Local beer lovers are uncorking Rockmill, the artisan sensation handcrafted in the Central Ohio countryside
You drive 40 minutes from Columbus toward Lancaster to reach Rockmill Brewery, but it feels like you've traveled much farther. Motoring along a sprawling countryside of rolling hills, you actually see lambs on Lamb Road right before pulling up to the gorgeous Rockmill property. Rambling around the one-time horse farm, you quickly begin to understand Rockmill is an enchanted kind of place where the flavors of yesteryear flow gracefully into those of today.
Rockmill is anchored by an expansive and fabulously rehabbed house that also functions as a contemporary art gallery-and much of its bold, expressionistic art is equine-themed (when constructed in 1870, it was a horse barn).
Near this is the minuscule brewery itself. It looks a lot like a garage from the exterior. But the invigorating flavors emanating from that innocuous-looking little building since production started last September have been huge and unforgettable.
You actually taste the past frothing up into the present with every sip of Rockmill beer. For starters, that's because this modern, certified organic "nano-brewery" taps into an ancient, glacier-created underground spring to produce its world-class Belgian-style ales. Secondly, Rockmill's individualistic, one-barrel-at-a-time ethos dictates the beers be handcrafted with a stubborn adherence to old-world methodologies.
But why brew notoriously eccentric and complex Belgian-type beers in farm-country Ohio? Matthew Barbee, the energetic young brewmaster of Rockmill's pocket-sized family business (it's just Matthew and his parents) explained that his stepfather, Dennis, a trained hydrogeologist, discovered that Rockmill's spring-fed, pristine well water has a remarkably similar profile to the waters of Wallonia-the Belgian region famous for fermented treasures like Trappist Monk and Saison ales.
Exhibiting the lyrical passion that drives his beer-making obsession, Barbee momentarily steadied his animated face and proclaimed, "We have a gift in the water."
And since beer is about 90 percent water, that's a really good thing for Rockmill Brewery. But great water without brewing artistry does not equal great beer.
So when sampling Rockmill's clearly accomplished ales, you might reasonably assume Barbee had been brewing for a considerably long time. Unless you count two and a half years a considerably long time, you'd be wrong.
After graduating from rural Bloom Carroll High School and Miami University, the ambitious Barbee reached for the stars and found them as a manager at a Los Angeles talent agency that handles actors like Adam Sandler and Brad Pitt.
While life in L.A. was exciting, Barbee sorely missed his family. On a warm California day before returning to Ohio, Barbee had his first taste of the beer that would change his life: a crisp and refreshing Saison (a centuries-old Wallonian style designed to revive overheated harvest laborers). His reaction: "Whoa, this is beer?"
Prior to this, Barbee's interest in libations was largely confined to wine. In fact, he'd grown up passionate about wine and food partly due to the influence of his grandfather, a vintner at Wyandotte and Breitenbach wineries in Ohio. Barbee had even entertained a longtime dream of opening his own winery someday.
Back in Ohio, on his family's recently acquired Rockmill grounds, Barbee found himself wondering, "It's so beautiful here, what would I do if I stayed?" Then the memory of that juicy Saison came rushing back. The thrilling discovery of Rockwell's well water composition followed. Soon thereafter, Barbee feverishly immersed himself in the art and craft of small-batch brewing.
But if inspiration came in a single sip of Saison, frustration and desperation accumulated by the barrelful of dumped, unsuccessful beers. After two tough years of missing his L.A. friends and feeling like he'd "been brewing under a rock," Barbee's tireless study and ferocious work finally began to pay off.
You can enjoy the effervescing proof of Barbee's hard-won success by tipping one of Rockmill's handsomely decorated bottles. Bearing the shadowy images of horses in homage to the farm's previous existence, the artwork and even the bottles themselves have been carefully selected.
That's because Barbee's the kind of intense brewer who literally loses sleep over such things. This restless and infectious enthusiasm has also brought him into personal relationships with the globally prestigious organic yeast, hops and specialty barley suppliers he has meticulously chosen. And it clearly fires his desire to produce stellar beers that demand attention.
"Saison is more a mindset than a style," is the sort of provocative comment Barbee shares while sipping his beers. He said this while proudly pouring his own spicily hopped version into an elegant Rockmill glass-a delicately etched, tapered bowl that allows the complex ale's bouquet to be long savored. Barbee then began excitedly pairing his Saison and other lovingly produced quaffs (a clean and refreshing Witbier, a chocolatey Trappist-like Dubbel and a seductively potent Tripel) with fine cheeses, olive oils, breads and chocolates.
He obviously takes genuine delight in effectively matching his beers with complementing foods. His eyes likewise light up as he discusses upcoming projects-such as a Tripel aged in a Middle West Spirits whiskey barrel (for yet more complexity) and a brand-new Jeni's ice cream made with Rockmill beer (that marriage consecrated in local-flavor heaven should debut later this month).
Though Barbee's production is rapidly increasing-he can barely keep pace with demand-no matter how much his business expands, he insists he's committed to doing things the methodical way, the right way, the Rockmill way. "Really, we're on our own path," Barbee said.
True enough, Rockmill is traveling on its own untrodden road. But this bold new trail winds way far back to a winemaking grandfather, an old horse farm, a harvest in Wallonia and an ancient glacier.