Have you ever discovered that something you thought was totally commonplace, so normal that you never even gave it a second thought, was actually entirely unique to your specific existence? It blows your mind. It shakes up your world for a second. I had one of these moments recently, a mini-earthquake of my existence, all thanks to beer cheese.
I work at a craft beer bar, and recently the chef has been tweaking the menu. He was thinking of adding beer to our cheese sauce (we are a beer bar after all; it seemed to fit the theme). I interjected that beer cheese was such a common and popular appetizer, people would probably go for it. To my astonishment, I was met with several confused stares. “Beer cheese?” I asked, bewildered. “You know, the spread…you put it on crackers and pretzels and stuff….is it just a Kentucky thing?” Apparently, it is. After much Googling, I determined that beer cheese does in fact owe its conception to Kentucky (putting it in the same company as that other cheesy delight, the cheeseburger. Take that, Wisconsin!). In fact, judging by my colleagues’ gobsmacked expressions, it may be ubiquitous to the land inside our fair state’s borders (We even have a festival celebrating it. Seriously.).
Let’s back up. Maybe you’re not from the great state of Kentucky, and you’re currently scratching your head saying, “Beer cheese? Like, cheese with beer in it? Cheddar meets Bud Light?” We Kentuckians are pretty simple when it comes to naming things: beer cheese is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Start with some sharp cheddar, either melted or pulsed into submission by your food processor, and add enough beer (usually lager, NEVER Bud Light) to provide both flavor and texture. Throw in some spices to make it salty, spicy, garlicky, etc. to your liking, and you’ve got yourself a Bluegrass State staple. Spread it on some crackers or a piece of pretzel bread, and prepare for an epic mouthgasm. There are of course a number of variations, but that is the general gist of the thing.
So from whence, exactly, did this delightfully tasty appetizer, which no Derby party would be complete without, come from? The issues is up for debate, but the general consensus says that the roots of beer cheese lie on the banks of the Kentucky River near Boonesboro at a joint called The Driftwood Inn, where Johnnie Allman first served his cousin Joe’s Snappy Cheese concoction in the 1930’s.
Things snowballed (cheeseballed? too much?) from there, and Allman’s Beer Cheese is now considered the archetypical version of this wondrous snack food. In Kentucky, however, everyone and their mother has thrown their hat in the ring. You have to work to find a restaurant in my hometown that hasn’t cooked up some version of this traditional culinary treat. Now not all beer cheese is created equal: I have my favorites. So, if you’re in the Louisville area, stop into The Holy Grale and try their version, served with an amazing hot loaf of pretzel bread (You can thank me later. Or better yet, repay me with beer cheese). Other favorite spots for this Kentucky delicacy include Hammerheads, Eiderdown, and Against the Grain Brewery.
If you’re looking for this little culinary wonder in the big city, it’s more of a challenge, but not impossible to find. In 2004, Jim Carden and Andrew Templar, transplanted Kentuckians, opened Floyd in Brooklyn and started serving up the best bar snack they knew: beer cheese. It was such a hit that they now package it and sell it throughout the city. You can get a taste of it at Floyd, or at their sister venues Union Hall and The Bell House. If taking it home is more your style, Floyd Beer Cheese is available at many locations throughout the city. Or, if you’re more of the do it yourself type, the guys over at Louisville Beer have two excellent recipes to try. Whether you’re down South or in the Big Apple, you’re never more than a few ingredients away from spicy, savory, cheesy, beer-y goodness.