Beer cheese, a Kentucky staple, is possibly the perfect snack for any party, Super Bowl or otherwise. It’s easy to make, but good luck getting a recipe from someone who makes it. Beer cheese is serious business. There are beer cheese contests here. With actual trophies.
There are as many types of beer cheese as there are makers: most use real blocks of good cheddar. Some go with a stout beer, others a lighter variety. Some add spicy elements like hot sauce, peppers, and dry mustard for kick. Some explore other flavor variations, like sun-dried tomatoes, bacon, even Ale-8-One.
The first beer cheese I ever tasted was a homemade variety at, I believe, a Super Bowl party in Lexington. It was a revelation: very cheesy, with the nice tang of beer, and a bit of spicy bite. And like many people, I’ve been a fan ever since.
So was Olivia Swan, although her first taste came much younger.
“My dad got me hooked on it at the age of 3,” Swan said. “When I left for college in Nashville, I took coolers of it with me.”
When she moved back home to Lexington in 2006, they started trying to make it. They got pretty good. In fact, in 2010, they won the amateur division of the Winchester Beer Cheese Festival’s contest.
“That gave us the push to take it more seriously,” she said. Now she’s gone pro. Her beer cheese is sold in stores around Lexington, Louisville, Cincinnati and Chicago.
What makes a good beer cheese? Well, it really only takes two things: cheese and beer. Beyond garlic and a little salt, the rest is up to the individual maker.
“The cheese is more important, is what I’ve found,” Swan said. She had a panel of friends taste-test five different cheddars and rank them to find the one they use.
What about the beer?
“We do keep most of our ingredients secret but we use West Sixth IPA. That makes a delicious beer cheese,” she said.
Olivia’s has also branched into other spirits as well, adding bourbon and rye whiskey. “We work with Bulleit and use their bourbon and rye, and that has its own label at the gift shop there,” she said.
Many people get started making beer cheese using an old family recipe. Susan Baker of Oram’s Flowers in Lexington started that way then added her own twists to the beer cheese she makes for family and friends, who now routinely make requests.
“I revised it and came up with mild, medium, hot, extra hot, pepper jack and different flavorings,” she said.
She started out using regular beer but has switched to Guinness. She opens it, puts the cap back on, and lets it sit out a day or two to let most of the gas dissipate so there’s no head when she goes to put it in the food processor.
But the rest of her recipe is secret. “I won’t even divulge the kind of cheese,” she said.
Ian Allman also got his start with an old family recipe. In fact, his might be THE old family recipe: his grandfather, Johnnie Allman, first served his “snappy cheese” at The Driftwood Inn on the Kentucky River near Boonesborough in 1939. It was created by a cousin Joe Allman, who was a chef.
So the Allman family have a legitimate claim to be “the beer cheese that started it all,” at least in Kentucky. The restaurant closed in 1978 but in 2008, Ian and his wife, Angie, revived it.
Again, the key is the cheese. “We use cheddar that we get in Wisconsin,” he said.
Although many like to use ales and stout beers, Allman said he wanted to stay close to what his grandfather would have had on hand. “So I use Pabst Blue Ribbon,” he said.
Allman’s is one of about two dozen beer cheese makers who have earned the Kentucky Proud designation from the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, but there are many others out there, including Hall’s, well-known to patrons of the former Hall’s on the River restaurant and tavern.
“Everybody’s getting in to it,” Allman said “There were 60 (makers) three years ago, and there are more today. … People love beer cheese.”
Zac Wright, taproom manager at Country Boy Brewing in Lexington, can attest to that. This May, Country Boy will hold its third beer cheese competition, an informal affair that raises money for local charities. Attendees pay $5 for the chance to sample as many different beer cheeses at they like, then vote on their favorites.
“Last year we had 48 different entries,” Wright said. “I feel like beer cheese is such a Kentucky thing. People talk about it, have beer with it. … Kentuckians claim beer cheese.”
He prefers his beer cheese made with a stout like Country Boy’s Nitro, which is used by Dad’s Favorite Beer Cheese.
“We eat a lot of beer cheese around the shop. I like mine spicy and cold,” he said. With pretzels and beer. “Have to have beer with beer cheese.”
Is there such a thing as bad beer cheese?
Wright mulled that one.
“We’ve had chili competitions. And I’ve had bad chili,” he said, “but not bad beer cheese.”
Basic beer cheese
20 ounces extra-sharp cheddar cheese, grated
2 garlic cloves, grated
7 ounces bottled dark beer, flat
1/8 teaspoon salt
Optional: Tabasco or other hot sauce; mustard powder
Open beer and bring to room temperature. It is desirable to get most of the gas out of the beer but don’t let it get stale. You can heat it in the microwave a bit if you are in a hurry, but don’t boil it.
Grate cheese and garlic in a food processor.
Switch to the mixing blade and add remaining ingredients, mixing until thoroughly blended.
Refrigerate overnight. This helps the flavor develop and meld properly. Serve with crackers, pretzels, celery or carrots.