Beer + Cheese What’s Not to Like
One man’s journey along Winchester’s latest claim to fame
WINCHESTER, KY. — It’s human nature to enjoy following a trail, especially when that trail leads to rewards like bourbon, beer or beer cheese along the way. Seems we’re big on those in Kentucky.
Blame it on the start of the Bourbon Trail, designed to guide tourists to our bourbon distilleries. That theme was later wrought in miniature when Louisville launched its Urban Bourbon Trail, a list of bars and restaurants that serve at least 50 bourbons. The Brewgrass Trail followed, marking the growing chain of craft breweries in and around Lexington. And this trail binge surely left the Winchester-Clark County Tourism Commission thinking, “We just have to create the Beer Cheese Trail, right?”
That they did in 2013, complete with a Cheese Log to record the adventurer’s journey and a T-shirt prize noting completion.
I’ve not found a definitive historical work marking the genesis of beer cheese in Winchester, but the town boasts it’s “The Birthplace of Beer Cheese,” and no one’s disputing it. At the very least, its renown began with the opening of The Driftwood Inn in the early 1930s. The Kentucky River bank restaurant is where Johnnie Allman, hoping to sell more beer, started serving Snappy Beer Cheese, made from his cousin Joe’s recipe.
It was a hit and, as often happens with good food, others ripped it off and started selling their own.
Locals are so proud of their personal recipes that about 80 enter the amateur contest held at the Beer Cheese Festival. When held this year on June 11, 11,000 people are expected to attend.
If you’re not familiar beer cheese, it’s basically this: a creamy, smooth blend of cheddar, flat beer (any style will do), cayenne pepper (or hot sauce or horseradish), mustard (powder, Dijon, but never “yallah”), Worcestershire (maybe) and garlic (powder usually, but sometimes fresh).
The eight Beer Cheese Trail members serve it at a spreadable, but chilly temperature likely set by food safety requirements. But at room temp, the flavors really name alive, blooming and buzzing on the tongue. It’s not to be confused with beer-infused fondue or queso, good as those are.
This past spring, the city’s tourism director, Nancy Turner, invited me to spend two days touring the area, including the Beer Cheese Trail. And if my cheese-smeared notes are to be believed, it was a dam fine, calorie-collection ride
1) Cairn Coffee House is a spacious craft coffee shop using beans roasted at Sunergos in Louisville, and selling large Chemex slow-brews for a ridiculously low $2.95. But I’m not here for that; Turner directs me to have a beer cheese “breakfast” sandwich named The Hot Mess because, “Maybe cold beer cheese isn’t the way to start off the morning,” she says, kindly.
Panini-pressed, the sandwich’s toasted exterior brackets an interior that’s gooey with beer cheese, pepperoni, bacon and Grippo’s potato chips. It’s a great gut liner to start the day. Check off stop No. 1.
The whole trail covers 20 miles and would take just 32 minutes to complete if driven end to end. But that doesn’t account for stopping, eating and digesting. To assist in the latter, Turner’s smartly mapped out tour stops along the way that allow time for my innards to process the cheese. Along the way I meet Mayor Ed Burtner, get a drive-by tour of the town’s historic architecture and chat with Debbie Homan, the clever entrepreneur behind Creative Coffees Roastery.
2) The dietary delay ends when we park at stop No. 2: JK’S Forest Grove Grocery. A grocery in name only, JK’s is an old-time country restaurant that’s packed to the rafters with a lunchtime crowd. Turner orders a beer cheese platter while my eyes roam the handwritten menu and spy a hot country ham and pimento cheese sandwich.
Since Winchester is where Ale-8-One soft drinks are made, Turner advises I have one. Obediently, I reach for a bottle in an upright refrigerator, but she redirects me to an old chest freezer packed with nearly frozen Ale-8-Ones.
“See the ice in the neck?” Turner says, her tone seasoned with solemnity. “That’s the way you want to drink them.”
When I fail at sipping the soda through the clot of slush, Turner sees my misstep and says with thinly veiled pity, “I’ll get you a straw.”
The beyond-cold soda goes perfectly with the hot sandwich and the creamy-cool beer cheese, which JK’s serves with pickles, Fritos, crackers and pretzels.
3) Cheese consumed, we’re off on an ATV-assisted “hike” at Lower Howard’s Creek Nature Preserve. Though scenic and highly educational, it does little to stimulate any calorie burning before we arrive at stop No. 3, Woody’s Sports Bar & Grill. Turner orders the spicy beer cheese, which arrives with carrot and celery sticks. An actual beer would be great with this, I think, but that must wait for dinner at stop No. 4, our last of the day, at Hall’s on the River.
4) There, over plates of lamb fries (yes, they’re what you imagine and they are delicious), jambalaya and mildly spicy beer cheese, owner Karl Crase recalls the Kentucky River’s seedier days, when after-hours enterprises included gambling and gunrunning. He also crows about his riverside restaurant’s victory in the commercial category in the 2015 Beer Cheese Festival contest.
“I have to admit, I thought the trophy would be bigger, though,” he cracks. “Doesn’t matter. We’re very proud of it.”
5) The next day begins at stop No. 5, Guance’s Deli, for a toasted sandwich of melted beer cheese, country ham and fried egg that would make Elvis weep. Knowing three cheese stops lie ahead, Turner mercifully claims half the sandwich.
6) The morning’s consumption delay includes a tour at Ale-8-One. We see the soda bottled, sip some product, discuss its delicious marriage with bourbon the night before and move on to stop No. 6, Full Circle Health Foods Market. Owner Laura Sheehan’s version is the spiciest yet and conveniently packaged to take home. When she says, “Too bad you didn’t bring a cooler for the trip back Louisville,” I give Turner the faux stink-eye for failing to advise me about such preparations.
Full Circle is the lone trail stop selling variations on the beer cheese theme. Her Feta Weizen includes one variation with basil, sun-dried tomato and pine nuts; the other blends winter spices, sassafras, cardamom, dates and crystalized ginger. When Sheehan informs me her seasonal creations are made in seasons other than spring, she earns her own faux stink-eye.
7) Lunch follows with a visit to stop No. 7, DJ’s Bar & Grill, where owner Donna Crim tries to remember how many times her beer cheese has won the People’s Choice Award at the festival.
“I don’t really know,” she says unconvincingly. She’s friendly, and, I assume, humble. “I know they eat a lot of it here.”
I detect a mysterious savory note in her beer cheese and ask if it’s Worcestershire. Crim only grins without confirming or denying because beer cheese recipes are secret stuff, especially in front of a reporter.
With stop No. 7 behind us, we head to Blackfish Bison Ranch, where owner Brandeon Hampton teaches me more I ever imagined about the complex social order of a bovine herd. I leave convinced that Facebook strife is tame by comparison.
8) The final stop on our journey, No. 8, is Waterfront Grill & Gathering, also located on the Kentucky River. Here, the beer cheese is like most others I’ve enjoyed: creamy, cool and served with healthful carrots and celery.
To mark my completion of the trail, I celebrate with a Bohemia dark beer (which pairs great with the cheese) and Turner presents me with my official T-shirt. I suggest a new marketing slogan for the trail: “I Got Schmeared on the Beer Cheese Trail,” and she likes it.
When I suggest her next goal is to work on a Winchester Fiber Trail, it’s I who earns a faux stink-eye.