Last June, I found myself in Winchester, Kentucky, near Lexington, at the 6th annual Beer Cheese Fest. Yes, something called a Beer Cheese Fest does exist—in fact, it’s the only one of its kind. Clark County, where Winchester is located, is the birthplace of beer cheese, Ale-8-One ginger-flavored soda, and the Beer Cheese Trail (of course there’s a trail). As the legend goes, in the late 1930s Johnnie Allman owned The Driftwood Inn and served his cousin Joe’s “Snappy Cheese” as a complimentary snack to increase the customers’ cravings for beer. Traditionally, sliced veggies were used for dipping. Today, beer cheese has evolved into more of a cheese spread appetizer that’s served with hard and soft pretzels, crudités, as a condiment, or my favorite, just on its own.
My love for beer cheese began in the spring of 2013. I moved to Northern Kentucky in 2011 and occasionally saw pre-packaged beer cheeses in stores, but it wasn’t until I made a trip to Louisville that everything changed for me. I brunched at Harvest, a popular farm-to-table eatery in Louisville, and on their menu they had beer cheese. But their beer cheese wasn’t the typical cold-packed nuclear orange glob-y substance sold in stores; theirs was a runnier, eggshell color (made with white cheddar cheese) that had local craft beer in it, and it tasted spectacular.
I eventually read about this peculiar Beer Cheese Fest taking place in June, and made a decision to enter their amateur contest (40 people total entered). Anyone can make a batch of beer cheese and enter, just as long as they pay the $10 entry fee and deliver their creation to Winchester City Hall by 11 a.m. on the day of fest. The idea of me not only attending the fest but also possibly winning one of their cash prizes seemed capricious, but it was another thing I could add to my resume: “Garin Pirnia, Award-Winning Beer Cheese Person.” I spent the month prior to the fest preparing what I believed to be my best beer cheese. The recipe seemed simple—beer and shredded sharp cheddar cheese blended together with spices—but it was more complex than that. I eschewed the normal methods and instead mimicked Harvest’s gourmet offering.
Traditionally, beer cheese can be served either hot or cold and consists of cheese, beer (make sure it’s flat), garlic, sometimes Worcestershire sauce, mustard powder, cayenne pepper, sometimes cream cheese, and whatever else you feel like tossing in there (I like horseradish). Mass-producing companies such as Kentucky Beer Cheese and Howard’s Creek stick to the more traditional recipe, whereas Dad’s Favorites in Lexington sells radical flavors made with Asiago and sun-dried tomatoes. I should mention those prepared beer cheeses all employ semi-processed cheese and preservatives; some have high-fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors, and cellulose added, so it’s best to make your own.
Perfecting my home recipe quickly became an expensive endeavor (I used recipes from Food.com and All Recipies.com as templates and then tweaked them to my own preference). I bought animal rennet-free white cheddar cheeses (Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s have good selections of vegetarian cheeses), local craft beers (full-bodied but moderately hopped IPAs, brown ales, and stouts like Brooklyn Dry Irish Stout work best). To flatten the beer, I poured it into a container and let it sit out for a few hours. I roasted garlic to mute its strength, and I experimented with different combinations (sometimes I blended different cheeses together) to find the right mix, and blended it all together in a food processor. The night before the competition, I meticulously made my beer cheese—every ingredient mattered—in hopes it’d wow the three judges. I thought, shouldn’t I win based on merit alone?
The day of the competition was a cloudless, warm summer day in Winchester. Long queues formed in the street to try the 18 commercial vendors’ cheeses—between 10,000-12,000 hungry beer cheese lovers attended the fest. When I dropped off my beer cheese at City Hall and saw my competitors’ thick annatto-hued cheeses being placed inside what looked like urine sample cups (they were really soufflé cups), I realized I’d already lost. After I sampled a panoply of mediocre commercial cheeses, it further confirmed most Kentuckians wouldn’t be ready for my second wave of avant-garde style beer cheese. They seemed content with their Cheez Whiz-esque beer cheeses. Kentuckians take their beer cheese heritage very seriously, so why change something that’s worked so well for 70 years? Although more and more restaurants are making their own gourmet varietals, beer cheese fundamentally remains a cheese spread aimed at the hoi polloi.
I didn’t win any of the top three prizes, and left the fest crestfallen. I probably won’t enter the competition again this year, but I think I’ll continue to make my own beer cheese the way I like it, on my own terms. Now I’m enamored with fromage fort, which is fancy stinky cheeses blended with wine. Akin to beer cheese, this could also become an expensive hobby. But if you hear about any cheese-booze fests geared toward a trencherwoman like myself, I could be persuaded out of retirement.
Garin Pirnia, who has a weird, made-up name, is a freelance arts and culture writer and has written for Rolling Stone, Esquire, Mental Floss, and many other publications. She considers herself to be a beer cheese aficionado, and wants people to know it’s more than just a cheese spread. Twitter: @gpirnia