Beer Cheese. If you’re not from Kentucky, you may or may not have heard of it before. But unless you’ve traveled to the Bluegrass State I can tell you one thing; you ain’t had real beer cheese.
A brief and underrated description of this delicious treat is a cheese spread, usually made with a high content of sharp cheddar, garlic, cayenne pepper, a slight amount of beer and some other things. Each brand has a different recipe that they keep secret – we can’t have any copy cats out there. Beer cheese is usually served with crackers, pretzels, celery or carrots – although a few places have been known to melt it down and pour it over a serving of fries. Although it has beer in it, there is no alcoholic side effects to eating this spread and it is safe for children and pregnant women to eat.
Let me back up and give a little knowledge; first on my position as a self-proclaimed-and-in-no-way-actually-titled Beer Cheese Expert and then on a brief history of the cheese spread.
I was born and raised in Clark County, Kentucky – aka, the birthplace of beer cheese. Growing up, beer cheese was a treat to be respected. As in, you had to ask Dad for some before you ate it and he would know if you had snuck even a single chip’s worth. In the Combs house, there is serious beer cheese etiquette including that you NEVER dunk into the container; always use gliding sweeps to collect a small amount and leave the surface smooth. Seriously.
We do not mess around, folks.
My family didn’t travel out of state much when I was a kid, and so I made it to my 16th year before I realized on a trip to Florida that I would be denied my favorite snack for a full week. I was even further surprised a few years later in college when I learned that two new friends, one from far Eastern KY and the other Northern KY, had never heard of beer cheese. I mean, WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN. Later travels would show me that there is ‘beer cheese’ beyond Central KY, but they are so different that we usually put air quotations around the name when referencing it.
As you can see, beer cheese means a lot to the people of
Clark County and Winchester.
It all started here in the 1940’s. You will find MANY conflicting stories and ‘originals’ (much like in the bourbon world) but here is what I believe to be true. The Allman family had a restaurant in Clark County back in the day, and the most compelling argument is that the recipe started there. I’m not saying that it is for sure – but that is my view on the matter. Through the decades, similar recipes popped up and in recent years, many have claimed to be the original recipe.
My thoughts are; I don’t care if you were the first recipe – as long as you’re the best and you bring that HEAT!
Which brings me to my next point for all you novices out there; which is the best?
Winchester holds an annual festival the second weekend of June to find that out. Beer cheese makers from far and wide come in with samples to share with the masses. You can pay to get into the tasting area, and try each recipe out for yourself. The proceeds all go back into Main Street Winchester to better our downtown community. Visitors also vote for the People’s Choice Award. Each year, we have a juried winner to claim the #1 spot!
Here are my personal picks for the Best Beer Cheese:
#1: Full Circle Market - Hot
Why: This recipe is somewhat new to my life, but for the past couple of years it has owned my heart. It is certified gluten-free (not a selling point for me, but definitely worth mentioning), has a great firm texture, and the slow building heat that sends it home. And it’s not just me; they were the First Place Winner at the 2016 Beer Cheese Festival! Full Circle Market is a fantastic local health food store here in Winchester, so I also love being able to support another entrepreneur in our town. You can also try their Mild and Sriracha versions – even order it online here!
#2: River Rat Beer Cheese – Hot
Why: This is a classic in my family – For many years River Rat has been made on Main Street, and my dad would pick some up at the local grocery store on his way home from work. It has a good texture; a little creamier than Full Circle’s version. It definitely has a lot of sharp in it because this bad boy is ORANGE. I love its heat, which is in-your-face from the first bite. It has never won the first-place award, but has been second many times as well as the People’s Choice.
These are just two of the great recipes that we have in the area. There are hundreds of recipes to be found in restaurants and grocery stores in Central Kentucky. It’s also not unusual for families to have their own special blend that never make it further than reunions and holiday meals (it is NOT Thanksgiving without beer cheese available with veggie appetizers).
We have a Beer Cheese Trail in Winchester/Clark County that you can travel down on a weekend visit. It links in several restaurants who serve up great recipes, and you can even get a free t-shirt from our tourism office when you complete the trail! You may want to go with a size up from your usual size to make room for all that beer cheese you’ve eaten. Don't miss The Hot Mess from The Cairn on South Main St - it's a sandwiched-mess of regional flavors!
I would love to leave you all with my favorite beer cheese recipe… but then I would have to kill you. Do yourself a favor; make plans to head to Winchester during early June OR any weekend that you feel like traveling the trail. Make sure to swing by our store, Dirty South Pottery, on North Main and tell us that you heard about Beer Cheese here!
We have our 'reserved for beer cheese' bowls available during the month of June and during the winter holiday season. They are always sold on a first-come, first-serve basis and we usually sell out of them quick! If you're interested in one this Beer Cheese Festival (June 9th), make sure to stop by our store early!