Checkerspot Keeps It Fresh with Variety, Creativity

Checkerspot Brewing Company’s frequent release of small-batch, experimental beers and even some of its perennial favorites owe much to owner and brewer Judy Neff’s years as a home brewer. Photos by Mary Braman.

(This “SoBo Made” feature first appeared in the August-September 2022 issue of the South Baltimore Peninsula Post newspaper.)

The brewery floor at Checkerspot Brewing Company was extra busy on the July morning when the Peninsula Post visited: a new batch of beer was just getting started, while a finished beer was heading toward the canning line.

Owner and brewer Judy Neff and her crew are deftly juggling an array of tasks, gliding back and forth and beneath the canning line that snakes along the front of a towering range of gleaming tanks.

“I try not to schedule brewing and canning on the same day, but sometimes it happens,” says Judy.

She climbs the few steps to the control panel of the mash tun, a tank where crushed grain is mixed with hot water, to check the temperature of the mash in this first brewing step that will yield 15 barrels of Checkerspot’s Zicke Zacke Oktoberfest.

Checkerspot owner and brewer Judy Neff grew her love of home brewing into a SoBo brewery that is now producing 1,500 barrels a year.

Ryan Creel concentrates on the control panel of the canner as cans are filled with beer, sealed, and labeled, occasionally walking over to the ladder alongside a tower of unfilled cans and climbing to the top to make sure the cans keep moving down the line.

At the other end of the line, Rich Parker assembles four-packs of Under the Over Kolsch, loads them into cardboard boxes, and neatly stacks the boxes one by one on a pallet.

Judy, now behind the wheel of a forklift, picks up a low, empty dumpster and drives it over to the mash tun, carefully positioning it alongside a small door in the base of the tank.

Ian Noronha steps over to the tank, opens the small door, and begins shoveling out the spent, steaming mash, filling the brewery with a sweet, oatmeal scent as he gets the tun ready for another batch of Oktoberfest.

“Busy” is now pretty familiar to Judy and her crew at Checkerspot, which turned four this summer.  At 1,500 barrels a year, output is nearly triple what it was in 2018 when the brewery opened on the western edge of the SoBo peninsula, tucked between the I-395 overpass and the CSX tracks at the end of S. Sharp Street. Production capacity jumped last year with the arrival of two massive, 30-barrel tanks. And Checkerspot sales outside of its taproom are set to expand soon into the D.C. market.

This SoBo beer story began with a deep dive into microbiology and a visit to a major craft brewery in San Francisco. Judy came to Baltimore in pursuit of a doctorate in microbiology, which she received from Johns Hopkins University. After taking a tour of Anchor Brewing Company with her husband Rob Neff around 2005, Judy recalls, “I got excited enough to come home and buy a little home brew starter kit, and I just kept on going.”

Ian Noronha shovels spent grain out of the mash tun as a new batch of Zicke Zacke Oktoberfest is born.

Checkerspot’s frequent release of small-batch, experimental beers and even some of its perennial favorites owe much to Judy’s years as a home brewer. “In home brewing, you’re always trying out different things. To me it’s a lot like cooking. You get to know your ingredients. Then you say maybe this will go well with this, and you try putting different things together.”

Variety is key to Checkerspot’s approach to brewing, says Judy. “Not everyone likes hoppy beers or sour beers. There are so many styles out there that we wanted to offer a range of beers that people can pick from and learn about what they like and don’t like.”

Judy and her assistant brewers regularly create one-barrel pilot batches of about 35 gallons to test new ingredients and flavor concepts. “We use pilot batches to see what a new hop or different grains really taste like and to just try some wild stuff. These batches stay in the taproom so we get direct feedback on them. A few kegs of anything is always interesting.”

One of Checkerspot’s topsellers – the Juniperus IPA – is a beer Judy started working on as a home brew. “That’s sort of my baby. It’s my favorite flavor combination: piney and a little bit of dank flavor but also this bright candy flavor that isn’t too sweet. Finding that balance was challenging.”

Ryan Creel works the Checkerspot canning line as cans are filled with Under the Over Kolsch.

Experimenting with new ingredients and flavors is part of the fun of craft brewing, says Judy. “This year I did a beer for the Kentucky Derby that played off of a mint julep. It was IPA-inspired but wasn’t overly hoppy. It had a little sweetness, a little mint, some bourbon-barrel aged wood. It was something totally different.”

Judy encourages her two assistant brewers to explore similar creative experiments. Ryan Creel came up with a Cucumber Pepper Kolsch using fish peppers from Maryland’s One Straw Farm. Ian Noronha drew on his heritage and experience with Indian flavors to make a pilot batch of Life of Chai, an Amber with Ian’s own masala spice blend and black tea.

“It’s fun when a great beer opens the door to potentially more great beers,” Judy says.

For its first two years, Checkerspot beer could only be enjoyed in its S. Sharp Street taproom, in crowlers filled in the taproom, or as drafts from bars and restaurants that purchased kegs. Adding a canning line to its operation was something they planned to do down the road, but then Covid hit and changed everything.

“We had always planned on canning, but it definitely became much more urgent with Covid,” Judy explains. “With bars and restaurants closed, kegs were not selling. Liquor stores were doing very well, so the demand was there for cans but not the kegs.”

“We were worried about having to dump beer and beer getting old,” recalls Judy’s husband Rob, Checkerspot co-owner and head of sales and distribution. “But that didn’t really happen, which was lucky.”

Their luck came in the form of a strategically placed, five-head canning machine. “We found the type of canner we wanted available on this side of the country, which was very fortunate,” says Rob. “That saved us a ton on shipping, and we got it in three weeks.” Checkerspot started canning by the summer of 2020.

“The canner really helped us out. We were able to sell a lot of cases that supplemented the draft beer loss,” he says. Checkerspot now sells up to 10 different beers in cans at any one time.

Rich Parker assembles four-packs of Under the Over Kolsch coming off the canning line.

Sales have rebounded to pre-Covid levels, Rob reports, with growth in both taproom sales and distribution. Taproom sales account for about two-thirds of Checkerspot’s business.

In addition to brewing beer to benefit its own bottom line, Checkerspot regularly collaborates with area nonprofits to brew beers for good causes. “It’s been really amazing to see the good you can do with beer,” says Judy. “We’ve had a lot of fundraiser beers and raised thousands of dollars for different nonprofits. It’s been really cool to get to know all these different people who run these organizations and dedicate their lives to doing good for others.”

This fall Checkerspot brings back its fundraiser beer to benefit the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter (BARCS) in Cherry Hill. “Barctoberfest” is a special batch of Checkerspot’s Oktoberfest canned with a label depicting the dog of the winner of a raffle drawing, proceeds of which go to BARCS.

The same Oktoberfest beer that Judy and her crew started on that busy morning in July will be ready for you to drink in September. – Steve Cole

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