My husband, Eric, and I are on a mission to lose weight. We’ve been doing fairly well—watching what we eat and focusing more on fruits and vegetables. So one would think the answer to an assignment to conquer Winchester’s new Beer Cheese Trail would be: “Heck, no!”
We found a babysitter and hit the road that Saturday.
We checked out the Beer Cheese Trail website before we left and discovered there are four restaurants on the trail that serve their own version of beer cheese: Woody’s Sports Bar & Grill, DJ’s Bar & Grill, JK’s at Forest Grove and Hall’s on the River. Pick up a “cheese log” at the first establishment you visit and get your log stamped at each restaurant once you try its beer cheese. Each completed log turned in to the Winchester tourism office will earn you a free Beer Cheese Trail shirt. We wanted the shirts … and the chance to have a “free day” for eating.
“Okay, here’s the plan,” I told Eric as we set off that morning. “We’ll eat lunch at Woody’s as it’s right off I-75. Then we’ll head south to scope out Fort Boonesborough in Richmond for a possible summer camping trip and walk off lunch. Then it’s on to Hall’s on the River and JK’s for beer cheese snacks, and wrap it up with dinner at DJ’s Bar & Grill back on Bypass Road.”
“Just point me to the food,” said Eric, who hadn’t had a decent, gut-filling plate of man food since the Super Bowl.
We arrived at Woody’s just before noon, our stomachs rumbling in anticipation. To be honest, neither of us had ever had beer cheese before. Beer, yes. Cheese, of course. But never had the two met in our palates.
Owner Stacy Lisle sidled in next to Eric to educate us on the importance of beer cheese in the town of Winchester, as a server brought us a bowl of the stuff. The two of us dove into it as if we hadn’t eaten in weeks.
The Beer Cheese Trail launched last fall to introduce visitors to the appetizer that allegedly was born in the Clark County city.
“Everybody has the same base to get started, and it’s the sharp cheddar cheese,” said Lisle. “But a lot of people do put a different kind of cheese in theirs, and we use Velveeta with sharp cheddar. And a lot of Miller Lite beer.”
The Velveeta gives Woody’s beer cheese a creamy texture, allowing Eric to heap spoonfuls of it on top of his burger—one of the better ways to eat beer cheese according to Lisle’s customers.
“I miss you, food,” Eric told his burger.
It was one of Lisle’s customers, Winchester native Dave Crowley, who gave Woody’s that particular version of the dip. “He told me, if I ever get famous, I have to mention his name,” said Lisle. “And there are people who do come in from out of town and say ours is the best. But I’m sure they tell that to all the stops on the trail.”
With our bellies full and an 8-ounce tub of Woody’s beer cheese in my hand, we headed to Richmond for a pleasant drive in and around Fort Boonesborough before backtracking to Hall’s on the River.
It is said the Hall’s recipe didn’t come from a customer. Rather, it is based on the original, first-ever-made batch of beer cheese, which was created at Johnnie Allman’s Driftwood Inn. The recipe came from Allman’s cousin, Joe, and they called it “Snappy Cheese.”
Hall’s now occupies the land once used by Driftwood Inn, right on the shores of the Kentucky River. I asked Adam McCraith, Hall’s general manager, about the cheese history—after we ordered a beer cheese platter, of course.
McCraith said the original Allman’s recipe was shown to them but “never written down.” According to a Jan. 9, 2000, Lexington Herald-Leader article, longtime employee Jean Bell had been the only one to make it at that location.
Basing our experience on a creamier dip, Eric and I were a little surprised that our server placed before us a thicker beer cheese—one we actually had to use our forks to spread on our crackers. But it was beer and cheese—and it was darn good.
But was it the same cheese Johnnie Allman served more than 50 years ago? While McCraith could neither confirm nor deny, there was one man who could speak up about the original recipe.
Ian Allman, Johnnie’s grandson, told me in a phone interview a few days after our Winchester day trip that it is actually a pretty simple recipe. It’s the type of cheese used that distinguishes the piquant taste. Ian found that exact same cheese in Wisconsin in 2008, just after he and his wife got married, and began making his family beer cheese, much to the delight of connoisseurs.
“Everybody’s really excited,” Allman said. “We do tastings and samplings, and I get to remember my granddad and remember the restaurant. You can really see the same recollections on people’s faces when they taste it and it takes them back to that time.”
Allman’s beer cheese is now sold mainly at local retail shops in and around Winchester. A complete listing can be found at allmansbeercheese.com.
Greg and Alice Keller’s beer cheese recipes may not be as old as Allman’s or Hall’s, but they say theirs is a longtime family recipe and can be purchased on the go at their establishment, JK’s at Forest Grove. Eric and I headed there after leaving Hall’s on the River, and I have to admit, we were in the beer cheese zone this time and curious to see what JK’s versions would be like. We were crushed. Upon arriving at the unassuming storefront, we discovered that JK’s is closed on Saturday.
“Well, no T-shirt for us, then,” Eric said as we drove off.
While there’s no substitute for actually tasting JK’s beer cheese, I did call Greg Keller a few days later to get his insight on the recipe. He held his cards close to his chest. “Everybody’s got their own little secret,” he said. “I can’t give you my secret, but there is an addition to our beer cheese that no one else has got. I never thought putting this ingredient in there [would make a difference] but it really has kind of set us apart from the other guys … It’s not burn-your-taste-buds-off-your-tongue spice. It’s got a real nice finish to it.”
Being that our bellies were still full—for the first time in months—we were in a good mood and decided we should obtain the JK’s stamp this summer and find out exactly what that “finish” is when we camp at Fort Boonesborough.
We were facing a rather early dinner at DJ’s Bar & Grill—our final stop. Our observant server, Laura, noticed our “cheese logs” and promptly asked if we wanted to try either their mild or hot versions. We went with mild. Both recipes were developed by owner Donna Crim in 1999 and have been served at the restaurant ever since.
“Everybody puts the same thing in it,” Crim said. “It’s the manner of how you make it and the manner of how you use the ingredients.”
And Crim is the only one who makes it.
“My employees don’t even know how to make it,” Crim told me later during a phone interview. “We’re getting more people from out of town, and we have several people who come in just to buy the beer cheese.”
In fact, Donna and her husband, Jim, were in Florida the day Eric and I visited. Donna said they had to cut their trip short to come home because they were running low on beer cheese. Was that our fault? I will neither confirm nor deny that I drenched my hamburger with DJ’s beer cheese, inspired by Eric’s earlier hamburger handling.
As we made our way back to Louisville, leaning a little farther back in our seats than usual, we tried to decide who had the best. We couldn’t agree on that. But we did agree we would get back on our diets ... tomorrow.
If you go …
Beer Cheese Trail