A key ingredient at nearly every tailgating gathering, Derby party, or potluck in Central Kentucky is beer cheese. Beer, cheese, and beer cheese are almost synonymous with Superbowl soirees, family get-togethers, weekends spent at the lake. Tasty, portable, and uniquely Kentucky, this low-carb, high-fat tangy appetizer can help you get your daily serving of the milk group and can be served on or alongside foods in the other three food groups (it goes great with celery and carrots, crackers, or atop a hamburger). Then again, some Kentuckians might put beer cheese in a food group all its own.
Tracing its origins is an exercise in oral history rather than the written word, however, all roads to beer cheese appear to lead back to the river.
John Allman owned restaurants at three separate locations a stone's throw from one another, but all within sight of the Kentucky River on Athens-Boonesboro Road in Clark County. Allman, whose restaurant said "John Allman's" on the side, but is referred to by everbody as "Johnny Allman's," had a cousin, Joe, who was a chef in Phoenix, Ariz. Joe Allman is credited with creating both beer cheese and fried banana peppers in the 1940s. Since then, both dishes have become popular across the Commonwealth. Beyond the state's borders, both fried banana peppers and beer cheese have become foods associated with Kentucky. The bite in beer cheese, often provided by cayenne, is explained by some as Joe's signature Southwest addition to his new Kentucky dish.
Bob Tabor was a beertender at Allman's restaurant in the late 1960s and early '70s. "Back in the days when the only thing that was served was beer, we weren't considered a bartender," he said. "The beertender always stayed on good terms with the kitchen so he could get fed, so I always knew how they made it and what they put in it," Tabor said of beer cheese. He is now one of about 10 individuals making and selling beer cheese commercially in Central Kentucky. Tabor, who owns the Engine House Deli in Winchester, sold more than 8,000 pounds of beer cheese last year and said he is on course to produce more than 12,000 pounds in 2006. "I try to keep as faithful to the original recipe as I can," he said. "Cheese, beer, pepper, and garlic. Four items. If it's got more than that, it's not Kentucky River beer cheese." Tabor markets his product under the name River Rat Beer Cheese with the tagline, "Just like Johnny's."
If it got its start in a restaurant kitchen, beer cheese owes its legs to home cooks. In Central Kentucky everybody seems to know somebody who makes beer cheese. If that source retires or moves out of town, someone else fills the void. That's how Tabor got started. A longtime food service guy, Tabor had some friends who made beer cheese but one retired and another moved away, so lacking a source for the Kentucky staple, he was forced to start making his own.
The holidays also help along many cottage industries like salsa, jams, jellies, steak sauce, and beer cheese. When tempted tastebuds crave a specific treat past January 1, the makers are encouraged to "put it on the market." That's how PJ's Beer Cheese entered the scene. Joyce Florence and Phyllis Robb have made beer cheese for 25 years. It was an informal operation until 1996. Now they make beer cheese in 20-pound batches two or three times a week in a kitchen dedicated solely to its production in their Bourbon County home.
When Joyce Florence started making beer cheese for herself, she and her mother shared the same source for their inspiration-her mother's bookie, Buster. Buster used to make and bring them his version of the stuff, so Florence based her batches on his. "Over the years we have improved on his recipe," she said.
In attempting to take a holiday tradition and make it a year-round business, Florence and Robb encountered a few challenges. "We experimented with it first and, of course, it was an absolute mess! We couldn't come up with the right flavor." Trial and error, and lots of samples along the way, and now PJ's Beer Cheese comes in mild and hot varieties. The two women market, package, and deliver it themselves, and even have made it to the Kentucky Dinner Train, where PJ's Beer Cheese is a regular part of the menu. "We're very proud of our product," said Florence.
Every beer cheese maker feels strongly that their ingredients are the best ingredients. PJ's Beer Cheese is a blend of cheese, beer, crushed red pepper, fresh celery, and fresh garlic. River Rat Beer Cheese is a combination of Budweiser, cayenne pepper, garlic powder, and cheese. Hall's on the River (which is one of those three Kentucky River restaurants once owned by Allman), probably the best-known source of Kentucky beer cheese, uses cheese, Bud Light on draft, garlic, and red pepper. The same person has been making the beer cheese at Hall's since 1966-Lou Jean Bell, but everyone calls her Jean.
"Nobody gave me a recipe, you had to figure it out yourself," said Bell. "They told you what went in it and you had to figure it out. I make it in a mixer; it's stale beer, room temperature, and I make 20 pounds at a time." Bell, who has served as prep cook, kitchen supervisor, and numerous other roles at Hall's on the River, is now solely in charge of beer cheese and the homemade salad dressings. She doesn't work specific hours; when they need more beer cheese, she comes to work. When they don't, you won't find her at the restaurant.
For as much beer cheese as she has made, Bell isn't fond of eating it. "I eat it a little bit, but not as much as people would think," she said. "I just taste it on a cracker to see if it's right."
Buyer and beer cheese fans be warned-there are two distinct varieties of Hall's Beer Cheese. There is the cheese made by Bell and served or sold at the restaurant. Then there is the Hall's Beer Cheese made and distributed to stores by the Louisville company Culinary Standards. The recipes both originated at the restaurant, but after Steve Hall's passing in 1988, the production rights were sold and the recipe changed a bit to accommodate shipping and shelf life required to make and sell it on a larger scale. It's still beer cheese, but some purists say it's just not the same as it used to be.
Beyond the shelf life and refrigeration issues, there is no clear reason explaining why beer cheese hasn't made the jump from Kentucky specialty to nationwide phenomenon. Beer cheese soup has long been popular from Wisconsin, where it probably originated, to Vermont, Texas, and California. Cheese fondue with beer as an ingredient is a common recipe, as is beer cheese bread. But beer cheese remains linked firmly by its roots near the Kentucky River.
However, the ability to share that taste of Kentucky beyond its borders is what prompted Carrie and Mike Creech to introduce their version of beer cheese. The Creeches own Flag Fork Herb Farm in Lexington, a restaurant and gift shop. Before opening the restaurant in 1995, they focused on creating and selling food products all over the country.
"We had grown up in Kentucky so we knew what beer cheese was and had eaten it in different places, and knew a mix for beer cheese would be a big seller because a lot of the places we sold to made gift baskets," said Carrie. "Everybody else was selling it already made up and this was something that could sit on the shelf for some time and not go bad."
Before you surmise this product is not fresh; it is. What the Creeches sell is a dry spice blend that is mixed with fresh shredded cheddar cheese, beer, mayonnaise, and Worcestershire sauce. They also use the spice blend in a beer cheese soup at the restaurant, serve a beer cheese sandwich, and send out many, many orders of their beer cheese with crackers. The spice blend is completely free of preservatives and is mixed and packaged by Mike and Carrie at Flag Fork.
"We just don't like anything that's not natural, and the food in our restaurant reflects that," said Carrie. "We didn't eat processed cheese growing up, neither of us did. We wanted to have a product that√ñdidn't have a taste of a processed cheese spread. I think it's the best around."
Diane Evans was already a big fan of beer cheese, specifically Kentucky Beer Cheese, when she and her husband, Chris, learned that the company was for sale. Its founders, Jim and Sue Castano, had been making and selling beer cheese for 18 years, but were retiring, and seeking buyers.
"I have always loved Kentucky beer cheese, that particular brand was our favorite," said Diane. "We would always take it to our relatives out of state because you couldn't get it (elsewhere). We always keep our eyes open for some type of business, and this is a product we loved, had a long history, and has always been a good, consistent product."
When Sue passed the recipe and her beer cheese making skills on to Diane in 2004, "I felt like I was handing my baby over to good hands," said Sue.
The Castanos' original recipe, which is still used to make Kentucky Beer Cheese, also leads back to the river. "I had Mr. Allman's recipe, but I tweaked it a little bit," said Sue Castano. Later, a slight mix-up led to two flavors of Kentucky Beer Cheese. "(One time) instead of getting one kind of spice, I ended up with the wrong kind, and that's why we have hot and regular," she said.
For folks outside of Central Kentucky who need a beer cheese fix, Diane Evans will ship Kentucky Beer Cheese, as will a number of other producers. However, she has a few customers who simply buy in bulk since her product has a four-month shelf life (if properly refrigerated).
"There is a family who lived in Nicholasville and have since moved to Florida, and they get it in minimum 10-pound tubs," she said. When she was still making Kentucky Beer Cheese, Sue Castano said she remembered trips to Florida that included a stop at the mid-way point to deliver 100 pounds of beer cheese to a caterer who made beer cheese one of his regular menu offerings. "The owners were originally from Lexington and we would meet them right off of I-75, or if they had family visiting (Kentucky), they would take some back."
The name and the state may remain the same, but the ingredients for Kentucky Beer Cheese surely don't. A sampling of common ingredients for beer cheese-beyond cheddar and/or American cheese, beer, cayenne, and garlic-includes mayonnaise, Worcestershire sauce, horseradish, blue cheese, Ale-8-One, Tabasco sauce, onion, Monterey Jack cheese, margarine or butter, paprika, and mustard.
"Some use hot sauce, some use ginger ale, some use mayonnaise; it's astounding," said Tabor, the former beertender and River Rat creator. "It all depends which side of the creek you grew up on. I don't ever claim that I've got the best; what you consider the best is what you grew up with."