Laura Werlin proves once again that cheese really does make everything better — even beer
When the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen asked part-time local “Cheezelady” Laura Werlin to return to the festival for its 40th anniversary with a seminar focused on cheese and beer pairing, she was skeptical.
“It wasn’t a preference on my part, beer versus wine,” she said. “This is the first seminar of its kind at the Classic, which is wild because the festival is called Food & Wine. I partnered with beer expert Anne Becerra, which is a good thing because I really don’t know much about beer. But I’ve learned and discovered that cheese and beer are a really great combination.”
Turns out Werlin and Becerra are a great pairing, as well, as their seminar, “All Aboard for Cheese & Beer: Take a Trip Through Europe’s Greatest Craft Beers and Artisanal Cheeses” proved.
Becerra, the beverage director for Treadwell Park, is the first female certified Cicerone in New York City. Cicerone is a designation given to hospitality professionals with proven experience in selecting, acquiring, and serving a wide range of beers. She was introduced at the seminar as “someone who is still shocked that she’s been able to turn her love of craft beer into a career.”
For the seminar, Werlin first chose the cheese, and Becerra then chose the beer. They would taste the pairings and go back and forth on what worked and eventually voted on what they would present in their seminar. All the cheese and beer for the seminar was sourced from European countries — Italy, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Hungary.
“I tasted all of the pairings, and it was pretty eye-opening,” Werlin said. “You never know what goes together, and I learned there is some beer that you might not want to drink on its own but is incredible with certain cheeses.”
Her obsession with cheese goes way back.
She said there wasn’t one encounter with cheese that set her on her path but a confluence of circumstances. She was living in San Francisco, working in television news as well as dabbling in food writing, and would find herself drawn to the cheese vendors at the farmers market week after week.
“I always made a beeline for the cheese makers for some inexplicable reason,” she said. “They were my heroes. And I loved, loved, loved cheese. I was inspired by some cookbook awards that I was attending and started thinking, ‘If I were to write a book, what would I be interested in writing?’ And I’ve never even had that thought before, but it was a nanosecond later that I knew it was cheese because I knew it was a subject I’d want to live with for a long time. After that, there was no turning back.”
Following her intuition paid off.
Two decades later, she is a James Beard award-winning author of six books on cheese, a sought-after speaker, spokesperson and media personality, a regular instructor at the Cheese School of San Francisco, and frequent presenter at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. This year marks her 18th appearance at the Classic.
“When I give my seminars, the whole idea is to demystify cheese,” she said. “I think people are intimidated by it, so I want to make it more accessible to the point where they can walk into a store and kind of know what they’re doing.”
She said that while audiences have become more knowledgeable about food and wine in the last 20 years, there is still a lot to learn about cheese because there has been so much evolution and innovation in the industry, often led by American cheese makers.
“I learned that that the American cheese industry really has followed what happened with American wines,” she said. “Early on with California wine in particular, people looked down their nose and thought, ‘There’s nothing good here, I’m only buying French wine.’ Little by little, we learned that there was good wine being made here, and American cheeses followed suit. It’s now being made at a level it’s never been before, with the innovations of American cheese makers influencing old European cheese production in some cases.”
Werlin said she never tires of talking about cheese. There are always new things to learn and new cheeses to experience.
So what is it about cheese that has a hold on her and the rest of us?
“I think it is the association with comfort foods,” she said. “When people are young, they start with grilled cheese, pizza, mac and cheese, and all of those foods are connected with comfort. There is a natural magnetic draw to cheese. Wherever there’s fun involved, there’s usually cheese and vice versa; by the way, wherever there’s cheese, there’s automatically fun. It’s just a happy thing. I don’t recall ever seeing anybody eat cheese with tears in their eyes, except maybe happy tears.”