Not all beer cheese is created equal — or served at the same temperature. In Central Kentucky, the way they make their decadent app is a bit different than the process we use in the Queen City, but a local author says: If it’s not cold, it’s not traditional.
When the term “beer cheese” comes to mind, most people think of a hot dip paired with some type of salty chip, bread or soft pretzel — a gooey spread that combines and melts two of humanity’s favorite vices. But Central Kentucky beer cheese is served chilled and made with just four ingredients: cheddar cheese, garlic, cayenne pepper and, of course, beer.
Writer (and CityBeat freelancer) Garin Pirnia tells a story of authentic cold beer cheese in her recently published The Beer Cheese Book, which details the history of the cold dip, where it came from and why it’s so appetizing.
Pirnia, a Covington resident, fell in love with beer cheese while at Party Town in Florence, Ky. Confused yet intrigued by the cold spread, she had to try it.
“It was a pre-packaged spread made by Kentucky Beer Cheese, which is based near Lexington. I tried it and loved it,” she says.
Immediately impressed, she researched the decadent snack. Following the first taste of cold beer cheese, she attended The Beer Cheese Festival in Winchester, Ky., in 2014. Held each June, this festival is the only one in the world dedicated to the food.
Winchester claims to be the city where cold beer cheese originated, and it’s also home to the “Beer Cheese Trail,” an eight-restaurant jaunt through Clark County where intrepid eaters can sample the cheese spread at the different establishments (and get a T-shirt). Learning more about the dip, Pirnia decided to bring her knowledge a tad north to Cincinnati.
Many believe that this loveable appetizer comes from German descent, which is a good guess considering it’s commonly found under “appetizers” at most German pubs and taverns around the city. The real story is that the original cold beer cheese was made in 1939 across the river (and about an hour-and-a-half south) in Winchester.
“Johnnie Allman and his cousin Joe came up with the recipe so they could sell more beer at their restaurant (The Driftwood Inn), which was located on the Kentucky River,” Pirnia says.
They thought that by adding beer and cheese into one dish, it would make their restaurant-goers order more beer. They were right. This was the first documented collaboration between these delicious treats.
Pirnia’s The Beer Cheese Book is the first to be published completely devoted to the dip. “There are books out about beer and cheese pairings, and some beer cheese recipes are featured in cookbooks, but my book is the first one to include recipes, the history of beer cheese and a total of 216 pages about the food,” Pirnia says.
The book includes 20 recipes ranging from beer cheese buttermilk biscuits and beer cheese crab and broccoli casserole to pawpaw beer cheese and beer cheese cupcakes.
“The thing about beer cheese is, most people feel the need to not share their recipes. There’s a weird secrecy surrounding it,” Pirnia says. “Some people wouldn’t even tell me what kind of beer or brand of cheese they used. Because of that, I had to build most of the recipes myself.”
The beer cheese guru also makes her own spread at home, the traditional way. Any beer is suitable — lagers, IPA’s, even porters. “Some people have spent decades perfecting their family recipe, which is weird because most recipes are only a handful of ingredients,” she says. “But the kind of beer and cheese you use makes a big difference.”
“There are other variations, like adding jalapeños or buttermilk or cream cheese,” Pirnia adds.
Around Cincinnati, most locals have never tried the cold dip, just its hot counterpart. Pirnia admits she has to explain to some natives what beer cheese even is. But you can find authentic Kentucky-style beer cheese at places like Servatii, Kremer’s Market, Tousey House, Moerlein’s taproom and Longfellow. Otherwise, most restaurants and breweries in the area serve the warm dip.
“I do encourage people to try the recipes and to travel to Central Kentucky and visit the Beer Cheese Trail and the Beer Cheese Festival,” Pirnia says. “Bourbon country is close enough to the Beer Cheese Trail that people can do both in the same visit.”
It may not be Cincy’s famous 5-way chili spaghetti, but we have to try new things sometimes.
Read Garin Pirnia's expert guide to beer cheese and how to tackle the Beer Cheese Trail here.
The Beer Cheese Book, published by the University Press of Kentucky, is available online and select booksellers.