Baltimore’s Newest Brewery, Checkerspot, Opens This Weekend
Steve Fogleman, Baltimore Beer Baron
I want to apologize for the months between posts here at The Baron. The other side of the business, you know, helping places that don’t serve craft beer, has simply been overwhelming during the season of renewing liquor licenses and defending them against protests. I knew it was going to take a special event to thrust me back into blogging, and it’s arrived. Despite my busy schedule, there is simply no local brewery opening I’ve waited for so long and with so much goodwill toward the brewers.
Checkerspot may be the brewery you’ve never heard of, but I doubt that. Co-founders Steve Marsh and Rob and Judy Neff have been omnipresent at beer festivals, beer bars and collaborations over the last three years, learning everything they could, meeting almost everyone involved in the craft community and bonding with local craft brewers. They’ve traded rare indigenous fruits to other breweries in exchange for rare hops. They’ve been so altruistic and good-neighborly that their quest aptly illustrates the camaraderie and love that’s on tap in the craft beer industry. They’ve shown their love for the brewing community and it is time to love them back, people, because they’ve brewed 150 barrels of beer for this weekend’s grand opening of the brewery at 175 W. Ostend Street!
“It would be nice to make a living doing this,” said co-founder Rob Neff, only half-jokingly. “We’ve been super-busy over the last month, working 14 hours every day.” Both Rob and spouse Judy quit their day jobs over a year ago in anticipation of a Summer 2017 opening, but due to build-outs and other delays, their dream was deferred—until this weekend. And a dream deferred is not a dream denied.
They aren’t bitter about the delayed opening. “We wouldn’t have all these cool things hanging from the ceiling at the brewery if we’d opened a year ago,” Marsh said. “It would have been more of a rush. We wouldn’t have had time to walk along the beach and find driftwood or go to all the auctions and get this great stuff for the taproom.”
They’ve also had a chance to visit small farms to source their edible and potable products. “Because,” Judy said, “If there are no farms, there is no beer. It’s something that’s important to all of us.”
The brewery sits by the railroad tracks only a Matt Stover 150 yard field goal away from M&T Bank Stadium. They’ve got hundreds, I mean hundreds, of parking spaces available, which has to be a modern Baltimore brewing record. Inside is a massive two-floor space where they’ll use 6,000 of the 10,000 square feet when they open to the public on Saturday. Upstairs is a second, larger taproom that will open in the near future. From the second floor taproom, you can look down on the brewery operations below and there’s a large commercial kitchen that promises to serve Baltimore’s best brewery grub. Anyone who knows Steve Marsh knows that he is a great cook with a knack for unusual ingredients, and that goes for his beer as well. The signature on the project is the abundance of custom work, especially woodwork. “Nature and Industry coming together” is how Rob Neff described it.
The look of the taproom is one of reclaimed wood and all but the driftwood on the lighting was procured from Mark Supik. The bar tops are made from the staves of reclaimed antique yellow pine vinegar barrels that they believe to be almost 200 years old. Unbelievably, even after sanding, you could still detect the strong vinegar smell coming off of the bar. They’ve put a coat of varnish on it since I took a whiff on Sunday, but if you smell the bottom of the bar top, you’ll still smell the vinegar. You’ll just look funny when you do it in front of other customers.
They believe all of the research, development and outreach they’ve put in over the years is paying off already. “Everyone already knows who we are,” Judy told me. “Everybody’s stopping in and wishing us well. We’ve had other brewers stop in and help us with the equipment. I think it’s made us humble on how hard it really is, and I think we’re well prepared with all of the advice that everyone has given us.” And as if to prove that point, during my one hour visit on Sunday, Greg from Waverly brought some beer by and Dennis Kistner of Mahaffey’s stopped by on his BMX bike for a quick look at the progress.
“The whole reason why we wanted to join the craft beer industry in Maryland is because everyone involved in it is awesome,” Judy Neff told me. “It’s a business you want to be in and share with everybody. And we’ll continue to be doing collaborations with everyone, and now it’s our turn to start paying back and we’ll start brewing the collaborations at our brewery and host people here.”
“We’ve contributed fruit to other brewers for collaborations, and we’ve contributed grains,” Marsh said. “We figured that would be a way for us to market ourselves. A lot of people spend a lot of money on putting ads in the paper and stuff like that. We’ve marketed ourselves very efficiently by doing what we love, like getting 200 pounds of fruit and getting it to another brewery so we can make a beer together.”
“Because that’s way more fun,” Judy added.
“We’re always going to have 8-10 beers on tap, and they’ll all be different styles,” Rob told me. “And we’re going to have a lot of casks, since we have the “Cask Whisperer” on our team,” referring to Marsh, one of the City’s most well-known promoter of cask beer. “We’ll have jerky, pickles and other food, all made with beer, that’s going to make us stand out.” But he insists that Checkerspot won’t be a “brewpub.”
While they love all of their beer children, they agree that they’re very excited about their Cream Ale. Marsh looks forward to the “Two Paws Two Point Five”, with indigenous and hard-to-find Paw Paw fruit and local honey in a Pale Ale.
Now it was time for a drink or two straight from the 15 barrel system. First up for my taste buds was their kettle sour, made with 100% local ingredients including the yeast, hundreds of pounds of peaches and white nectarines from Westminster, and 30 pounds of black raspberries and 30 pounds of blueberries from Marsh’s own garden in Pasadena. The brew was nicely balanced and subtle, neither too fruity nor too sour. The fruit had only been infused into the brew for a day when I tried it. By the time you try it this weekend, expect all those fruit flavors to go deeper.
Regionally, brewing rye is in short supply this year. But Checkerspot managed to get ahold of enough to brew a batch of a delicious Rye Cream Ale with lager yeast. That won’t be ready to go for the weekend, so you’ll have to plan a return visit soon.
The first taste I had of a Paw-Paw fruit was in a beer that Checkerspot contracted with Flying Dog last spring and I loved it. Their own batch of Paw Paw has evolved from that brew. “Flying Dog has been really cool,” Marsh said, referring to the 2017 collaboration. “They put in their Paw Paw pretty early and most of the flavor was gone. It blew off the delicate Paw Paw flavor so we’ve put ours in at the end.” They’ll have their Two Paws Two Point Five on tap along with Flying Dog’s collab at the opening. Speaking of other brewers, they’ll have their collab with Barley & Hops available, with nectarines and American wheat.
The New England IPA is my go-to these days, and theirs is a winner. It isn’t too chewy, but a perfectly translucent, piney mash of oats, hops and barley.
Where do they see this place in a year from now?
“In one year, we want to be expanding and paying ourselves,” Marsh said. “And to have a good staff so we can go on vacations. We haven’t been on vacation in a while.”
For now, it’s all about the weekend. And what a weekend it will be for these brewers and their customers.
(Disclaimer: I love these guys and their beers, and yes, I’ve done legal work for them.)