Women in Beer Pintcast

I am sure most if not all of you are quite familiar with Naptown Pintcast. I had the distinct honor and privilege to be invited to participate in Liz Murphy’s Pintcast with none other than Cindy Mullikin, owner of Mully’s Brewery and the President of the Brewer’s Association of Maryland. The format involved drinking beer, while discussing beer. One of my favorite things to do!

As you can imagine there was quite a bit to chat about. Cindy Mullikin as many of you know is the very first female President of BAM, and she is responsible for some fabulous award winning beer coming out her plant in Prince Frederick. Cindy hosted us, and these incredible brews are of course on tap and in our glasses during this engaging conversation on women in beer. The Hazy III as most of you know is a brilliant NEIPA that is a surprising 10%,  and a trip tp Prince Frederick will definitely be worth your while for the host of beers from the Shucker Stout to the Patuxent Pale- of which we sampled our share!

A HUGE thank you to the incomparable Liz Murphy for her time and talents, and quite frankly the invitation to be a part of her legacy of pint casts! Here is the link to the pintcast- Enjoy!

Be sure to keep up with Liz in all her amazing beer travels and conversations at Naptown Pint.




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.

P1060059Checkerspot 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.

P1060057P1060087Locally 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.

P1060092The 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

Pay to Play

Since the repeal of Prohibition, federal and state guidelines governing the alcohol industry have been very strict. The most stringent surround ‘Tied-House’ laws. In a nutshell before Prohibition breweries in all states would offer up fully functioning taverns/bars/etc. to willing tavern keepers. The catch was that once they received the fully functional bar but all they were allowed to sell was the beer from the brewery that owned it. That was anti-competitive, particularly when you add in the aggressive price fixing, and additional inducements to lure patrons away from other bars (and hence other brewery’s offerings). The general consensus was that this needed to be banned once Prohibition was lifted in the spirit of fair competition and limiting the corruption involved in the alcohol industry. It clearly gave undue advantage to the big breweries with the exceedingly deep pockets like Budweiser, et al to literally control the beer market.

Ownership in bars and taverns is not the only game in town however when it comes to inducements to leverage the market in favor of a particular brewery as there are myriad methods. In Massachusetts AB-InBev was investigated for giving away over $1 million in enticements to retail establishments in the form of coolers and draught lines for prime shelf placement and committed draft lines. Although the MA Alcohol Control Board determined there was insufficient evidence to charge them, which was not the outcome in California where they did face consequences for their actions. AB-InBev was forced to pay a $400,000 fine for violation of pay-to-play laws when their reps furnished refrigeration systems, televisions, and draught lines for 34 retailers. AB stated that they were just ‘leasing’ the equipment and it wasn’t an inducement to prioritize sales of their beers. They promised re-training of all sales representatives to avoid such confusion in the future. Hmm….confusion is it?

AB-InBev also got into trouble in Washington State in 2016 when they engaged in Tied-House violations when they paid for concert venues in which AB products were exclusively sold. It does not stop there however, in 2016 AB-InBev agreed to pay $6 million to the US Securities and Exchange Commission for anti-trust violations involving- you guessed it, pay-to-play practices, this time in India. The issue here is that a $400,000 or $1.6 million fine is a drop in the bucket for the mega-monopoly that is AB-InBev and it is not a deterrent against these pervasive pay-to-play practices.


Other high profile breweries engaged in these illicit practices and were also fined. This month (May, 2018) Warsteiner Importers Agency, Inc. agreed to pay $900,000 for Tied-House, Commercial Bribery and Exclusive Outlet violations that placed, or potentially placed the retailer’s independence at risk. Warsteiner paid for draught lines, and sponsored events where Warsteiner beers were exclusively carried.2

This is not however strictly a macro-brewery violation. Recently Craft Beer Guild LLC, a wholesaler who distributes more than 200 craft brands throughout Massachusetts and the Northeast paid bars $120,000 over a two year period (2013-2014) for tap handle placement. The Guild admitted to paying kickbacks up to $2000 per tap handle and up to $20,000 for committed lines. They were already forced to pay the TTB (Alcohol Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) $750,000 in fines for another, separate violation.

Southern Glazer’s, a Miami based wine and spirits distributor demonstrated that pay-to-play was not in any way restricted to the brewing industry. They were fined $3.5 million by the New York State Liquor Authority last year for schemes involving cash, gifts, and credit card swipes (large expenses paid through Southern Glazer’s expense account), among a host of other preferential placement schemes.

This problem is also not limited to manufacturers and wholesalers. There are many stories of bar owners with their hands out for that flat screen television, or a new draught system and they are more than happy to prioritize tap lines in kind. For others it isn’t the flat screen or direct cash, but instead they receive a reduction in the total beer bill in exchange for tap placement- and in many states this is legal. It is something called an accumulation credit. The translation is: if a bar buys a certain number of kegs of a certain brand, they distributor will credit them back the cost of a fair percentage of those kegs.1

What is perhaps more shocking is that not everyone sees this as a problem. A recent article in FoodDrink International argued in favor of the erosion of Tied-House statutes enabling for example manufacturers of alcoholic beverages in some states to hold ownership of retail licenses to operate retail outlets on production premises. I would argue this is more of a carve-out specifically for taprooms which serves as a brand building necessity for small breweries to gain an audience. A more intriguing analysis of the ‘evils’ of the Tied-House laws comes from the Midwest- Wisconsin to be precise. The Tied-House law is so restrictive that a restaurateur Justin Aprahamian had to open his craft brewery in Illinois because the laws in Wisconsin prevented him from holding any ownership in both a retail establishment and a production facility. Logic dictates that a brewer would like to sell his hand crafted beer in his own restaurant but Wisconsin law firmly stands against such an act as an unacceptable integration of the three-tier-system.

There is yet one more aspect to delve into and perhaps it is more significant in many ways when applied to craft alcoholic beverage producers- advertising. There are numerous federal and state restrictions linked to alcohol advertising. Beers cannot be advertised in a way that confuses brands, promises health benefits, disparages another brand, targets children, or makes promises it cannot deliver. These seem like pretty common sense rules. Many states go a step further- like Missouri where alcoholic beverages cannot be advertised for a discounted price outside of the retail premises, cannot be advertised below the retailer’s actual cost, and requires manufacturers to exclude retail pricing in all advertisements while including multiple unrelated retailers in the ad. Most states are like California and prohibit manufacturers from giving rebates or kickbacks to retailers, or paying a retailer for advertising. Again this all seems to be under the guise of common sense.


As a comparative tool let us briefly delve into Maryland history and take a gander at Queen City Brewing Company. Post-Prohibition, Queen City and Cumberland were THE major breweries and employers in Cumberland. Their brews were a staple of bars and package stores across western Maryland, into southwestern Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. The brewery salespeople and the retail establishments knew each other well. By the 1950s every package store in the region was suddenly flush with massive advertising displays of Budweiser. To top it off the displays were prominently placed where Queen City and Cumberland products once sat. There were plenty of giveaways along with the six packs of Budweiser that were far cheaper. As a regional brewery with limited tchotchkes, and a far smaller advertising budget- there was no wat to compete. It didn’t matter that the six packs of bud were in 10 ounce or 12 ounce cans instead of pints, consumers were enjoying the bells and whistles- as were the bars that began to carry more macro brewed beer than regional beer. When was the last time you drank an Old German or an Old Export? Chances are you either weren’t alive when it was still on the market, or you were too young to drink it. Although the Queen City and Cumberland merged, they still could not survive the macro brewery advertising and closed down in the 1970’s. This is a reminder that many of the laws that are so bothersome today were put in place to protect regional breweries and level the playing field- advertising was just one facet of that.

There is no question that advertising has changed over the past few decades particularly with the advent of social media. Should we adapt to this- yes. Does that mean we throw out the rule book completely and start over? Not necessarily. There is absolutely no doubt that pay-to-play is happening in almost every state of the union whether it is dedicated tap lines, prime retail shelf space, sponsorship of certain events, or outright bribery as already outlined. Granted it is also not something happening only at the macro level. Must craft breweries- or their distributors pay-to-play to garner shelf space and sales? Ideally no- particularly when we think about the role of social media when it comes to advertising craft beer.

Ponder this for a moment, the whittling away of the Tied-House and pay-to play prohibitions may serve smaller craft alcohol manufacturers in the interim, but it is setting up a terrible precedent for the future that monopolistic breweries and wholesalers will take advantage of, and I wager that they already are. I will quote Craft Beer Professor Daniel Croxall,

Without these laws, the market would turn into a free-for-all for those with the deepest pockets. Of course international monoliths would take every advantage to squeeze out pesky independent brewers who keep taking market share—dare I say even pay bribes to retailers? And as I have pointed out before, many state three-tier systems and accompanying Tied-House regulations are under attack through sophisticated lobbying efforts, legal challenges, and even through circumventing the laws in questionable/illegal ways. Are there problems with the three-tier system? You bet. Do the benefits outweigh the problems? That depends on if you favor consumer choice, an even playing field, and good old independently brewed beer in all its glorious iterations.”

So where do we go from here? Each state is witnessing a battle brewing against restrictive Prohibition-era legislation that inherently favors monopolistic breweries over local craft. Some laws -like the franchise law imposed upon small breweries deserve to be challenged and overturned. This will help with the levelling of the playing field and engender a greater ability for craft breweries to compete in the market. State by state many of these statutes and regulations can be revised, removed, or renegotiated to give craft brewers a fighting chance, while leaving certain protections in place for all three tiers. Other laws however, deserve a much greater level of scrutiny and attention to the long term implications and should be examined without opening a Pandora ’s Box that would certainly incite a bloodbath with the removal of Tied-House laws en masse thus spelling an end to our independent craft brewers.
Beer for Thought

TTB Craft beer advertising guidelines: https://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?SID=29140e6cab911aaf20a26fd46e304766&mc=true&node=pt27.1.7&rgn=div5#sp27.1.7.f

YES Craft Beer is Saving Maryland- and the planet!

Spent Grain can do more than you ever imagined for our planet!

I often take pen to paper and laud the incredible benefits of the Maryland craft brewing industry, and this article is certainly no exception. By and large craft beer drinkers are aware, if not invested in many important causes surrounding craft beer from the myriad health benefits to the positive impact on the Chesapeake Bay. Admittedly there are innumerable reasons to support craft beer not the least of which is economic- but that is not what this is about.

Bioremediation- if you haven’t heard of it, you are not alone. It is a relatively obscure term for society at large, but one worth getting to know. Bioremediation is technically defined as the treatment of pollutants or waste by the use of microorganisms that break down the undesirable substances. It seems pretty straight forward, and it is…mostly. There are two classes of bioremediation in-situ (leaving waste at point of origin and treating it), and ex-situ (removing the waste from the point of origin and treating it). There are nine different types of bioremediation depending upon what type of waste is being dealt with and the most effective method to eradicate it. Bioremediation, depending upon the class, type, and contaminant being treated can be effective in as little as a few hours, yet may take as long as several decades to treat.

Craft beer connoisseurs that have spent time at a craft brewery are generally aware that Maryland breweries give away their spent grain to farmers to use as feed; others bake it into bread or make rabbit treats. Bioremediation offers yet another avenue, and one that may just save the planet. Craft beer, more specifically the byproduct of it, has been scientifically examined as an agent for bioremediation. Over the past decade various scientists have taken up the study of spent grain as a bioremediation agent to treat crude oil contaminated soil. They have used both classes (in-situ, and ex-situ) as well as varying types of bioremediation from bioaugmentation to biostimulation.

To break it down in the simplest of terms- studies across the world have demonstrated that brewery spent grains (BSG) are a very good bioremediation agent for treating crude oil contaminated soil, whether on site, or removed for treatment.

A critical impact of the petroleum industry is the pollution of the environment by crude oil and other related products which are highly toxic and exhibit molecular recalcitrance… and spills are responsible for hydrocarbon contamination causing hazardous effects on flora and fauna of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems due to their complexity and variability.”1

Not only has BSG been shown to reduce hydrocarbons in oil contaminated soil, it also unmasks nutrients in the soil that were shielded by crude oil, allowing the growth of crops and other important vegetation. Additionally, BSG may also be indicated as an agent to replenish barren lands instead of using inorganic fertilizers because BSG is effective and does not cause ocean acidification.2 It also works relatively quickly. Bioremediation using BSG was shown to have an impact in a matter of weeks.
So what does this all boil down to? Further study is needed of course, but it appears that Brewery Spent Grain may be the economical and environmentally friendly way to treat oil contaminated soil and perhaps fertilize barren lands for the harvesting of safe, sustainable, and reliable food stuffs. Not only will it treat the pollutant, but it will help feed the hungry. That settles it- we need to drink more Maryland beer to save the planet!

Beer for Thought!

References for those scientifically inclined:
1.Chimezie Jason Ogugbue, Chiaka Mbakwem-Aniebo and Leera Solomon “Efficacy of brewery spent grain and rabbit droppings on enhanced ex situ bioremediation of an aged crude oil contaminated soil.” IJAMBR, No. 5, 2017, pp. 27-39.
2.Raimi Morufu Olalekan, Sabinus Chibuzor Ezugwu, “Influence of Organic Amendment on Microbial Activities and Growth of Pepper Cultured on Crude Oil Contaminated Niger Delta Soil.” International Journal of Economy, Energy and Environment. Vol. 2, No. 4, 2017, pp. 56-76. doi: 10.11648/j.ijeee.20170204.12
3.Thomas, K. R. and Rahman, P. K. S. M. ‘Brewery wastes. Strategies for sustainability. A review.’, Aspects of Applied Biology, No. 80, 2006, pp.147-153.
4. Abioye, O. P., P. Agamuthu, and A. R. Abdul Aziz. “Biodegradation of Used Motor Oil in Soil Using Organic Waste Amendments.” Biotechnology Research International 2012 (2012): 587041. PMC. Web. 23 Apr. 2018.


Maryland’s Beer Community Steps Up for Autism!

I often speak of Maryland breweries and how very generous they are when it comes to charitable causes- from cancer to quadrupeds. Philanthropy doesn’t stop at the brewery door however. That generosity extends far beyond the breweries to the distributors, taverns and taphouses across the state that serve local Maryland beer.

Alice Kistner, General Manager of Mahaffey’s Pub organized a brilliant fundraiser for Autism Awareness, a charity near and dear to her heart and that of dedicated employee Doug Mace. She reached across the state to bring together a group of twelve women deeply involved in the craft beer industry in one way or another: homebrewers, commercial brewers, historians, distributors, sales and marketing geniuses, tavern keepers, beertenders, and consumers. Each woman was assigned a month and the result was a 2019 Baltimore Beer Babes calendar shoot that was put together at Union Craft Brewery. Professional stylists, makeup artists, and photographers (yes all ladies) were brought in to help us look our best. I was honored to be included among the ranks of these incredible women.


From Left to Right: Judy Easterbrook Neff -Miss July, Brittany Benewicz- Miss August, Maureen O’Prey- Miss February at Mahaffey’s Calendar Signing/Auction

The calendars were only part of the fundraiser however, and Ms. Kistner went above and beyond for the Kennedy Krieger Center for Autism and Related Disorders. At the calendar release party on Saturday April 7, not only did the calendar girls represent (and sign a lot of calendars) but the gentlemen came out in full form- at auction! An auction was held at Mahaffey’s Pub with a host of men displaying an array of skill sets for everyone to bid on. The special skills ranged from help with child rearing, to homebrewing lessons and fishing trips. There was something for everyone, and that ‘something’ brought in more than $4200 and counting! It was truly an incredible outpouring of support. A donation page was also set up for those that could not attend the festivities. Click here to donate*

In a day and age where disparate perspectives outweigh commonalities and civility, and it seems as if there is a fundraiser for every cause imaginable, Alice Kistner found a way to bring everyone together over great local beer and get them to pay attention to something really important. To once again quote Kevin Blodger of Union Craft Brewing, “Beer unites us all.” No truer words have been spoken, and I must say Maryland beer is a force for good that I am humbled to be a small part of. Events like this planned from the heart are the only way to connect people to a cause, and perhaps the best way to get them to engage and invest!

Take a moment today and grab a glass of locally crafted brew and think about what matters the most… I guarantee Maryland’s beer community has already stepped up to help! Perhaps head on over to Mahaffey’s and pick up a calendar of your own to benefit an incredibly worthy cause!

About the Kennedy Krieger Center for Autism and Related Disorders:
The Center for Autism and Related Disorders (CARD) at Kennedy Krieger Institute is a multifaceted, interdisciplinary program serving children, families, and professionals in the autism spectrum disorders (ASD) community. CARD combines research, clinical service, a therapeutic day program, and training programs to unlock the potential of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), enrich their life experiences, empower patients, and promote the well-being of families through evidence-based practices. One of our major endeavors is developing effective new models of care for families and providers, whether locally, nationally, or internationally.

For more information: https://www.kennedykrieger.org/patient-care/patient-care-centers/center-autism-and-related-disorders

Kristina Stotler Dreamcatcher Photography

Courtney Burgess (Tenpachi Salon)
Despina Fokianos (Hair by Despina)
Candace Parrish (Charm City Hair)
Brittany Taggart (Possibilities Hair Design)

Kaitlin Vancura (Makeup by Kaitlin)
Jacqueline Mills (Charm City Hair Studio)
Hannah Pryor (Charm City Hair Studio)
Bailey Pararas (BaileyPararas@yahoo.com)

Graphic Designer:
Jenna Dutton (Union Craft Brewing)

Alpha Graphics

Checkerspot Brewing Co

I am sharing my good fortune today. Last night I was honored to get a sneak peek at the newest Baltimore Brewery- Checkerspot. It is ideally located on Sharp and Ostend, just a few minutes walk from both Raven’s stadium and Oriole Park.  The owners, Judy Neff, Rob Neff, and cask whisperer Steve Marsh are friends that I am humbled and privileged to know. My goodness do they make fabulous beer!

The brewery is still in process, and about two months or so from completion. Every brewery in Maryland is built in the image of its founder’s vision. Checkerspot, as it nears completion is revealing the personality of it’s founders bit by bit, from the two story taproom to the mastery over space, light, and function.  Perhaps I am a bit of a romantic when it comes to Maryland breweries, and the twilight tour during Baltimore’s blackout added to the mystique; but the aura of the brewery had already begun to emerge without a single drop of water in the brew kettle.

20180302_174312_001Once the beer begins to flow, I have no doubt that Judy, Rob and Steve will emerge from the cocoon of construction and soar from the chrysalis like the beautiful, unique butterfly they have chosen as their namesake. Small batch, hand crafted local beer, made with local ingredients will take center stage. Their special brand of liquid gold will join the ranks of the great Maryland breweries that dot the landscape from the mountains of Cumberland, to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean.

Cheers to great beer!


The Beautiful Dark Cloud Beyond the Horizon

February 24, 2018

This week I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to tour a working malt house in Cooksville, Maryland. Many of us enjoy fabulous local craft beer, and a fair contingent are quite discerning about the malts used. Few however really give much thought to the process of taking a seed, planting it into the ground, and what happens to that seed after the harvest and before it gets to the mash tun. It is a most fascinating process.
All of the malting grains that Dark Cloud uses are grown within fifteen miles of the malt house. Growing grains suitable for malting isn’t as easy as one might think. In fact, if you want excellent malt to make excellent beer there is a bit of crop management to attend to. Fortunately in Maryland we have an expert at the ready. Dr. Bob Kratochvil, an extension specialist in Agronomy with the University of Maryland not only has a blog about malt, he actively works with farmers on planting and managing these important and quite lucrative cover crops.

Not all malting grains make it to the malt house. Dr. Kratochvil shows farmers which varieties are best suited and how to maximize the quality, and minimize the fungus in our humid climate. Most malt grown in the United States is done in more arid climates like North Dakota, and is grown for macro-breweries like Miller Coors. With the moisture content of the East Coast to consider Dr. Kratochvil constantly searches for viable new varieties, always testing out new grains to find those best suited to our region. European varieties like some French malting grains, which are acclimated to wet climates, have proven quite suitable and possess a brilliant flavor profile for brewers.
Premium malting grains grown in Maryland fetch $6-10 per bushel, while grains not suitable for malting are used as feed or tilled back into the soil, garnering relatively no profit. Malting grains can double as feed grains as well- making it incredibly profitable for the farmers to plant. Since it is a winter crop, planting takes place after corn or soybean crops are harvested. The malting grains also draw harmful nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus into their pulp, preventing them from leaching into the soil and the Chesapeake Bay. Dr. Kratochvil guides farmers through every step of the process to achieve the desired outcome. He also works with maltsters to ensure they work with the best grains, and are able to take the grain through the malting process and send it off to the brewers. In fact, it was Dr. Kratochvil that introduced the founding partners of Dark Cloud Malt House.

P1050559Danny Buswell, a chemical engineer and his partner Jesse Kais, an excellent brewer of malted beverages at both Flying Dog and Jailbreak are the men behind this incredible venture called Dark Cloud. Jesse became interested in the process as a brewer that desired local malting grains for his beers. Danny was infinitely intrigued with the malting process once Amber Fields started malting their own grains almost two decades ago. It was kismet really, as they each had reached out to Dr. Kratochvil and he in turn thought it wise to put them together. It was a natural fit. Getting started was problematic due to the lack of malting equipment on the market. Small scale malting equipment averages around $1 million, which is silly since one could not produce enough malt on such equipment to ever realize a profit. This mimics the early days of modern brewing in Maryland when homebrewers literally had to weld their own equipment together to brew. That is exactly what Danny and Jesse had to do, make their own equipment.
At a cost of $50, 000 it was no small feat, and no minor investment. It was also why they chose to malt grains within a tank as opposed to the legendary and common method of floor malting. For the small space they were using, which happened to be on the Kais family farm, it was the best way to control temperature and humidity- the cornerstones of successful malting. The self-made half-ton system operated perfectly, and was ideal for discovering if malting was a viable business model.

P1050554Malting grain is pretty straightforward but extremely labor intensive and heavily reliant upon a complete understanding of both chemical and agricultural processes taking place. It is also heavily dependent upon what kind of malt is being made- from pale to dark, barley to wheat. Before grains are put through the malting process, they must be tested to see if they are viable (chemically) and what type of malt they are most suited for. The raw grains are first steeped in water. Dark Cloud relies upon well water that is filtered and tested regularly. The steeping (and sparging) keeps oxygen in the process and allows the barley kernel to absorb water, triggering enzymes to break down seed to make starch available to the brewers. Germination will begin during the steeping process and is visible in the acrospires (the sprout) that emerges from the kernel.

Germination is the next step in the process. This is a critical component that must be monitored. The length of time for germination depends on several factors, from the type of barley (2 row vs 6 row), to the type of malt produced. It is stirred by hand through the process while humidity and temperature are tightly regulated. During germination the protein and carbohydrates are broken down, further opening the starch reserves. Finally the germination is halted when the barley is kiln dried.

If heat is not applied all of the starch reserves will be gone- leaving nothing for the brewers to work with. The kiln temperature and time varies greatly depending upon the desired malt -pale to dark, etc. For example the Pilsen malt would reach 180 degrees, while the Munich would be ideal at 220 degrees. Recirculated air is a key component to the kiln drying process. Once complete, every single batch is tested and the lab report is provided to the brewers to determine if it is suitable for their specified use.


Dark Cloud produces around 2,000 bushels per year from the locally grown grains. Maryland small craft breweries are the target consumer. Dark Cloud is producing specialty malts only- filling a much needed gap in the market for our breweries to produce small batch beers. The average malt requirement for a small brew is anywhere from 500 to 1500 lbs. of malt. Each bushel contains 50 lbs. of malt, therefore the smallest batch needs 10 bushels of malt, and the largest 30 bushels. 2,000 bushels may not seem like much but it is certainly enough to accommodate a wide variety of brewers. Their very 1st customer was Eastern Shore Brewing, and although they operate on a small scale they have several customers already:
Checkerspot Brewing,
Milkhouse Brewery
Brookeville Beer Farm
Barley & Hops
House Cat

Dark Cloud serves breweries sprinkled across the entire state, but would like to expand. The initial creation of Dark Cloud and the past two years have provided what is known as “proof of concept”. In fact when Danny and Jesse decided to open operations the Maryland Department of Agriculture had just abandoned their malting grains program, deeming it a failure after 2 years. In reality that was not nearly enough time to make any accurate determination at all. Danny, Jesse, and Bob refused to give up however, and now it is a fruitful operation, inspiring other malt houses to pop up. The massive Proximity Malt in Laurel Delaware is working with Maryland and other regional farmers to supply enough malting grains to produce 1 million bushels per year- all to be sold to craft breweries on the East Coast. That provides even more encouragement to the fledgling maltsters.

In fact, things are going so well Danny and Jesse have applied for a loan to upgrade to a 3 ton system. This would allow them to build a new malt storage building, while malting 3.5 tons per week- equating to 14,000 bushels per year. That also allows them to accept quality malting grains from farmers across the state. This is a very good thing as grain loses between 15-30% of its weight during the malting process, therefore the more malting grains grown the better for Dark Cloud and all of the brewers they serve. That is also when Danny can finally quit his day job and stop driving from Easton to Howard County every night to malt, as malting would be his full time job!

Danny and Jesse embody the true spirit of entrepreneurs risking it all to make their dream a reality. It is humbling to bear witness to the men behind Dark Cloud with their eternally positive attitudes, and sheer motivation to make Maryland malt once again. Dark Cloud is a name that conjures vivid imagery, and one not soon to be forgotten unless the Maryland Legislature decides to pass regressive and harmful legislation against our state’s craft breweries. I believe that is the only thing that could hinder Dark Cloud’s incredibly bright future.