While the one-eyed specter of Mr. Boh looms figuratively and literally over the city, Baltimore’s beer scene has much more to offer than National Bohemian, which hasn’t been brewed in the city for years. Sure, it’s great to throw down a few Natty Bohs outside of Pickles Pub before an Orioles game, and I’ve certainly had my share, but a look beyond the ubiquitous brand proves that Charm City has some craft chops and a hearty appreciation for good suds.
Living in the D.C. area, I’m aware of Baltimore’s less-than-stellar reputation, but I’ve always felt the city was a less stuffy version of its neighbor to the south. That’s thanks, in part, to beer. The breweries in and around Charm City are playing a big part in downtown Baltimore’s comeback, with their growth helping to fuel an economic rebirth and build a sense of community pride rooted collaboration, not competition. If you only know Baltimore from The Wire, you’ll be surprised at how vibrant the city has become.
Checkerspot Brewing Company
Nestled in the shadow of M&T Bank Stadium, the purple-hued home of the Ravens, Checkerspot Brewing Company falls on the industrial side of the brewery and taproom spectrum. It is mere feet away from railroad tracks and the highway after all. But once you see people streaming into the unassuming location, you know you’ve found one of the newest drinking hotspots.
Inside, the vibe is mellow and convivial, with groups of drinkers deciding among the 15 beers on tap. As a Jean-Claude Van Damme fanatic, I’m tempted to immediately order the Jean Quad, a powerful, 10.6% ABV Belgian-style quad, the label for which features the actor doing his trademark splits over two beer kegs. I decide to come back to that later and instead start with the Stomping Ground Pale Ale, which balances its hop-heavy backbone with a touch of citrus. My friend grabs the First Whisper ESB, which was cask conditioned by one of the three co-owners of Checkerspot, Steve Marsh.
Marsh, along with husband-and-wife team Rob and Judy Neff, decided to open Checkerspot in 2018 to highlight local ingredients and foster a sense of community. The taproom hosts eclectic mix of people and pets, including an enormous and friendly dog who saunters from table to table looking for pats. A group of builders stops by after work to take advantage of happy hour, and, in the back room, a group of parents have brought their children for an impromptu pizza party amid the games and toys—although this crew is too young for the beer pong setup.
“I’ve heard this place is really good,” our Lyft driver says as we head toward Diamondback Beer, which is nestled in a hip complex in the Locust Point neighborhood. Diamondback feels like the neighborhood bar writ large, with its stylish look mirroring the neighboring apartments and businesses. Perhaps the most dramatic feature is the old smokestack from the building’s previous tenants, Philips Seafood, that not only juts straight out of the building, but also serves as the focal point of the bar.
The crowd at Diamondback is young and buzzes with energy. Some people huddle around the outdoor firepit, while others patiently wait in line for pies from BricknFire’s mobile pizza oven. In between talking about how convenient it would be to live, work and drink beer within 50 feet of each other, I order the Green Machine, a rich and juicy IPA, and my friend has one of Diamondback’s specials, a light, English mild called Fool in the Rain. Even though happy hour is winding down, there’s no need for anyone to rush out into the cold night when the beer is this good.
If you’ve been to Baltimore, odds are you’ve been to Fells Point, the historic waterfront district filled with cobblestone streets, antique stores and tons of bars. Over the years, Fells Point gained a reputation as the party spot and I’m not going to tell you much has changed, except the area has gotten nicer. Fortunately, Max’s Taphouse hasn’t gone upscale. This legendary bar has been a staple of the neighborhood for decades, and its reputation among beer-drinkers is well deserved.
With close to 140 beers on tap and 2,000 bottles available on-site, the options can be head-spinning. As I sidle up to the bar, a guy on a stool hands me a sheet of paper. “You’re going to need this,” he says. Indeed, the taps stretch down the bar like a sunset over the horizon, too much for the eye to take in. Fortunately, we have time to make our decision, because the bar is packed. During the day, there’s more time to chat with one of the veteran bartenders, but on a Friday night with a University of Maryland basketball game on the TVs, there’s little time to pick the brains behind the bar.
Helpfully, beers brewed in Maryland appear bolded on the menu, so I went with another Baltimore-area brewery, Monument City Brewing and its Penchant Pils. This traditional, German-Czech pilsner went down nice and easy as I explored the surprisingly large space, which used to be a concert venue back in the 1980s and early-1990s. We left before the karaoke started, but I can guarantee that I would have considered giving it a go.
The Brewer’s Art
It’s kind of exciting to traverse down the steep steps into the subterranean entrance of The Brewer’s Art. It makes you feel as if you’ve unearthed some hidden location, but then you open the door and discover you’re not the only one who’s found sanctity at this beer haven. The upper level of this former Mt. Vernon townhouse is a swanky restaurant, with couples dining in chic settings, surrounded by art. Below, however, is a bar that projects a distinct abbey vibe, a perfect setting for the Belgian-style beers on tap. Those beers are brewed on site, with the entire operation set up, surprisingly, not in the catacombs below, but behind the walls of the first-floor restaurant.
With old-school hip hop bass thumping in the background and the dim lighting highlighting exposed brick archways, we take stock of the beer offerings and select Resurrection—a brown ale that has been served since the restaurant opened in 1996—and the Beazly—a dry, slightly sweet ale that was once named for rocker Ozzy Osbourne... until a cease-and-desist letter arrived.
The Brewer’s Art wasn’t always the only place pulling double duty in Baltimore. Fellow old-school brewer Oliver Brewing produced its beers in the basement of the Pratt Street Ale House restaurant from 1993 to 2018. Now, Oliver is brewing its English-style ales at a new 12,000-square-foot facility and tasting room in the Claremont-Freedom neighborhood.
Union Craft Brewing
The last thing I am expecting to find in a taproom is a car camper, but there it is, nestled into the corner of Union Craft Brewing in the Woodberry neighborhood. There are people chilling in the camper as if they are out on a weekend excursion instead of their local brewery, and I can't blame them. If there were any space, I would climb in. There’s an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink feel at Union Craft, from the camper to the model train to the eclectic artwork to the food coming out of Well Crafted Kitchen, where I guess you could find a sink.
This huge room is where I notice a small coaster that reads “Beer Unites,” later finding out that it is the core of Union Craft’s ethos: “Good beer brings good people together for good times—and good works.” Beer drinking rarely seems like a solitary habit in Baltimore, at least out in public, and the crowd at Union is all about making it a communal effort. My friend chats with a woman at the bar while I grab a couple of Union’s most popular drafts—the Anthem, a smooth golden ale that would be right at home at a baseball game, and the Blackwing, a malty Schwarzbier with notes of coffee and caramel.
As we headed back home, my friend says, “Baltimore is a good drinking town. We need to do this again.” I had to agree.