The Belgian Blowup
By Steve CroylePublished June 1, 2011
Less than a year out of the gate, Rockmill Brewery is taking the Ohio craft beer scene by storm. This could be the next big thing in local brewing, but do they live up to the hype? Hells yeah.
Matthew Barbee pours a generous sample of Rockmill Brewery’s Saison into an elegant stemware snifter.
“That’s the best part,” the proud owner of the brewery says as he swirls the brew and serves me a glass with a healthy dose of sediment from the bottom of the bottle.
He’s absolutely correct. The spent yeast is both nutritious and flavorful, and the fancy glassware showcases a wonderfully murky mess of brute beer force and an intricate balance of nuanced flavor.
For years, I’ve urged people to consider Belgian beers an alternative to wine. These brews aren’t supposed to be gulped in haste in a parking lot before a football game; these are drinks to be savored while taking in the aroma, the mouth feel and the finish. It sounds snooty and pretentious, but if you don’t take your time with these beers you miss most of what they have to offer. Belgians come in corked, wine-sized bottles, packing a wine-like alcohol content with wine-like prices. Rockmill’s beers are priced in the $14-$17 range at stores like Whole Foods, Weilands, House Wine, Barrel and Bottle and a number of other great places listed on Rockmill’s website. For an extra $10 or so, you can enjoy these fine brews in the growing number of bars and restaurants offering what might be the hottest trend in the local beverage market.
The funny thing about Belgians is that the science is relatively simple. This ancient style of brewing was designed to overcome the technological disadvantages of medieval times. Very little has changed in the thousand-odd years that have come and gone since the first Trappist monks started extracting fermentable sugars from grains. Many of the yeasts used in the style today can trace their roots back to wild strains that were tamed and cultivated over generations. The addition of spices and the all-important hops, ancient “Noble” varieties, is something many brewers miss the mark on. Too little, and the funkiness of the yeast is overpowering; too much, and you might as well be drinking dishwater. Thankfully Rockmill has mastered the perfect balance.
Rockmill Brewery offers four beers, all in hand-caged 750-mL bottles. There’s a classic Witbier, a strong brown Dubbel and a hefty Trippel that pours a lighter color than the Dubbel in spite of packing more of a punch. But the flagship brew is their Saison (French for ‘season’). Rockmill’s Saison is influenced by the farmhouse ales of Wallonia, a French-speaking region of Belgium that has a similar water chemistry to the artesian well water that flows abundantly through the mineral laden Black Hand Sandstone under the Fairfield Township farm that Rockmill Brewery calls home.
“We’re at the headwaters of the Hocking here,” Barbee explains, “so we don’t have any runoff from the other farms getting into our water.”
Barbee started brewing in earnest about two years ago when he moved back to Ohio from California to help his family out; now they’re helping him with his business. He didn’t go to brew school, nor did he take on an apprenticeship. Without prior experience in home brewing, which most other craft brewers delve into, Barbee just decided it would be cool to make beer. He set out to brew one of the most difficult styles in the business. Even if you master the art of brewing and end up with a quality result, it can be hard to find a market for a niche product. Barbee has overcome this potential obstacle by presenting his beers as if they are wines. In his tasting room, he pairs each beer with an artisan cheese – except for the Dubbel, which is offered with dark chocolate and Himalayan salt. Around town, his beers have been paired with gourmet dishes at top restaurants.
Considering Barbee’s grandfather started two wineries in Central Ohio, it’s not surprising he took this tack. What is surprising is that the spirited entrepreneur didn’t even like beer until about five years ago. “I really saw beer as a waste of time,” he said.
That attitude changed when he was tooling along on his beach cruiser out on the Left Coast and stopped in a café for refreshment. The barkeep popped open a bottle of Saison Dupont, and Barbee’s whole word changed. “The bouquet was amazing,” he recalled fondly.
Although he evolved from looking down his nose at beer to running a successful brewery in a short period of time, he’s quick to give credit to all of the support he’s received from local store, bar and restaurant owners who are eager to offer his wares. He marvels at how he was able to find help from unlikely sources – such as working with an organic malt supplier in Germany who allows him flexibility in ordering, or gaining some fermentation pointers from the owner of White Labs (America’s Mecca of brewers’ yeast), Chris White. It’s an inspiring story, but at the end of the day the only thing that matters is the quality of the beer, and if Barbee feels like he owes anybody a debt of gratitude, all he needs to do is keep brewing.
Rockmill Brewery is open for tastings by appointment. Though it’s a bit of a drive from Columbus, Rockmill Farm’s aesthetics alone are worth the trip. There’s no charge for the tasting and tour, but be forewarned that you’ll likely want to bring home a case or two.
5705 Lithopolis Rd NW, Lancaster