PD Greenwell reads cookbooks the way some people read novels. She enjoys food history, creating new recipes, and serving beautiful food.
Kentuckians love to eat. As a matter of fact, we have quite a reputation for loving to eat that reaches back several generations. Primarily, we love to eat tasty food that isn’t necessarily good for you, if judged by the puritanical standards that are espoused today.
Kentuckians also love a good party. And that party will have good food, be it a hopping little church fellowship hall reception with cake and non-alcoholic refreshments (and don’t you even think of rocking the Hokey-Pokey, no dancing allowed) or a rip-roaring tailgate party at Commonwealth Stadium (Go Cats!) where, although open alcohol containers are not welcome, you can pour it in a cup or hide it in your food and get on with your very bad self!
Beer cheese is one of our efforts at hiding it in the food (bourbon balls being another). Give it a try. I know you’re going to be glad you did!
What on Earth Is "Beer Cheese"?
Beer cheese is a cheese concoction that is delicious on crackers and raw vegetables, typically carrots and celery, even radishes. This cheese is another fine example of what I like to refer to as the “food of my people.”
It is generally accepted that beer cheese originated in Central Kentucky, at a restaurant owned by John Allman, a local restaurateur during the 1930s through 1970s. John E. Allman, born in 1906 to a grocer in Madison County, Kentucky, grew up to become a policeman, serving with the Richmond Police as well as the Kentucky State Police. Sometime in the late 1930s, John Allman left the force and opened his first restaurant, “The Driftwood Inn,” in Clark County, Kentucky, which was located near historic Fort Boonesborough on the Kentucky River.
As the tale is told, John’s brother, Joe Allman, a chef in the Southwest, developed this “Snappy Cheese,” as it was known, for his brother to serve to diners. The spicy, dry nature of the product encourages those who partake of it to seek more food and drink, thereby making it a fine appetizer for restaurants as well as bars. Over the years, Allman opened and closed a few restaurants in the area, always taking the recipe with him to his newest location.
If you take into account all of the stories surrounding this cheese, you will be told that only the family knows the original recipe, or conversely, that John gave the “authentic” recipe to nearly everyone he ever met. When Allman’s final restaurant closed in 1978, after having been destroyed in a fire, his beer cheese recipe is said to have gone with his cook to Hall’s on the River, a restaurant located, interestingly enough, on or near the site of one of John’s earliest restaurants.
There are a number of commercial beer cheese products available in Kentucky, one company of which is operated by John Allman’s grandson. One can assume they are familiar with the recipe that made a name for Johnny Allman. I have to admit, to satisfy the self-sufficient, can-do-it Kentuckian genes I possess, I generally make my own beer cheese and leave the commercial stuff to the newbies.
The Authentic Recipe (SPOILER: I don’t have it!)
If you were to seek, you would find numerous recipes for the cheese, each of them, as it were, “authentic.” In general, all include sharp cheddar cheese and beer; most include garlic and Worcestershire sauce. A few involve the use of mayonnaise and heating of the dip, both of which I find shockingly heretical, frankly. It is your everlasting soul, however, and you are free to do as you see fit.
This cheese is found at nearly every gathering be it a family reunion, Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner, game day (did I say “Go Cats”?), Derby parties. We all tend to feel tender allegiance to our own family recipe. Below, I’ve included two distinctly different recipes. The first is the recipe we use in our home. This recipe is based on the recipe in Marion Flexner’s “Out of Kentucky Kitchens” cookbook, a 1949 edition that is very precious to me.
Here I am going to say something heretical, which explains why I can’t point my finger at those who use mayonnaise to make beer cheese: I am not completely convinced that Joe Allman “invented” this recipe. I know, “hush your mouth”! The reason I say this is because in Flexner’s introductory paragraph for the recipe included in this 1949 cookbook, it is said “In the days when free lunches were served in Kentucky saloons with every 5-cent glass of beer, we were told of a wonderful beer cheese that decked every bar.” Knowing this, I can’t help but doubt. I believe beer cheese was already “out there” in Kentucky bars and saloons (perhaps even in Indiana, Tennessee?!) and had been for quite a while. I think Allman simply did beer cheese better.
You be the judge. I’m just going to have me a bite of this leftover holiday beer cheese, straight from the spoon. It’s just that good!
Beer Cheese Recipe #1 (I recommend)
- 1 pound sharp cheddar cheese
- 1 pound mild cheddar cheese
- 2 or 3 cloves garlic
- 8 ounces beer (no ‘lite’ beer, please), allow the beer to go stale
- 3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
- 1 teaspoon powdered mustard (such as Coleman’s)
- Dash of cayenne pepper
- 1 teaspoon salt (if you find it necessary)
- Using a food processor, grind all the cheese with the garlic. Add the remaining ingredients, adding the beer last, slowly.
- Allow the cheese to process to a “nearly smooth” consistency. Everything should be well mixed. Store the cheese in a lidded container. If you have time, let it rest for a day or two. The flavors will develop and it will be even tastier.
- To serve, place the cheese in bowls; offer plates of crackers, pretzels and carrots, and celery. I suggest plain crackers as the cheese will be flavorful enough without embellishment.
Please try, then rate this recipe!
That Other Beer Cheese Recipe
- 8 ounces sharp cheddar cheese
- 12 ounces medium cheddar cheese
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
- 3 tablespoons mayonnaise
- ½ bottle stale beer
- Grind the cheese in food processor. Mix in remaining ingredients. Serve with crackers, pretzels, carrots, and celery.
- Then wander over to another table and get yourself some real beer cheese.
Kentucky Beer Cheese Festival
Kentucky beer cheese is such a beloved foodstuff in Central Kentucky that it actually has its own party, the Kentucky Beer Cheese Festival.
Beautiful Winchester, Kentucky, has been hosting the Beer Cheese Festival for the past six years. It is held on the streets in historic downtown Winchester. There are vendors and music and a heck of a lot of beer cheese.
For a mere $5 fee, you can sample all you like of the commercial beer cheeses available and vote for your favorite!
If you think you make a winning beer cheese, enter your recipe in the amateur contest—you might just win! Visit the website for more details.