In The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra Antony’s lieutenant Enobarbus explains that Antony’s marriage to Octavia will fail. Antony has already tasted the charms of Cleopatra:
“Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety. Other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies….”
With apologies to Shakespeare, one might compare beer cheese soup to the queen of Egypt. Other soups may satisfy, but beer cheese soup makes us hungry for more. In Wisconsin we are blessed with a wide variety of beers and cheeses that we can turn into soup with an almost infinite variety of flavors.
I grew up with both in northwest Wisconsin. After the milkman loaded the cans from the tank in the milk house into his truck, he filled Grandpa’s order for cheese and butter. I remember Cheddar, Colby, brick, beer kaese, Limburger and Swiss as regular items on the list besides the butter. The same cheeses were available at the A & P and the Co-op, but Mom never bought beer kaese or Limburger, and Grandma didn’t like them either. “Stink cheese,” they called them.
My father did not like cheese and for a long time refused to eat it. Once pizza became popular, he ate cheese but he continued to claim that it was just spoiled milk. He did, however, like beer, and he had many to choose from. Leinenkuegel’s from Chippewa Falls, Fitger’s from Duluth, Old Style from LaCrosse, Breunig’s from Rice Lake and Walter’s from Eau Claire are a few of the Wisconsin beer names I remember. There were many more. Mom and Aunt Laura liked “shorty” bottles of Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Budweiser was available everywhere, but my recollection is that it was most popular with tourists. One beer still vivid in my memory was brewed in St. Paul, Minnesota. If you were born before 1970 you probably are familiar with the Hamm’s “Beer Bear” and may have enjoyed the wonderful TV commercials: “From the land of sky blue waters….comes the beer refreshing….” In 1999 the Hamm’s Bear advertising campaign was listed as one of the best in the last hundred years by Advertising Age. The bear and the jingle sold a lot of beer and entertained millions of television viewers. If you would like to see one of those early Hamm’s Bear TV commercials, click here.
There were over three hundred breweries in Wisconsin a hundred years ago, but at that time there were more than 2,800 cheese factories. Most of the cheese plants were smaller operations, often co-operatively owned and operated by local dairy farmers within a ten or fifteen mile circle of the factory itself.
Though most of those local breweries and cheese factories are gone, we still are blessed with enough to give us a wide choice of the key ingredients for beer cheese soup. In fact, the choices are increasing year by year as new artisan cheese operations begin selling their wares, and microbreweries seem to be sprouting up like mushrooms after a hard rain.
By pairing different cheeses and beers you can create a marvelous variety of flavors. If you are a conservative cook, start with a standard American lager beer such as Budweiser or Miller High Life and a medium Cheddar. For a more pronounced cheese flavor, use the same beer but substitute a sharp Cheddar. Next time, try it with a darker, more full-bodied beer or replace a cup of the Cheddar with some good aged Swiss, Jarlsberg, Parmesan or any other cheese you like.
Here is what I usually do.
4 T unsalted butter
1 large or two medium carrots
1 large onion (3 to 3 1/2 inch diameter)
2 large cloves garlic
1/4 tsp. celery salt
4 T all-purpose flour
1/2 cup chicken broth or bouillon
1 cup milk
1 cup half-and-half
1 12 oz. bottle of beer
2 tsp. Dijon or stone-ground mustard
3 cups sharp Cheddar cheese
1/2 tsp. Worcestershire Sauce
1/4 to 1/2 tsp. hot sauce
A good grind of black pepper
Start by cleaning and chopping the onion and carrots into a quarter-inch dice. Clean and mince the garlic. Melt the butter over medium heat in a large saucepan or Dutch oven. Add the vegetables and sauté them for about five minutes until the onion is limp and the carrots begin to cook. Be careful not to brown the vegetables.
Combine the milk and half and half into a small bowl and set it aside. Open the bottle of beer.
Add the flour and stir continuously with a wooden spoon for about three minutes until the flour turns a light golden brown. You are making a roux. Whisk in the broth or bouillon followed by the milk mixture and beer. Increase the heat to medium high and continue whisking the soup, being careful not to leave any lumps.
Whisk in the mustard and Worcestershire sauce and bring the the soup to a simmer. Cook for about ten minutes until the soup is smooth and thick.
While the soup is cooking, grate the cheese, then whisk in the cheese a handful at a time. Add the hot sauce and black pepper. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary.
NOTES: Beer cheese soup is sometimes garnished with popcorn. Years ago, servers at a restaurant my bridge partner and I liked brought small bowls of popcorn with our soup.