Food & Drink

Checkerspot Brewing Revives 200-Year-Old Beer Recipes for Women’s History Month

Historian Maureen O'Prey and owner Judy Neff share the legacy of brewer Mary Eaton.

Author and brewer Mary Eaton took a no-nonsense approach to crafting high-caliber beer. 

“What an amazing human being and what a stickler for quality,” says Maureen O’Prey, historian and author of Beer in Maryland and Brewing in Baltimore. “What a stickler for following her recipe to the letter.

She felt that any beer that left a hard or a sour or a pungent sensation on your tongue was not good beer. It was pernicious beer. And if you got it from a tavern or an ale house, you would end up with headaches and nausea and all kinds of things that you wouldn’t have had if you were drinking the beer that she was making in her house.”

Eaton held the firm belief that beer was best when made at home—specifically, by women, who unbeknownst to many, had been brewing for millennia around the time her book came out in 1822. In The Cook and Housekeeper’s Complete and Universal Dictionary, Eaton shares a bevy of meticulous recipes for beers with no-fuss names like “good” and “wholesome.” 

“It’s really amazing when you look at what she wrote back in 1822, because the standards she’s demanding are what you would expect at a brewery today,” O’Prey explains. “Without knowing what pH was, she recognized good water from bad water, and how to turn bad water into good water. Everything was sanitized.”

Long before refrigeration, Eaton knew the cooler months of March and October were the most ideal for brewing. And as O’Prey found out herself, her recipes, while laborious and painstakingly detailed, yield an age-defying magic. 

Referencing the aforementioned, 200-year-old book, O’Prey and Judy Neff, the owner of Checkerspot Brewing in South Baltimore, attempted to recreate three of Eaton’s recipes—plus one of their own, a 12.9 percent ABV ale appropriately dubbed “Pernicious Mary.” Per the author’s instructions for brewing, the latter sip sat for two years. But this weekend, the duo’s hard work will pay off when the four “fool-proof” brews hit the Checkerspot taproom.

This Saturday, March 5, in honor of Eaton, and to celebrate the start of Women’s History Month, Neff and O’Prey will host an event aptly dubbed “200 Years in the Making” at the Sharp Street brewery. For $70, VIP ticket holders will receive an exclusive bottle of “Pernicious Mary.” And for $40, Checkerspot guests will have the chance to sample three of Eaton’s fairly mild trademark blends: “Good Beer,” “Agreeable Table Beer,” and “Wholesome Beer” (yes, those are really their names).

From 1-4 p.m., O’Prey will be on site to sign her two books and give two lectures: one about the history of women in beer, and the other about the time she spent with Neff working to master Eaton’s time-held recipes. A portion of proceeds from ticket sales will benefit The Well, a Baltimore nonprofit helping women heal from trauma.

“Maureen is so thorough with all of her research,” says Neff, who looks forward to sharing Eaton’s legacy with Checkerspot. “She’s been passionate about craft beer and history for so long. We’re really lucky to be able to work together—to be a woman brewer and a woman beer historian, which is very rare to find. We make a pretty good team.

“[Too often] you only hear about men opening breweries. So I think it’s kind of cool for people to hear a different side of the story, that there was this woman, 200 years ago brewing beer at home. And she considered her beer the best, better than any guy could make.”

O’Prey agrees: “I think Mary would be proud. It is such an honor to be able to bring this incredible woman’s recipes back, and make them well. Women have always been a part of this beautiful, wonderful art of making beer.”