Judy Neff

Credit: Christopher Myers

Brewing up success

Judy Neff, BSPH '09 (PhD), sees things that aren't there—yet. On a late spring afternoon, Neff walks through a South Baltimore industrial building that's being refitted as the new home of Checkerspot Brewing, the 5-year-old craft brewery she and her husband, Rob Neff, own and where she is head brewer. Arms sweeping about, Neff visualizes how the 18,000-square-foot space will look for the grand opening in September.

"Along here will be huge windows and glass doors," she says, describing the eventual divide between brewing operations and public areas. "The bar is along there, and that's a mezzanine for folks to hang out."

Four copper-veneered brew kettles are already in place, collectively capable of brewing over 600 gallons of beer. Neff dubs it all "Checkerspot 2.0" because after running the brewery in a rented space a few blocks away, she can now custom design a brewery to match her beer ambitions. And along with 50% more room for thirsty customers, the new building has another plus: They own it. "No more asking the landlord for permission to do anything!" Neff exclaims.

The Neffs closed on the building in October 2022—and the very next day learned that Checkerspot had won the annual Sam Adams Brewer Experienceship competition run by craft brewing giant Boston Beer Company. "It was a great 24 hours," Neff recalls. Breweries across the country submitted their aspirations, and as one of five finalists, the Neffs brought their signature beer—Juniperus, an IPA flavored with juniper berries—to a live event in New York where they ultimately won the top prize: a lifetime of mentorship with Boston Beer Co. and its pioneering founder Jim Koch. Neff says it's been terrific, and that Boston Beer turned them on to the usually expensive copper kettles that a shuttered Miami brewpub was unloading at a bargain. The breweries also created a collaborative beer released in both Baltimore and Boston called Inspiration IPA, which uses Maryland-grown rye.

She was inspired to try brewing about a dozen years ago after touring another pioneering brewery, the Anchor Brewing Company in San Francisco. Neff bought a homebrewing kit and jumped in. Big time. "I was brewing a new batch once a week, and it kinda got out of control," she says with a laugh. "At one point we had eight taps in our basement." When a funding shortfall put her job at a medical startup on hiatus in 2018, she decided to make her hobby a vocation and Checkerspot was born, named for Maryland's state insect, the checkerspot butterfly. A "something for everyone" approach rules the tap room, where offerings include Sip Happens, a sour beer made with Earl Grey tea; Invisible Pink Unicorn, a hazy IPA; and Hillbilly Gold, a German-style pilsner.

A PhD in microbiology might not be necessary to brew beer, but this background does give her a leg up. "I go about brewing in a more scientific manner, and I take meticulous notes," Neff says. And she got something else by coming to Johns Hopkins: a hometown. Between her Army brat childhood and footloose young adulthood, Neff moved a lot, including stops in Hawaii, Switzerland, San Francisco, and Dallas. But she's been a Baltimorean now for 21 years. "It's a cool place to live," she says. "Baltimore is small enough that when you go out, you'll probably run into someone you know, but it's got all the amenities of a big city."

Why are there so few women brewers? "It's very intensive manual work. I always have burns and cuts. It's like being in construction."

The best part of doing it? "Drinking the beer I brewed at the end of the day."

What beer style do you wish was more popular? "Italian pilsner."

Where would you go for a beer-focused vacation? "Czech Republic."

Favorite beer (besides your own) "Anchor Steam."

What to nibble on with a beer? "Soft pretzel with spicy mustard."

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