On a weeknight in mid-February, the mood inside Mahaffey's Pub was familial as usual, but more celebratory, too. A group of regulars, larger than expected for a Monday night, crowded around Joanne Barker, a Canton resident who was a sip away from Baltimore craft-beer immortality.
With a fast-food paper crown reading "Beer Queen" atop her head and cheers coming from around the bar, Barker lifted a freshly poured mug to the air before putting it to her lips. The pint signified history, as the 66-year-old Baltimore lifer became the first member of the Mahaffey's Beer Club to drink 5,000 unique beers at the haunt.
Seated inside the corner bar less than two weeks later, Barker — who goes by Jo, and Jo Jo when she's at Mahaffey's — still can't believe her love of craft beer led to such a celebration.
"I even said to my friend, 'If this is going to be what my funeral's like, it's going to be fun!'" Barker said. "The people here, the clientele, it's more like a family than anything else, you know? I enjoy that."
The irony of Barker's feat, which was first reported on the Baltimore Beer Baron blog, is she only began drinking microbrews a decade ago. Before that, she exclusively drank Miller Lite.
"I just never thought of trying other beers. I thought, 'Well, they're probably too strong,'" Barker said.
At the urging of a friend, another Mahaffey's regular named John Jung, Barker decided to join Mahaffey's Beer Club, which tracks the number of pints a member drinks. Hit 100 unique brews and receive a take-home mug and T-shirt; your 2,000th beer means a $100 gift card to Mahaffey's.
Barker's first beer as a member, a 120 Minute India Pale Ale from Delaware's Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, completely changed her perspective, she said. From then on, she was a hophead.
"That was sort of like, 'Pow!'" Barker said of the hop-heavy imperial IPA's punch. Now, for the former light-beer devotee, she likes beers "the hoppier, the better."
IPAs are her favorite style, and she's a fan of local brewers like Dundalk's Key Brewing Co. and Union Craft Brewing in Hampden. Barker likes Colorado's New Belgium Brewing, particularly their Fat Tire Amber Ale, too.
It turns out she likes most of the new beers she tries, and has only come across a couple of pints she couldn't finish. (A tip: Don't send any peanut butter-chocolate stouts Barker's way.)
When Jung died in 2009, Barker imagined stopping her beer tally where he did — 1,011. Ultimately, though, she decided to honor her friend through persistence.
"I thought, 'No, I'm not stopping. He'd be proud of me,'" she said.
So she pressed on without a set goal in mind. Averaging two to three new pints each visit eventually led Barker to February's 5,000th beer. To commemorate the accomplishment, Mahaffey's managers Dennis and Alice Kistner ordered a Union Craft Brewing special edition firkin of Duckpin Pale Ale. The brewery added an appropriate kick to the brew.
"They pumped it full of hops, basically," said Dennis Kistner. "It was delicious."
You can find Barker on her usual stool on the first floor of Mahaffey's "pretty much every day," she said with a laugh. (But no, that's not an exaggeration.)
After her shift as a medical secretary in the city, Barker typically stops by Mahaffey's on her way to her Canton home, where she's lived for more than three decades. (She just celebrated her 35th anniversary with her husband, who finds Mahaffey's too crowded and only drinks Coors Light, Barker said.)
She skips other bars in the neighborhood because of the care the Kistners bring to Mahaffey's, including the attention to detail to the beer selection, she said. The staff and regulars have become like a second family to Barker.
"That's the atmosphere you get down here," she said. "If anything happens to one person, it happens to everybody."
Alice Kistner said Barker has become a "second mom" to some, and "adopted grandma Jo Jo" to others. She often introduces herself to first-time visitors, the manager said, which boosts the close-knit atmosphere. Alice Kistner also loves the fact the leader of the beer club doesn't fit a stereotype.
"They expect this big burly guy, and they see Jo, a little older lady, like, 'That's the top drinker?'" she said. "It's fun."
Since 5,000, Barker has already added to her total, with no plans of slowing down. She imagines Jung looking down, laughing and telling his once-loyal macrobrew drinking pal, "I told you so!"
Most of all, Barker continues to enjoy herself at her watering hole of choice. She's come this far in the beer club, and if she quits, the end could be near, Barker joked.
"I think if it stop, that'll be it," she said, slapping her hand against the wooden bar with a laugh. "I gotta keep going."