Garin Pirnia was kind enough to take some time to answer our questions about her experiences with beer cheese and the writing of her book, “The Beer Cheese Book,” which released earlier this month.
Can you describe your first encounter with beer cheese?
I moved to Covington from Chicago in 2011, and one day, probably around 2012 or 2013, I went to Party Town, near my house. They sold pre-packaged beer cheese from Kentucky Beer Cheese. I hadn’t heard of beer cheese before, but I bought some, tried it, and loved it! Later, I Googled “beer cheese” and came across the website for The Beer Cheese Festival—I couldn’t believe there was an entire fest dedicated to beer cheese! In 2014, I finally got the chance to attend the festival.
Why write a book about a topic some would consider to be rather narrow?
Because there is nothing like this on the market. A lot of books about beer, and beer and cheese pairings have been published, but nothing only about beer cheese. There’s an entire book on the market about French fries. Sometimes, I think it’s good to be specific. When I started writing the book I kept thinking, “How am I going to write a 200-page book on beer cheese?” But I realized there was a lot to say about it. I could’ve written a 400-page book on it. I’m hoping other people will feel that same way—it’s weird enough that they’ll feel compelled to read about it.
What is the difference between Kentucky style beer cheese and similar dishes?
Kentucky-style is a cold spread and is separate from the warm dip most people are accustomed to. Kentucky-style is made with cold-pack cheddar, cayenne pepper, garlic, and flat beer. Other variations have sprung up in Central Kentucky, like using white cheddar and adding cream cheese, hot sauce, and other spices. But what you find in Winchester, KY, the birthplace of beer cheese, is typically the aforementioned ingredients.
What are your favorite simple uses of beer cheese?
I love to put it in scrambled eggs or in an omelet. Grilled cheese with beer cheese is good, too.
How much does changing the beer or cheese affect the end product? What is your favorite of both?
If you use a dark beer like a porter, it creates a richness that, say, a lager doesn’t have. Plus, it makes the final spread darker in color. A lot of chefs use a hoppy beer like an IPA. I hate drinking IPAs—way too bitter—but it makes stand out more in the spread. You want to be able to taste the beer but you don’t want it to overpower the spread. A lot of people still use Budweiser or other domestic beers, but I prefer craft beer. As for cheese, I like to stick to artisanal cheeses. Kenny Farmhouse in Central Kentucky makes good cheeses. If you add Velveeta or any other processed cheese, it tastes more like nacho cheese, and it buries the beer flavor. I would avoid those types of cheeses.
Who was your favorite beer cheese maker/restaurant to interview in the book? Why?
I enjoyed talking to everyone for the book, so it’s hard to say who were my favorites. I liked talking to Olivia Swan about Olivia’s Beer Cheese, and she was one of the first people I interviewed. I also enjoyed talking with the owners of Floyd, NY, because they gave a different perspective of beer cheese. Growing up in Lexington and later moving to NYC, they were one of the first people to put beer cheese on the menu there.
Can you describe how the Beer Cheese Festival and trail gained recognition? What sparked interest?
Nancy Turner runs the Beer Cheese Trail and has done a good job reaching out to local and national publications to get coverage. However, I constantly talk to people in Kentucky who have no idea a trail exists. That’s one reason I wanted to include it in the book. People visit Kentucky for the Bourbon Trail, so why not also visit The Beer Cheese Trail and Beer Cheese Festival?
How easy is the process of making your own beer cheese? What is your simplest recipes?
It’s rather easy to make. The most time-consuming element is waiting for the beer to flatten, which, depending on the process you use, can take up to eight hours. (In the book, I discuss setting the beer out for eight hours, or whisking it for five minutes.) Then you grate the cheese (or use pre-mixed cold-pack cheddar), throw the cheese, flattened beer, and spices into a food processor, and a few minutes later you’re done. Marion Flexner’s recipe, which is in the book, is probably the simplest recipe. Most of the recipes in the book are designed for people who don’t like cooking or don’t have time to cook. But if people want to get more gourmet, there are recipes for beer cheese cupcakes, and beer cheese risotto. Even those recipes don’t take more than an hour to make.