and Dubuque, Iowa. It’s only an hour south of Madison and right in the heart of Wisconsin’s cheese production.

Roelli is a partner in Roelli Cheese Co., has a modern aging cellar, and produces a wide range of styles, from aged cheddars to Alpine-style cheeses, to his award-winning Dunbarton Blue. In 2015, he became a master cheesemaker with a certification in cheddar, then followed that with two more master certifications in blue and Alpine-style cheeses.

The certifications are no small feat. Wisconsin is the only state that offers certifications at this level, and people who earn the designation are required to have at least a decade of experience (and at least five years making one specific variety) before even entering the three-year, style-specific program that includes classes, an apprenticeship, and expert sampling. Each master cheesemaker has a stamp with their likeliness that only they are allowed to use. Find this stamp and you’ll find some of the best of the best cheese in a state filled with incredible cheesemakers.

“It’s on par with the European master’s program,” Roelli explains. “It’s something I did to be trained at the highest level of my craft.”

Roelli’s specialty is a cheddar blue with a recipe he developed from scratch. He followed his background when deciding the styles to become a master in: his family has long made cheddar, and his family’s Swiss history guided him toward the classic Swiss Alpine-style cheeses like gruyere, raclette, and appenzeller.

Speaking with Roelli, it’s clear why anyone who dabbles in a fine cheddar every once in awhile or who has put together a cheese board they’re proud of should put Wisconsin on their travel map. Roelli embodies what makes Wisconsin cheese so great in the first place: tradition and the very highest levels of specialized education.

Finding the best cheeses in Wisconsin

“We’re very fortunate here in Wisconsin that the agriculture side of the economy is the main driver,” Roelli says. That leads to a lot of support in education opportunities and exposure. It’s paid off, as anyone who has ventured around the state and tried the many cheeses made here.

“If someone were to come and all they know is that Wisconsin is famous for cheese, they don’t really know where to start,” Roelli says. Turns out there are cheesy niches to fall into just about everywhere you look.

Food safety rules have made it harder for visitors to the state to see production in action. In lieu of that, the staff at even small cheese shops are able to talk, and taste, people through what’s on offer as well as tell detailed stories best conveyed in person with cheese in hand.

“Our very basic shops, and even some of the gas stations, will have a higher quality cheese selection than some of the best supermarkets in other states,” Roelli says. “It’s our thing. It’s everywhere.”

Roelli suggests starting by telling the cheesemonger what you know you like. From there, they can help you expand out into cheeses that offer something more mild, more sharp, more funky, or any other descriptor you can imagine. All you have to do is listen to the expert and soak it in. Knowing what makes a particular product special and the story behind how it was made only makes the cheese taste that much better.

“Wisconsin has some beautiful countryside and there’s a lot of cheesemakers around that love to tell their story and love to showcase their products,” Roelli says. “So take your time, ask questions, and get the stories. There’s so much to choose from and it could be easy to get overwhelmed, but try a piece of this and a piece of that and pick your favorites.”

A master cheesemaker’s essential stops in Wisconsin

If you’re looking for where to start, Roelli has a few favorites that he recommends — in addition to making a stop at Roelli Cheese Haus, of course.

Roelli Cheese Haus

Located six miles east of Shullsburg on State Highway 11, the Roelli Cheese Haus factory opened in 2006 as an artisan production center 11 times smaller than the original one that the family closed in 1991. That said, some 100,000 pounds of cheese are still made here every year. The award-winning Dunbarton Blue and Red Rock are must-tries, though you can’t go wrong with anything here from the Alpine-style cheese Little Mountain to curds, cellar-aged cheddars, and many more. Be sure to ask an employee to help lead you through each of the options.

Roelli Cheese Haus: 15982 WI-11, Shullsburg, WI 53586

Hook’s Cheese Co

Illustrative editorial image of local Hook's Barneveld Blue Cheese goat cheese in a display case in Wisconsin.

Photo: JNix/Shutterstock

This family-run business in Mineral Point producers award-winning cheeses from cow, sheep, and goat milk. Owners Tony and Julie Hook are both licensed Wisconsin cheesemakers, and Julie is the only woman to win the world championship award for Colby at the Wold Cheese Championship. Here, you’ll find cheddars aged up to 15 years, along with a variety of Swiss, blue, Jack, Colby, and other cheeses.

Hook’s Cheese Co: 320 Commerce St, Mineral Point, WI 53565

Alp and Dale Cheese

Locally produced cheeses of all kinds, sausages, and wine are the focal point of this well appointed cheese shop. Find your next favorite by trying some samples, and you can take a cheese tour to see the production of Roth Cheese. Of special note: Alp and Dell has the largest variety of Wisconsin cheese curds in a wide variety of flavors.

Alp and Dale Cheese: 657 2nd St, Monroe, WI 53566


You don’t have to leave the Wisconsin capital to find incredible cheese. Roelli lists Fromagination among the top cheese shops in the country, and you’re pretty much guaranteed to find a new favorite here as well as have the chance to indulge in some of the best cheeses made in the state. There are regular events, and sandwiches and everything else you may need for a picnic can be found at Fromagination as well.

Fromagination: 12 S Carroll St, Madison, WI 53703

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