Every June, thousands of people gather in Winchester, Ky., for the annual Beer Cheese Festival. The family-friendly fest has brought out Kentucky locals and tourists around beer, music, arts and crafts, and competitions for 10 years. The spread that keeps everyone coming back? Beer cheese.
Beer cheese is prevalent in the Bluegrass State. Made here for some 50 years, it’s available at restaurants, grocery stores, and Super Bowl tailgates.
Now, the versatile spread is expanding its cheesy reach to breweries and high-end gastro pubs across the country. The Kentucky staple is served at Louisville craft breweries like Against the Grain, Bluegrass Brewing Company, and Holy Grale, and is on the menus of restaurants like San Antonio, Texas’s Southerleigh Fine Food & Brewery and New York’s Randolph Beer.
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Best of all? The crowd-pleasing living legend is easy to make at home.
Making A Legend
Traditionally, beer cheese is served cold and consists of sharp cheddar cheese (or processed cheese with cheddar flavor), beer, garlic, and pepper, preferably cayenne. Some recipes call for additional zingy hot flavors like dry mustard and horseradish. Heat is both the name of the game and the operative word with beer cheese: Variations can range from mild to hot in flavor, cold to hot in temperature, and spreadable destinies spanning vegetables, crackers, crudités, and cheeseburgers.
Kentucky River originals are served cold and tend to use German lager for its light malt and hop flavors. (It also works as a nod to Kentucky’s German heritage.) Holy Grale, for example, uses its pilsner in its housemade beer cheese, served with fresh-baked pretzel bread.
Lots of beer cheese recipes play up the umami flavors with nutty brown ale and Worcestershire sauce. A smoky meat-lovers’ version calls for gouda and bacon. Still others cool down the heat and play up the sweet, fruity flavors, like Against the Grain, which uses its Sho’ Nuff Belgian table beer in a cold-served dip with kettle chips.
Basically, beer cheese can be whatever you want it to be, is almost guaranteed to be delicious, and it only takes 10 to 15 minutes to make.
Exactly where beer cheese comes from varies depending on whom you ask, but most trace its origins to Clark County. The Kentucky locale was officially recognized as the birthplace of beer cheese in 2013. Winchester, Ky., the county seat of Clark County, is home to the world’s only Beer Cheese Festival and Beer Cheese Trail, the latter of which takes dairy lovers on an eight-restaurant beer cheese journey.
By some accounts, the spread was invented in the 1930s by Chef Joe Allman for the Driftwood Inn, located alongside the Kentucky River near Boonesborough. The inn was owned by Joe’s cousin, Johnnie, who served the spicy dip as a complimentary snack to keep beer drinkers thirsty. In the 1940s, the restaurant moved to a new location along the river in Winchester, where it remains today under a new name.
Legend has it Johnnie lost the restaurant (and its precious beer cheese recipe) to a bet with a man named Carl Johnson in the 1960s. In 1965, the restaurant and its recipes were acquired by George and Gertrude Hall, who renamed the restaurant Hall’s on the River. The Halls introduced Clark County to the now-famous Hall’s Snappy Beer Cheese that year. The spread is now sold in Sam’s Clubs across the Midwest and eastern U.S.
Although Hall’s claims to have the original beer cheese, Johnnie was a serial restaurateur and brought his beer cheese with him to several businesses throughout the 1970s. The final location, Allman’s Restaurant, served the last Allman’s beer cheese in 1978, when it burned down.
However, at present, Johnnie ’s grandson Ian Allman is now proud owner of Allman’s Beer Cheese, which also claims to be “the one and only original.” Another brand, River Rat Beer Cheese, produced by Bob Tabor, a former employee of Johnnie Allman, uses the tagline “Just Like Johnny’s [sic].”
Although not proven, Hall’s and other Clark County beer cheese enthusiasts claim Queen Elizabeth II is a fan of the stuff. She, an avid horse enthusiast, was allegedly seen snatching a tub of the spread after one of her many visits to the Bluegrass State’s thoroughbred horse farms.
No matter which beer cheese was the first, many have come since. We are excited to see where beer cheese goes next.
Brooklyn Brew Shop, a brewing supply company based in NYC, shared its recipe for stellar, spiced beer cheese. It recommends using flavorful beer that isn’t too hoppy, such as blonde or brown ale, or wheat beer.
- 3 bottles of beer (see note above)
- 2 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed
- 1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
- ⅔ cup whole milk
- 6 ounces cream cheese, softened
- 10 ounces (approx. 2 heaping cups) grated cheddar
- Combine beer, shallots, garlic, and peppercorns in a large pot over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, and then reduce heat and simmer until the beer reduces to ⅓ cup (approximately one hour).
- When liquid is reduced, strain into a heat-safe bowl and let cool.
- When your beer reduction is cool enough to handle, combine milk, cream cheese, cheddar, and beer reduction in a food processor. Pulse until the mixture is somewhat smooth, but stop before it becomes a paste.
- Transfer cheese mixture to a large pot and heat over medium-low, stirring occasionally, until cheese is completely melted (approximately 10 minutes). Whisk until smooth.
- Remove from heat, let cool, and cover. Refrigerate for at least four and up to 24 hours to marry flavors. Enjoy.