Beer cheese arrives at Leon’s

Brian Bucheron

A cheese spread rarely seen outside of Kentucky is getting a tryout at Leon’s Oyster Shop.

Beer cheese last night made its debut as a special: Chef Ari Kolender devised the dish partly to pad the snacky section of the menu, since hush puppies and oysters are currently the only shareable items available for diners to munch while they await their meals.

Kolender wasn’t familiar with beer cheese before Brooks Reitz, Leon’s co-owner and a native Kentuckian, introduced him to the genre.

“I love any food that crosses boundaries,” Reitz says. “In Kentucky, beer cheese is that item. It’s a working class snack that many folks enjoy, and its lack of ‘seriousness’ is exactly why I find it so appealing.”

At its most basic, beer cheese is made from sharp cheddar, flat beer and cayenne pepper, although cooks are apt to tweak the recipe with garlic, onion, Worcestershire sauce and Sriracha – or so tasters suspect. In Kentucky, home to more than 30 commercial beer cheese producers and an annual beer cheese festival that draws dozens of amateur competitors, few people are willing to share their beer cheese secrets. “When I called around to restaurants in Winchester, Ky., I was met with contemptuous laughter whenever I asked for a recipe,” Keith Pandolfi last month wrote in a beer cheese feature for the Wall Street Journal.

According to a beer cheese chronicle in Culture, a magazine devoted to cheese, the spread likely originated in German-owned bars in the late 1800s. Rather than waste flat beer, bartenders may have mixed it with cheese and spices, taking their style cues from obatzda, a butter-and-camembert-based Bavarian delicacy.

The spread was popularized in the 1940s by Johnnie Allman, a Boonesborough, Ky. restaurant owner. As the legend goes, when Allman needed something salty to stoke his patrons’ thirst for beer, a cousin who’d lived in Arizona came up with ‘snappy cheese.’ The cayenne pepper supposedly harkened back to Joe Allman’s stay in the Southwest.

At Leon’s, the beer cheese is made with Cheddar, cayenne pepper, mustard, Worcestershire sauce and PBR. It’s spread on bread and drizzled with chili oil.

Traditionally, beer cheese is served with crackers. But according to the Wall Street Journal story, fans also mix beer cheese into grits, scrambled eggs and mac-and-cheese. It’s acceptable to heat up beer cheese and serve the dip with a soft pretzel, or spread it on a hamburger. The latest iteration of Warehouse’s menu includes a carrot “not-dog” with mushroom chili and brown ale beer cheese.

“We’re trying to decide how people will perceive it,” Kolender says.

If the spread ends up being served exclusively at the bar, as the Leon’s crew is considering, patrons may soon be able to pair it with something stronger than beer. The S.C. Department of Revenue this morning is scheduled to hold a hearing on the restaurant’s liquor license application.

“Assuming we pass, I will begin work on our cocktail list and implementing a program that makes sense for Leon’s,” Reitz says.