This is heaven. This is what I thought two Sundays ago, as I sat at a giant wooden table surrounded by the smell of a wood-fueled fire and the sounds of Sigur Ros enveloping me. Directly in front of me were floor-to-ceiling paned glass doors that unearthed a view of snow-covered southeast Ohio while allowing in enough perfect mid-afternoon January light to make any photograph I took make me look ten times more talented than I actually am. Oh. And, I was surrounded by a small group of incredible people, including (but not limited to) Matthew Barbee of Rockmill Brewery. And he would not stop pouring his delicious organic Belgian-style ales into my glass. Definitely heaven.
Rockmill Brewery made its Columbus debut in September of 2010. I first saw their beers at an event at House Wine for Local Foods Week, and quickly started lobbying my own libations department to start carrying them. This lobbying was, it seems, to the detriment of both my checking account and my waistline, as ever since my dreamy Sunday afternoon, I cannot stop craving them.
Served in a glass that allows the aroma to complement the flavors, these four beers (a witbier, a saison, a dubbel and a tripel), were paired with cheeses and accoutrements that seemingly appeared out of nowhere (but perhaps with the help of Matthew’s mother, who in my opinion, looked to be no older than 35 years old — way too young to be the mother of a brewer). Matthew fielded questions as we tried beer after beer. Of the six of us who’d shown up (some invited, some not) at his doorstep, three were food bloggers and three were home brewers. We had a lot of questions.
Prepared with props and an ever-flowing array of samples, he told his stories. The water from a nearby stream filtered through sandstone left behind by a friendly southeast Ohio glacier turned out to be scientifically similar to the water found in Wallonia, Belgium, the inspiration for these beers. Simply put: we were enjoying the flavors of the land. To the woman who always has a tiny bit of her heart in Appalachia, this is a good, good thing.
The beers are hand distributed to several restaurants and stores throughout Columbus and relatively easy to find these days. That being said, we did get an opportunity to try some things not on the market. Rockmill beers are designed to condition (carbonate) in the bottle, which is why they’re served only in Champagne-style bottles and topped with a cork. We did a side-by-side tasting of two dubbels, one of which had been aged a little longer than the others. (The beers are designed to age, but Matthew feels that they happen to drink well young.) The older of the two boasted strong fruity notes reminiscent of cherries. For a bunch of home brewers, being able to experience the difference in the two was an unique opportunity.
The second not-on-the-market beer was a practice round of a bourbon-aged tripel using the barrels from Columbus-based Middle West Spirit’s not-yet-on-the-market whiskey. Unfortunately for me, this beer arrived just as I realized that I needed to be sober for my next event of the day. (I remember being slightly shocked that it took me a good three or four tries to navigate my way through a sentence before giving up. This was my sign that maybe the 6-to-9% ABV beers I’d been happily drinking were having some effect on me.) I did have a taste, though, and will try to resist the urge to pull indie food rank and casually say, “Oh, yeah. I’ve had it,” the first time someone breaks the news that it’s hitting the shelves.
A tour of the horse barn where the beer is brewed and the customary lesson in bottle sabering followed our tasting. The tour unearthed some creative answers to production issues. For heating purposes during the brewing process, Rockmill uses crab cooker burners. And instead of an expensive hood system, they utilized a barn exhaust fan. Apparently code in these parts counts barn cats as pest control and dogs as security. While I found this interesting, it was clear that sabering the bottle would be the most memorable part.
We ended up circumcising three bottles infected with an undesirable yeast strain that left them tasting soapy.
What’s fascinating about the trip — aside from the romantic setting, the parallel water types and the intoxicating afternoon light — is that Matthew was no different from the folks sitting (or standing, as it were) around the table with him. Each arrived with his or her own passion, whether it be writing, brewing or changing the world, and each left a little more inspired. Hard work and determination is all it takes to make your dream work. That’s what they say, right? I’m going to alter it a little. Hard work, determination and a damn good Belgian dubbel.
5705 Lithopolis Road NW