Jean Bell has earned her living making vats of beer cheese in central Kentucky for over 50 years. She’s a living link to a region-specific food’s history that is writ large across the Bluegrass State.
In this part of Appalachia the natives are obsessed with beer cheese.
Johnnie Allman’s Driftwood Inn (est.1938) is the culinary Mesopotamia of the genre. Allman, an ex-Kentucky state trooper, was a legendary restaurateur whose cousin Joe created a product he called ‘Snappy Cheese’ a beer-soaked blend of cheddar and cayenne chile peppers that was put on the menu to drive bar business at the old Inn.
Carl Johnson bought Allman’s Driftwood Inn in 1950 and ran it for 15 years before he was shot dead with a .32 pistol in a dispute in the restaurant’s bar. George and Gertrude Hall purchased The Driftwood from the survivors of Carl Johnson in 1965.
In the meantime, Johnnie Allman was back in business on the same stretch of road with his Johnnie Allman’s Fisherman Inn.
This is where it gets interesting. After Johnnie Allman retired in 1978, his garde-manger, a lady named Susie, went to work at Hall’s-the restaurant across the road from the Fisherman Inn, and she took the original Snappy Cheese recipe with her.
As the building that housed the old Fisherman Inn burned down one final time a gentleman named Ed Mastrean sat and watched from his perch at Hall’s across the way.Hall’s was happy to have Suzie but they also had Jean Bell, a day-one employee who had her own beer cheese recipe, the one currently in use at the old-school fish house. Can you imagine walking into Hall’s in 1978 and being able to order Snappy Cheese from Suzie or Beer Cheese from Jean Bell?
That’s an orgy of beer cheese.
More changes to the beer cheese game came when George and Gertrude’s son Steve bought his parents out in 1981. The young Hall partnered with J Peterman (of Seinfeld fame) in the cheese-end of the concern for a bit but tragedy struck in 1989 when Steve Hall died. The following year the business was sold by Hall’s widow Joan to Dr James Crase of Somerset, Kentucky.
Johnnie Allman’s grandson Ian Allman has been in the beer cheese game since 2008. He is the last blood-link to that original Snappy Cheese served at the old Driftwood Inn beginning in 1938. He uses cheese from Wisconsin and Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer in his recipe. You may purchase it here.
At the beginning of June I drove from New Orleans to Kentucky to attend the Beer Cheese Festival in Winchester. 760 miles goes by in a heartbeat when endless beer cheese awaits. And endless it is. For $5 you get to stroll down Beer Cheese Boulevard in a downtown that evokes Robert Penn Warren. The competitors are wholly balkanized with clear demarcations separating the booths.
It’s an all you can eat affair to boot.
Of course you only get a smidgen from each purveyor but after a few dozen bites I was satiated. And I was fortunate to meet Jean Bell. She was more than gracious with her time as she posed for a brace of pictures. She explained that she’s slowed down a mite in the latter part of her 50 year tenure and only works four hours per day now.
And her beer cheese was the best of the festival.