The Great Beer Cheese Wars of 2010


Lexington, KY – Beer cheese is pretty unique to Kentucky – and particularly central Kentucky. There are more than 30 commercial varieties, and many individuals also pride themselves on their own personal recipe. While beer cheese has been around for decades, it seems like the awareness, use and overall competitive landscape for it has increased in the last year or so.
This was very evident at the recent Incredible Food Show, where beer cheese vendor booths were not in short supply. I don’t think any other category of food had more representation. Many vendors lay claim to the original or authentic recipe, and some just touted their own variations.
The origin of beer cheese can be traced back to the 1940s and the restaurant known as Johnny Allman’s on Athens-Boonesboro Road in Clark County, overlooking the Kentucky River. The owner, John Allman, had a cousin named Joe Allman, a chef living in Phoenix, Ariz., who is said to have created the original beer cheese. One of the ingredients was cayenne, which showed his Southwest culinary influence. This also illustrates the influence of cross-regionalization on food. This spicy addition gave the cheese some “bite” or “kick.” Munching on beer cheese and salted crackers while waiting for a meal no doubt increases beverage sales, which, of course, is a big profit driver in a restaurant.
Over the years, many people worked at Johnny Allman’s or became otherwise acquainted with John Allman. The recipe, and many new versions of it, spread to others in the foodservice industry. Incidentally, Joe Allman is also credited with the menu item fried banana peppers.
Allman’s restaurant burned down in 1978 and never reopened. However, the Allman family is still in the beer cheese business. Johnny’s grandson, Ian Allman, and his wife, Angie, own Allman’s Beer Cheese (www.allmanbeercheese.com) in Mt. Vernon, Ky. Their website is a good source of nostalgia, with pictures and articles about the old Johnny Allman’s days.
Another name closely linked to beer cheese is Hall’s on the River (www.hallsontheriver.com), located very close to the old Allman’s location. Its version of beer cheese is made and sold in the restaurant, and a slightly different version is sold in grocery stores and produced by a company in Louisville. The restaurant version is on the menu as an appetizer, and Hall’s also serves that other Kentucky River original, fried banana peppers.
A relative newcomer to the beer cheese arena is Lexington-based Howard’s Creek Beer Cheese, owned by Kathy Archer. The company named the product after Howard’s Creek or Lower Howard’s Creek in the Kentucky River Valley in Clark County, which is where many of the original restaurants that carried the product are located. The company’s two websites (www.howardscreek.com and www.reelbeercheese.com) are great informational resources for the product and its history. Howard’s Creek has been pursuing the retail distribution segment and was recently mentioned by a reader in Cooking Light magazine. It is a strong player in the segment.
Another important player in this segment is Nicholasville-based Evans Gourmet Foods (www.kentuckybeer cheese.com). Led by President Diane Evans, the company produces a very high-quality product that also traces its roots back to Allman’s, although it, like many others, has tweaked the recipe a bit. Evans and her husband, Chris, purchased the business from Jim and Sue Castano several years ago.
Other players in this unique segment include True Blue Beer Cheese, Copper Kettle Beer Cheese, Cara Mia’s Beer Cheese, Whitty’s Country Beer Cheese, PJ’s Specialty Beer Cheese, True Blue Beer Cheese, Orlando’s Gourmet Party Food and Deli, Terry and Kathy’s on Main (based in Mt. Sterling, Ky.), Mary Lou’s Beer Cheese and River Rat Beer Cheese. (I am sure this is not an all-inclusive list, but it gives one a sense of the pride and entrepreneurial spirit of “Kentucky Foodies” who know a great unique Kentucky product when they taste it.)
In 2009, the city of Winchester launched its own annual Beer Cheese Festival (www.beercheesefestival.com) that included both commercial and amateur competitions. In both 2009 and 2010, the top three results in the commercial category were identical, with Southwind Sports Bar in Winchester placing first, Howard’s Creek Authentic Beer Cheese placing second and Allman’s Beer Cheese placing third. The 2011 Beer Cheese Festival will be held June 10 and 11.
Restaurants have gotten in on the act with menu items using beer cheese. Saul Good Pub has a great steak-and-beer- cheese nachos appetizer and Malone’s features a beer-cheese burger.
In conclusion, the food entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in the Bluegrass, and beer cheese is one prime example. The variations on the “original” merely expand the reach and frequency for a growing niche product.

Copyright 2014 Smiley Pete Publishing. All rights reserved.