Schooled in Taste: Beer educator Suzanne Wolcott shares her lessons on beer and cheese pairings
Among brew fans Suzanne Wolcott is in an enviable position. As head of education at Goose Island Beer Company in Chicago, Wolcott is in charge of conducting beer classes and pairings for new hires, industry professionals, and the public, as well as offering menu consultations for restaurants across the country. As far as she knows, she’s the only person at present to hold this particular position, but she knows she won’t be alone for long.
“People are hungry for knowledge about craft beer. When Greg Hall, Goose Island’s brewmaster (and son of founder John Hall), created my position two years ago (2010), it was because he knew early on how important education is within the industry,” she remarks, adding, “As one of the oldest and largest craft breweries in the country, we wanted to help elevate beer’s status as a beverage that pairs beautifully with fine food, including cheese...it belongs on the table as much as wine.”
While earning her architecture degree at the University of Michigan, Wolcott, 35, got her start in the food world with a job behind the cheese counter of an import shop called Big 10, before moving on to the venerable Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor. After relocating to Chicago in 2001, she managed the cheese departments at Fox & Obel and at Chalet, before being recruited to the cheese department at Whole Foods.
Wolcott’s love of fermented foods began at a young age, after a trip to Paris at 16. Dabbling in home cheesemaking—she primarily makes fresh cheeses in addition to the occasional bloomy or washed rind—piqued her interest in the chemistry and microbiology of fermentation. She then began experimenting with home brewing. (“Lagers and ciders are quite difficult to perfect, so I usually stick to ales. Belgians are always fun to make.”) The job offer at Goose Island couldn’t have been better suited to her interests. “Cheese has always been an important tool in how I educate people about beer, taste, and the fundamentals of pairings,” says Wolcott. “They’re strikingly similar fermented products in the way they’re made and aged, so it makes sense that they often have compatible flavor profiles. A lot of wines, like big red varietals or acidic whites, don’t actually pair well with most cheeses. Beer is also less intimidating and more affordable for those who are new to artisan foods or novices at pairing.” Ready for recess? Try these domestic pairings, favorites selected by Wolcott (see below).
"O’Banon is a young and creamy goat cheese that picks up the earthy and leathery notes from the bourbon-soaked chestnut leaves it’s wrapped in. An obvious yet delightful pairing choice is a bourbon barrel-aged beer. Curieux is a spicy tripel that also adopts an earthiness from the barrels; it marries perfectly with this cheese.”
Queso de Oveja (Black Sheep Creamery, tomme style; Washington) and Metropolitan Dynamo Copper Lager (Metropolitan Brewing, Vienna-style lager; Illinois)
"Queso de Oveja is a sheep’s milk cheese in the Spanish tradition of Manchego, but it exhibits much fruitier, browned-butter ﬂavors. Metropolitan has a toasty, malty character that the cheese really pairs well with, without too much of the hop bitterness that would overwhelm it.”
Matilda (Goose Island Beer Company, Belgian-style pale ale; Illinois) and Winnimere (Cellars at Jasper Hill, cow’s milk, washed-rind, Vermont)
“A funky cheese calls for a funky beer, and the musky, unctuous meatiness of Winnimere melds wonderfully with the fruity complexity of a Belgian-style pale ale such as Matilda. The beer smells like walking into a barn during apple season and has a rich spicy sweetness.”
Written by Laurel Miller
Photographed by Brendan Lekan