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The Birthplace of Beer Cheese

Bite into foodie history on the Clark County Beer Cheese Trail.

Story by Kathy Witt

For years, beer and cheese—staples on snack trays everywhere—flirted with each other, but it wasn’t until the 1930s, at a restaurant in the tiny town of Winchester, Kentucky, that they got together to form a palate-pleasing power couple: beer cheese.

This match made in culinary heaven happened when a guy named Johnnie Allman helped create and then served his cousin Joe’s Snappy Cheese at the historic Driftwood Inn.

According to its somewhat muddled history, the cousins wanted to serve something that would make their customers thirsty to increase drinks orders.

“The result was a sharp cheddar cheese with a little kick,” Joe’s son, Tim Allman, writes in an account of the concoction’s origins. “People would be given what we called ‘beer cheese’ in a small souffle cup with saltine crackers, radishes, and celery when they were greeted at their table or bar, before they put in their drink order.”

The cousins’ scheme worked and today the Clark County Beer Cheese Trail brings cheese zealots to where it all began: The Birthplace of Beer Cheese. Whether you’re a beer cheese aficionado or newbie, come savor tastes along a trail of 14 stops—six of them new to the trail in 2021—to sample this original Kentucky delicacy.

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Cheese, Glorious Cheese

The cheesy splendor begins with picking up an official Cheese Log at any of the participating restaurants or from the Winchester/Clark County Visitor Center. Each restaurant features its own spin on beer cheese, so you and your fellow beer cheese trailblazers will get a distinctive taste at each stop while also experiencing different a atmosphere and vibe.

Among the stops is Winchester’s first brewery, Abettor Brewing Company, with its in-town, open-air, patio seating. Another is Wildcat Willy’s, a combination farm-to-table restaurant and moonshine and bourbon distillery whose architectural anomalies depict a lineage that includes both “the old Williams Factory” of 1833 and the CME Church of Winchester from 1870 until 1926.

Wildcat Willys - Foodie Travel USA

Photo Credit: Kathy Witt

Beech Springs Farm Market is a vintage country store that looks much like it did when it was built nearly 100 years ago. Full Circle Market, whose gluten-free recipe is a Beer Cheese Festival champ, ships its beer cheese all over the country. “Some of our biggest fans are in Bozeman, Montana and Las Vegas, Nevada,” says owner Laura Sheehan.

Beech Springs Farm Market - Foodie Travel USA

Photo Credit: Kathy Witt

A small sandwich counter in the 1950s, today’s Gaunce’s Café & Deli is home of the famous Smitty’s Country Ham, named for the original owner, Carlton “Smitty” Gaunce. Going back ever further, Pilot View Mini Mart is a grocery/diner that was once a frontier stagecoach stop.

Signature dishes on the trail include steak and beer cheese omelet, beer cheese biscuits served with gourmet jellies or preserves or a slice of Kentucky Proud sausage, Kentucky hot ham and beer cheese, beer cheese quesadilla, shrimp and beer cheese grits, beer cheese nachos, and a beer cheese platter with chips, pickles, and few other surprises. Truly devoted fromagephiles can enjoy beer cheese at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, plus as an evening snack, with each piquant bite bringing you one mouthful closer to the coveted prize: an official beer cheese T-shirt.

According to Julie Staton (Miss Julie to her regulars at the Pilot View), whipping up this ooey-gooey taste bud tantalizer is not simply popping open a cold one and pouring it into melted cheese. “It’s in the wrist and how you mix,” she says. “That’s my magic.”

Pilot View - Foodie Travel USA

Photo Credit: Kathy Witt

The Winchester hot brown pizza, served at the Engine House Deli—located inside Winchester’s original fire station on land that was deeded in 1885 for this purpose—mashes together two Kentucky culinary powerhouses: the restaurant’s special-recipe ‘rough and ready beer cheese,’ named after the fire brigade that once called the Engine House home, and the hot brown—that oh-so cheesy Kentucky sensation spiked with crisp bacon and juicy tomatoes. The beer cheese burger, one of two signature beer cheese dishes at Hall’s on the River, shows why the secret-recipe beer cheese combined with banana peppers made it the winner of 2020 Beer Cheese Week.

Fun Facts, on the Side

While eating your way through the county, you’ll pick up some fun trivia. Like the fact that Daniel Boone’s daughter, Jemima, along with two of her besties, was kidnapped near the site of the Waterfront Grill, which serves up a grilled beer cheese melt prepared on a salt block as its signature dish. Or that, on February 19, 1916, Helen Keller spoke to a large delegation at the circa 1873 Winchester Opera House, beautifully restored and today housing Loma’s at the Opera House on its first floor. (Three words: candied bacon crumbs. That’s what tops Loma’s signature beer cheese dish.)

Caseophiles (aka cheese lovers) who are also devotees of TV will be interested to know that, when sampling the headlining dish at Woody’s Sports Bar & Grill, you can tune into 22 television sets.

The homemade potato chips topped with chili, chopped lettuce, and jalapeno peppers then drizzled with warm beer cheese won’t be served by DJ at DJs Steakhouse because there is no DJ. “When you come in, you should ask why,” urges Nancy Turner, executive director at the ‎Winchester-Clark County Tourism Commission.

JK’s Café at Forest Grove supposedly has the coldest Ale-8s in the county. Ale-8-One, another Winchester original and the only soft drink invented in Kentucky that’s still in existence, is considered the state’s Official Soft Drink. (By the way, its ginger-citrus flavor goes great with beer cheese.)

Beer Cheese: The Celebration

With National Cheese Day celebrated on June 4 each year, it makes sense that Winchester/Clark County’s Beer Cheese Festival—also a stop on the Beer Cheese Trail—is celebrated in June as well. Most years, it takes place on the second Saturday of the month. This year, because of the pandemic, it is being held in downtown Winchester the evening of Friday, June 11.

The festival will look a little different than in years past, with a Beer Cheese Shop featuring favorite beer cheese makers set up from 5 to 9 p.m., plus arts and crafts and food vendors. At 7 p.m., Winchester’s Rock the Block series gets underway with musical guests, The Ranahans. Adding to the fun will be the Remember When Cruiserz car show. Find up-to-date information here. What will remain the same is all that beer cheesy deliciousness.

Beer Cheese Trail - Foodie Travel USA

Photo Credit: Winchester/Clark County Tourism Commission

Recipe

Courtesy Woody’s Sports Bar and Grill Beer Cheese and The Beer Cheese Book by Garin Parnia

Ingredients

1 Tablespoon cayenne
1 Tablespoon fresh garlic, minced
1 Tablespoon red pepper flakes
1 lb. sharp cold-pack cheddar
1 lb. Velveeta, room temperature
1 Tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
3/4 bottle (8 oz) Miller Lite beer

Instructions

Add all the ingredients but the beer to the work bowl of a food processor and start blending. Add the beer gradually until the mixture is smooth.

Plan A Trip

The Clark County Beer Cheese Trail is open year-round. The official Cheese Log may be downloaded here. Visit participating restaurants and receive a stamp at each location or track your progress on your mobile device by using the free Tour Winchester app and clicking on the Beer Cheese Trail icon. Beer Cheese Trailblazers must accumulate a minimum of seven stamps to earn the official Beer Cheese Trail T-shirt. The title of Beer Cheese Ambassador will be conferred upon those sampling their way to 13 stops on the trail and they will be put into a drawing. The prize? Being a judge at the Beer Cheese Festival.

Visit Winchester, Kentucky

Kentucky Tourism

Read up on all things beer cheese in Garin Parnia’s The Beer Cheese Book, published in 2017 by the University of Kentucky Press.

The Historic Log Cabin on Mt. Holly Farm, an off-the-grid hideaway on a working hemp farm, has ties to both Daniel Boone and Wildcat Willy’s. The former trod upon the land and the latter gets its grain for its bourbon from the farm. Overnight guests are free to hike, stroll, bike and go birding and, depending on coronavirus regulations, help with planting the farm garden and feeding the goats.

Kathy WittKathy Witt

Contributor

Kathy Witt is an award-winning travel and lifestyle writer and the author of several books, including Secret Cincinnati, Atlanta Georgia: A Photographic Portrait, and The Secret of the Belles. Kathy is a member of the Society of American Travel Writers and Authors Guild. She lives in Kentucky.