Photo by Megan Leigh Barnard

Beer Country

Most breweries have a distinct steampunk vibe—with their tanks, and pipes, and valves, and important-looking gauges. When you visit a brewery, you expect an industrial experience. If there’s food, it’s going to be some pretzels from Costco, or maybe some grub from a food truck. It’s cool, because that’s what beer is about…mostly.

Rockmill is different. When you visit the Lancaster brewery, you find yourself meandering through the rolling hills of Fairfield County—on the Hocking River, near its headwaters. And it’s easy to miss, because Rockmill looks nothing like a brewery: it looks more like the place you would drop off your daughter for her equestrian lessons, which is not something most craft beer drinkers can relate to.

There’s an old farm house, and quaint outbuildings that look like they could have been plucked from the French countryside, which is fitting since brewer Matthew Barbee is a reformed wine snob who developed an appreciation for beer when he first sampled a classic French Farmhouse Ale.  When he decided to brew, he analyzed the water quality of his family’s postcard-worthy farm and connected the dots to the similarly picturesque Wallonia region of Belgium.

Wallonia is famous for its beers. The stalwart Trappist ales most people associate with Belgium are brewed in quiet monasteries tucked away in one of the most sparsely populated areas in that part of Europe. For every beer you know, there are three you’ve never heard of hailing from the region, and people are still brewing family beers—from recipes hundreds of years old—in their own barns. 

You don’t drink these beers with a plate of wings; you enjoy them with artisan cheeses—often made on the same farm— charcuterie, and crusty bread.

And that’s precisely the experience you have at Rockmill. Barbee pops the corks on a selection of his bottle-conditioned beers and serves them in the French tradition. You sit at a big table in a big cozy room and look out over a beautiful field that offers a glimpse of the aforementioned river before it meanders southeast to its confluence with the Ohio.

The beers are presented like wines, which is the way Belgian-inspired brews should be represented. That’s not to say you can’t enjoy one while watching the big game, but it’s far better to slow it down and enjoy the finer things in life.

It’s not pretentious. This is a style of beer that was developed in a part of the world where people made their livings with their hands in the dirt. It’s not about image—it’s about carving out a little slice of time to appreciate simplicity. The land Rockmill sits on might be dedicated to brewing world-class beer, but the spirit of the “farm” remains.

A visit to Rockmill is an experience unlike any other stop on a brewery tour: a simpler place, that reminds us of a simpler time.