City Paper is Baltimore's Booziest Alternative Weekly, so instead of writing about the usual suspects—bar owners and brewers—I want to get to the core and focus on a real-life imbiber this month.
Allow me to introduce you to the Beer Baroness of Canton. She doesn’t own a brewery or a bar, nor has she ever home-brewed. She’s just a customer. The best customer you could ever want. I met her 10 years ago and this tale took a long time to ferment.
Canton resident Jo Barker was a lifelong macro-brew drinker until she became a craft convert at Mahaffey’s Pub on Dillon Street seven years ago. She joined the bar’s beer club, where you get respect for drinking hundreds, even thousands of pints of unique beers. She was awarded with her own barstool at 300 pints, the right to be called a “Dame” at 1,000, and a gift card at 2,000. But none of those things would have been good enough to serve as a worthy tribute when she became the first customer to hit 3,000 unique beers consumed at the bar. And at first, the folks at Mahaffey’s couldn’t figure out how to honor that special customer. Then, they struck gold.
There’s this device called a “Randall the Enamel Animal,” or “Randall” for short. It was created and perfected by Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione. The Randall attaches to a draft line and infuses fresh hops, fruit, herbs, or almost any other ingredient of choice into a beer. There’s only a handful of them in Baltimore City, according to Mahaffey’s manager Dennis Kistner. The bar recently acquired one of the contraptions, so it was only fitting to break it in by offering the first customer to drink 3,000 with every beer nerd’s dream—her own beer.
As one who prefers “hoppy, hoppy stuff,” Jo Barker chose her ingredients as she saw fit: jalapeno peppers (she puts them in everything), orange slices, and Simcoe hops infused into a Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA. Her keg debuted in front of about 50 celebrants earlier this month at the bar and she was allowed to drink her potion gratis anytime until the keg kicked. Naturally, Jo’s 60 Minute was gone before Baltimore Beer Week started four days later.
Owner Wayne Mahaffey says that Barker is “the first person that we have honored as the 3,000th beer person in the beer club. She has tried 3,000 different beers. The most amazing thing about that was before she joined the beer club, she was Miller Lite all the way.” Barker’s journey from Lite to Loose Cannon actually took a few years. Her longtime friend, John Jung, was the beer nerd in her drinking posse long before she was. She didn’t touch the crafts when she started coming to the bar in 2004.
It wasn’t until Jung really jumped into the beer club competition himself in 2007 that Barker started trying the various drafts and bottles at the bar along with him. Jung hit No. 1,000 in the beer club in 2009, and died suddenly a few months later. Hundreds of beers behind him in the count, Barker decided to honor her friend by reaching the 1,000 milestone. She never looked back. She became the first woman to hit the 2,000 and 2,500 mark. She downed her 3,000th beer in September.
“He was at 1,011 [beers when he died] and I thought, ‘When I get there, I’ll honor him and I’m going to stop,’” Barker remembers. “And I said, ‘You know what? Maybe I’ll honor him more if I just keep on going.’ And here I am.”
She’s my kind of Beer Baroness, and Wayne Mahaffey says it best, lauding Barker as “the kind of person that every single bar would love to have as a regular customer, and we have her and we’re very happy.”