July 1, 2018
This weekend marked the auspicious, long awaited grand opening of Checkerspot Brewing Company. Checkerspot is the much heralded brewery of Judy Neff, PhD, her husband Rob Neff, and famed Cask-Whisperer Stephen Marsh. Unfortunate delays in permitting and other unforeseen issues stymied the planned 2017 summer opening for a year. Patience however paid off, heightening the anticipation of eager Maryland craft beer drinkers, and the determination of the proprietors.
Judy Neff held a PhD in Microbiology when she discovered her love of brewing. She not only understood the process at its chemical roots, but combined her exceptionally advanced palate with science to create exquisite brews that captured the nuances of hops that she married perfectly with the yeast strains and accompanying malt. This cemented her reputation as one of the very best homebrewers in the state, garnering several awards to prove it. Stephen Marsh also had a reputation that preceded him as the founder of the cask ale program at Heavy Seas, and consultant for cask ale programs at breweries across the state. Maryland brewers all knew that if they decided to start a cask ale program at their brewery there was one man to call- Steve. For decades he has honed his skill and established his legacy in Maryland brewing. What rounds out this Checkerspot trifecta is Rob Neff, Judy’s husband and the man behind scenes- literally. As a general contractor and owner of Neff Rehabs, Rob was perfectly situated to handle every facet of the brewery build from electrical to installation of the equipment- a true blessing for a brand new brewery. Rob also had the business acumen to keep things operating smoothly for the trio, particularly when navigating that twists involved in that crucial one year interruption.
Checkerspot was named after the Maryland state butterfly- the Baltimore Checkerspot. This butterfly was nearly extinct until conservation efforts revived this vibrant, beautiful Rhopalocera- much like the revival of the craft brewing industry in Maryland in recent decades… once dormant but now emerged from its cocoon and flying gloriously across the Free State. It is also the genesis of their philosophy- locally produced from the earth. They epitomize what a local craft brewery is- community focused and reliant upon local resources like hops, malts, fruits, and water; they employ locals, and invest in the community that welcomed them. All of the artwork from their signs to their eye catching art deco style beer labels comes from talented local artists. The driftwood, lights, and décor is all Maryland sourced as well. It is more than a theme- they live and breathe the Free State. They are also family focused. Steve’s daughter Logan could be found selling fresh hand-squeezed lemonade for younger patrons in an area of the brewery where games abound for wee ones and grown-ups alike. Judy’s family came into town from up and down the east coast to help with the brewery launch. They embody the principals of the founding brewers that built Baltimore – local, family run breweries that understood the import of their place in building community.
Locally Delicious Sour embodies this ‘local’ philosophy completely, as it is 100% local. The Malt comes from both Chesapeake Malting and Dark Cloud Malthouse, the hops from Bullfrog farm, the yeast from Jasper Yeast, and the fruit from Baugher and Caskwhisper farms. This kettle sour was delightful- a succulent sip of local ingredients balanced with a kiss of sour that brought forth a crisp finish on a nearly 100 degree day. This was not the only example of a well-crafted locally sourced brew from Checkerspot. There was something for every palate. The Keeper Stout– a sumptuous offering that incorporated crab shells provided by JM Clayton crab processors in Cambridge Maryland. This milk stout relied upon the crab shells to supplement the added lactose to create a creamy, well rounded stout with hints of malty chocolate that invited one to sit and sip the day away. The 2 Paws 2 was a collaboration brew in its third incarnation. Flying Dog brewed with Judy, Steve and Rob at Checkerspot to bring to life the little known native Maryland PawPaw fruit in an American Pale Ale made with local malts from Chesapeake and Dark Cloud. This luscious ale captured the essence of the ripe, slightly tropical fruit, with well-developed citrus notes but stopped perfectly shy of getting either too sweet or tropical- a flawless use of galaxy hops. The highly regarded Juniperus IPA is a personal favorite and one that I had the opportunity to taste test in several incarnations before the final combination of yeast, hops, malts and juniper berries that will no doubt become a staple of craft beer lovers across the region, and should garner at least a few awards.
The soft opening on Friday evening turned out a host of local craft brewing dignitaries from Hugh Sisson to Volker Stewart, Greg McGrath to Jim Wagner, with nearly every brewery in the state represented to welcome Checkerspot to the family and sample their offerings. Once again I must say Maryland breweries support their own- they are a tight knit group that realize they are stronger together- but it is much more than that. They absolutely recognize each brewer’s talents, but also willingly support one another, wanting each local brewery to truly succeed. In most businesses this is not the norm but Maryland is exceptional. To quote Kevin Blodger once again,
“Craft beer unites us all.”
I am and will continued to be awed by this very fact.
The formal grand opening also produced its share of dignitaries, and the Comptroller of Maryland was on hand to participate in the festivities and sample a variety of brews. He certainly enjoyed the Daydream– a lovely, smooth cream ale that had many folks talking and vying for more. He was incredibly impressed by the ‘local’ aspect of Checkerspot’s mission as well as the quality of the beer. Mr. Franchot appreciated the record crowd that filled the brewery’s taproom, and remarked upon the magnitude of the investment undertaken by Judy, Rob, and Steve and how much he appreciated their entrepreneurial spirit, and willingness to risk it all for their craft. It was inspirational for him, and for all in attendance. There is much to admire and aspire to. Checkerspot demonstrates unwavering dedication- to craft, to quality, to holding true to your beliefs and never shrinking from adversity. This is why they will persevere through anything that comes their way. This is why Checkerspot will build an enduring legacy that will last for generations.
The brewery is now officially open for business Fridays and Saturdays 12pm -12am, and Sundays 12am-8pm. Although the second story taproom is still a few months away from completion the main taproom and back bar/gaming area offers many options. The oversized front deck provides a lovely area for sun and fun and delicious local BBQ to feed the thousands that stepped across the threshold for the first time yesterday and the tens of thousands more that will continue to partake of this uniquely Maryland brewery. Within walking distance of both Camden Yards and M&T bank Stadium it is the perfect location to grab a brew and a bite before the game, or watch on the big screens in the brewery taproom. Of course tail wagging quadrupeds also abound, so bring your leashed puppy and enjoy!
Checkerspot Brewing Company
1399 S. Sharp Street
Baltimore, MD 21230