Laura Werlin: An American Cheese Authority

Author, presenter and self-proclaimed cheese “edu-tainer,” Laura Werlin has turned her passion into a career.

Laura Werlin contends she got into cheese “because it got into me”.

“It started at the age of three; a simple grilled cheese sandwich on Wonder Bread with American cheese was the first food I remember eating pretty much as soon as I got teeth,” Werlin recalls. “I loved it then and now (albeit with better bread and cheeses); it set the stage for my professional life.”

As is the case with many in the cheese industry, Werlin did not start out in her chosen field. After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, she worked in television news for almost 16 years.

“It (TV news) was something I wanted to do since I was 12 years old,” she says. “I got an internship in San Francisco and subsequent jobs in the business, but that entire time I was into food. I always kept a food diary when I traveled and took a couple of food writing classes at night along the way.”

Werlin then took the leap to food writing, leaving television behind.

“I was plunged into going from a bustling existence to the silence of a home and starting a career from nothing,” she says. “I had early luck, writing my first article on exotic root vegetables for Self magazine.”

Since then, she’s been spreading the cheese word as a speaker for both private and public events, including the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, CO, the Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta in New Mexico, California’s Healdsburg Wine & Food Experience, Pebble Beach Food & Wine in California, and many other high-profile food and wine festivals.

“I will speak to anyone about cheese, and I love instructing about cheese,” Werlin says. “I love seeing the expression on people’s faces when they try a cheese they love.”

Cheese Connoisseur spoke to Werlin about how her love of cheese propelled her into a successful career, along with her thoughts on the industry as a whole.

CC:  What inspired you to become a part of the cheese community?

L.W.:  I went to the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) annual conference. They give cookbook awards there, and I was inspired by the awards even though I had no intention of writing a book, much less a cookbook. I was an enthusiastic home cook but not a professional one. But I sat there thinking, ‘If I were to write a book, what would it be?’ I knew it would be cheese, and in the next nanosecond I knew it was American cheese. We had a local cheese shop near where I lived in Berkeley called Market Hall, which is a vibrant market with everything from cheese to specialty dry goods to prepared foods to fish to produce – you name it. I was seeing more cheeses from random places like Colorado, Minnesota and places you wouldn’t expect to see cheese. I’d always been an American food flag waiver, and with cheese, there was no turning back. I became obsessed with writing about American cheese in that Portland auditorium at IACP’s conference back in 1998.

In addition to Market Hall, the thing I was most inspired by [in writing about American cheesemakers] was my local farmers’ market in San Francisco. I always made a beeline to the cheesemakers, who were my heroes. I loved their products. Today, all cheesemakers remain my heroes; they are fundamental to my being.

CC:  How did your book, “The New American Cheese” come about?

L.W.:  I got in touch with an acquaintance who was a fledgling book agent. I had learned to write a proposal, so after reading it, she ran it by a colleague who specialized in cookbooks. That agent edited it and after that, my agent started submitting it to publishers. To my great fortune, a New York publisher was interested. That they were willing to publish a book by an unpublished author on a then-unremarkable subject was really very lucky. Thus began the journey to writing “The New American Cheese.” My concept was to write profiles of cheesemakers around the country and information on how cheese is made, including the history of cheesemaking in America, how to taste it, how to pair it with wine, and more. It was one big research project, as the publisher also wanted me to include 80 recipes. All of a sudden I became a cookbook author! It wasn’t easy; I was given only four months to write the book, and I was newly married. I lived that book 24/7. Once it was published, they sent me on a book tour – another stroke of great luck for a first-time author.

CC:  What was the response to touting American artisan cheeses?

L.W.:  I went on a book tour that included TV and local appearances around the country. Unsurprisingly, I was met with skepticism regarding American cheese. I heard disparaging things, people saying it’s nothing like European cheese. I challenged that, as there was and is, of course, really great cheese being made around the country. Often, though, it’s not distributed because it may be made on a smaller scale never mind the fact it’s very expensive to ship across the country. The lesson for me and others in America used to having what we want where we wanted it was that that wasn’t always possible with many American cheeses. So, I suggested that we rejoice in the cheese we have at the moment even if we can’t get it back home.  

CC:  Despite the skepticism, this led to a second book on pairings.

L.W.:  In touring, I was always asked to do cheese and wine pairings. Although I loved cheese and wine, I wasn’t an expert. Still, I set out to write the book that became “The All American Cheese and Wine Book.” It was quite the endeavor and not easy to write given that I was learning the how-tos of pairing as I wrote. In addition to pairing information, it included profiles of some of the cheesemakers who didn’t make it into my first book as well as winemakers. In the end, it included a whole lot of information on how to pair wine and cheese as well as general information about both cheese and wine; it’s actually quite encyclopedic. To my great joy, it ultimately won a James Beard award, the best part of which was that American cheese got formal recognition on a really important stage. My first book won an IACP award, which I attribute partly to being in the right place at the right time with my passion for American cheese. I felt – and still feel – evangelical about cheese and American cheese in particular and was lucky enough to share that passion through these books.

CC:  What is your goal with your books and tours?

L.W.:  I want everyone to know what’s in their backyard. If you love cheese, know what’s out there. My entire journey has been about educating cheese consumers in accessible ways. Something I heard over and over as I went around the country was that people were intimidated by cheese. They would walk into a cheese shop and want to run out because they didn’t know where to start. My book “Cheese Essentials” outlines the eight main styles of cheese and their characteristics. Believe it or not, you don’t really need to know cheese names if you know the styles. We can’t know exactly what the cheese will taste like if we haven’t tasted it before, but by understanding the basic styles, we won’t be as surprised and will be more confident in our cheese choices. I also give ideas for how to start a conversation with a cheesemonger to make sure you find cheese you’ll like. In between the more serious books, I wrote a grilled cheese book called “Great Grilled Cheese” and then another grilled cheese book eight years later called “Grilled Cheese, Please!” (because 50 recipes in the first book weren’t enough. Ha!). My last book was “Mac & Cheese, Please!”.

CC:  How has the cheese industry evolved since you’ve been in the industry?

L.W.:  My first American Cheese Society (ACS) conference was back in 1998 in Madison, WI. Back then, the Festival of Cheese had 300 cheeses, and I swear – 299 were flavored cheddars. That’s an exaggeration but back then most were not refined cheeses nor terribly exciting. Over the years, what has happened is a true evolution. Part of the reason I wrote my first book is that I thought we were on the forefront of a rebirth of American cheese. That’s exactly what happened in the last 20 years. Before, when I interviewed cheesemakers, many had not tasted the cheeses they were modeling their cheeses after. They often didn’t have the money to try the European counterparts to the cheeses they were making so they didn’t really know what they should taste like. They were following recipes, but there were quite a few not-so-great cheeses.

Over the years, cheesemaking has become much more refined. Part of that has to do with the reasons people are getting into cheesemaking, which are somewhat different than they were 20 years ago. Back then, cheesemakers had animals and/or came from multigenerational cheesemaking families, so they were just doing what their parents and grandparents had done. There weren’t many people setting out just to make cheese. What happened with cheese over the years is similar to what happened with wine;  people had other careers and made lifestyle changes. They come to it with a level of sophistication that cheesemakers didn’t have a generation ago. That has certainly raised the bar on the quality of artisan cheesemaking and marketing in America.

At the same time, Americans have traveled and learned about cheese along the way. Even for me, being exposed to new cheeses while traveling was a life changing experience. Long before I wrote about cheese, I went to Paris. The restaurant where I was dining had a cheese trolley. They asked what cheeses I wanted, and I was such a kid in a candy store – I said I wanted a little of as many as they would give me. That’s when I discovered what really great cheeses tasted like. Because of that travel and exposure to a variety of cheeses, the level of sophistication among cheese consumers and makers has grown exponentially. It has led to great cheese in America and higher expectations of what cheese should taste like.

CC:  What are the biggest challenges the cheese industry is faced with?

L.W.:  One of the biggest hurdles is the cost of making cheese. American cheeses have always been more expensive than European ones. It’s very hard to explain and for consumers to appreciate because it’s complicated. Much of it has to do with the cost of doing business such as labor, inspections, and land. In Europe, cheesemakers often get subsidies, and here they don’t. If an American cheesemaker was given subsidies to make cheese, the cost would likely go down overnight.

Also, there is still a prejudice against American cheese – that it won’t be as good as its European counterparts. I think this is less so from when I was first starting out, but the bias is still there. Part of that has to do with the fact that 20 years ago, cheesemakers named cheeses based on recipes they were using. If it (the recipe) was for Gruyère, they called it Gruyère even though it tasted nothing like the Swiss version. If there was an American Gruyère and a Swiss one, you’d almost certainly like the Swiss one more because it was informed by centuries of know-how. So, American cheesemakers started naming cheeses differently, which was a good choice in terms of marketing but to this day, requires more remembering on the part of the consumer. It’s been a learning curve on both sides with cheesemakers and consumers. That’s why I encourage people to get to know styles of cheese so they’re not beholden to a name or brand. Learn what you like and find cheeses within that style that hit the mark.

A great marketing example is Jasper Hill Farm and Cellars in Vermont. They just won Best of Show at the ACS competition for their cheese called Whitney. They are so deserving because that cheese is off the charts fantastic. But also, they are great marketers as well as very vigilant about being consistent in the cheeses they put out. For example, you know when you buy their cheese called Harbison it will taste similar each time you get it. Other cheesemakers haven’t been as great with consistency. It’s no fault of theirs because cheese is a living thing with so many variables that the learning curve is steep. Americans expect the same product each time they buy it, which means the learning curve is equally steep for  American consumers. Still, it has been wonderful to watch the journey. World-class cheeses are now made and marketed more consistently. The ongoing challenge for cheesemakers is to make sure their cheeses rise to the top and are continually noticed. Even companies like Jasper Hill and the equally beloved Rogue Creamery cannot rest on their laurels. It’s a constant marketing endeavor but hopefully a happy one for American cheesemakers when they are rewarded for their efforts.

CC:  What is your favorite cheese or what are you excited about?

L.W.:  Cheese to me is not a singular thing; the cheeses I choose to eat are dictated as much by my mood as anything else. Just as we don’t eat the same dinner each night, we shouldn’t eat the same cheese every day. If one day I want a creamy, decadent cheese, I’ll eat that or, if I want an aged Gouda the next day, like Wisconsin’s Marieke’s Gouda, I’ll eat that. I try not to buy huge quantities because it’s more fun to buy different cheeses. I buy two to three cheeses max to get through in a week. My favorite cheese is the one I have in the moment. It could be a fresh goat cheese that is easier to make but not easy to make well, or a cheese aged for months that’s made with incredible milk and skill. When I was at Meet the Cheesemakers at the ACS Conference in Portland this past July I did backflips; all the cheeses were great tasting but also beautifully and artistically made. You can’t separate artistry from taste. It may not be a favorite cheese in the moment but I always appreciate it.

CC:  Talk about your work with the ACEF.

L.W.:  I spent the last 10 years on the board of the American Cheese Education Foundation (ACEF), the non-profit arm of ACS. Our main mission is to support education, and among other things, fund multiple cheesemaker scholarships to the conference as well as support the webinars ACS offers. We also sponsor the comprehensive industry survey, which is helpful to cheesemakers by providing detailed information important to building and refining their businesses. The ACEF is truly integral to the future of American cheese because in addition to supporting educational endeavors, it’s also about bringing new voices into the American cheese community through outreach and support. For scholarship recipients, there is nothing like cheese tasting and the networking opportunities that the ACS conference offers. Going forward, I want everyone to know about ACEF. It gets more people involved and lends a voice to the cheese community in America.

CC: What are your predictions for the cheese industry in the years ahead?

L.W.:  I think we will see a couple things. There will be some consolidation of cheese operations. Some operations that started in the 80s and 90s don’t have succession plans, so they are selling to larger entities. I think we will see more of that. I also think we’re going to see more refined cheesemaking. American consumers are getting increasingly sophisticated and are probably not interested in cheeses that are just okay. So, there will be even better cheeses, even though so many are terrific now. There can never be too many great cheeses. When I started out, I got to know everyone in the cheese community; now I’m proud not to know everyone in the community because it has grown so much. What I hoped would happen when I started out has absolutely happened. Even though the community has grown to be large, it is hugely welcoming. I feel incredibly lucky to have stumbled into this world. I’ve found friendships and a sense of belonging I couldn’t have dreamed of, and I have a feeling many others feel the same way. There aren’t a whole lot of industries where we’d find the same thing, so we’re really lucky.

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