Winchester, Kentucky, is the official birthplace of beer cheese. That’s according to a proclamation made by Governor Steve Beshear in 2013. So it’s only appropriate that Clark County hosts an annual festival celebrating the beloved snack.
According to Jenny Bailey, a member of the Beer Cheese Festival committee, traditional Kentucky beer cheese is made with cheddar cheese, spices including garlic and cayenne, and any type of beer.
“You cannot get drunk on beer cheese,” Bailey adds. “You would probably get sick before you ingested enough beer to get drunk on it! The amount of alcohol in it is very [minimal].”
Kentuckians are proud of the local version of the dip, but bar owners have been serving variations on the cheese, spices, and beer concoctions for generations, according to Fiona Young-Brown, author of A Culinary History of Kentucky.
“In southern Germany, a lot of bars and beer halls will serve a dish called ??? made from cheese, a little bit of stale beer, and spices,” says Young-Brown. “It was a way of using up some of the beer. The spiciness, the saltiness, makes people thirsty, and therefore makes them drink more beer.”
Brown-Young explains that a lot of bars in the early 20th century in Kentucky were owned by German immigrants, and that could be the origin of beer cheese as a Kentucky specialty.
While beer cheese likely has many influences, one of the first people to successfully market the product was Johnny Allman, who called his version snappy cheese, a name that highlights the spiciness.
“I think they definitely helped to put beer cheese back into people’s minds, that this had gone from just being this thing that you might have found in bars a while ago but was kind of dying out,” says Young-Brown. “Now thanks to Johnny Allman’s beer cheese, it became something that everyone could buy, everyone knew about in the area, and ultimately now we have the beer cheese festival that kind of put Winchester on the map.”
This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #2501, which originally aired on October 5, 2019. Watch the full episode.