Before opening Rockmill Brewery in southeast Ohio in 2010, owner and brewer Matthew Barbee had other plans: to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps as a winemaker. A single bottle of Saison Dupont shared with friends over a meal changed his perception of beer, and his career path.
“The server brought out this large-format bottle with a cork-and-cage enclosure and I had never seen that before,” Barbee says of his aha! moment. Cork popped and aromatics wafting, “I thought, Whoa, this is a beer? It paired beautifully with the food. That was the first time in my life I got excited about beer,” Barbee says.
That revelatory moment gave Barbee a deep respect for Belgian saisons and the country’s storied brewing traditions — so much so that he returned home to Ohio from the West Coast, transformed his mother’s 20-acre former (and, at the time, flailing) horse farm in Lancaster into a brewery, and began producing local interpretations of the Belgian styles he now adored. The breathtaking, bucolic property — which even includes a chapel, if you want to say “I do” with an Ohio farmhouse ale in hand — produces elegantly balanced, bottle-conditioned organic beers including a dubbel, tripel, witbier, and, of course, several saisons.
Like many of Belgium’s farmhouse breweries, Rockmill relies on well water on the premises, adding an extra layer of authenticity to the craft and imbuing dry and refreshing ales like Petite Saison, Cask-Aged Tripel, and En Plein Air. The mineral and bicarbonate makeup is serendipitously similar — almost identical — to that of Belgium’s famed Wallonia region, Barbee says. “It’s hard water, which I think adds structure and gives an edge to the beers,” he says. “There’s a lot of intensity, but nothing to throw off the flavor. It was really fortuitous.”
Barbee’s appreciation of the versatility of pairing Belgian beers with food led him to open a second business, Rockmill Tavern, in 2016. The two-level restaurant in Columbus’s Brewery District recently unveiled its largest expansion project to date: A new production facility, complete with a canning line, and taproom located on the farm, debuted in September 2019.
On a recent sunny afternoon, Barbee sat with us in the taproom and tackled our Lucky Sevens questionnaire, sharing what he loves most about Belgian beers, and why there’s a can of White Claw in his fridge.
1. What’s your desert-island beer?
Our pilsner. Really sessionable. On a desert island, I want a beer you can drink 18 of and still be alert enough for survival.
2. What’s the beer that made you fall in love with beer?
Saison Dupont, without a doubt. What an exhilarating beer, particularly in terms of its yeast expression. I love the fruity esters and spicy phenolics it throws off. Yeast is such an important component in Belgian and Belgian-style beers when you talk about a beer’s character. When I brew and drink, the expression of yeast character is what I’m examining.
3. FMK three beer types: IPA, pilsner, sour.
I’d f*ck sour, just because I know I would never want to date one. After drinking some sours, you can’t appreciate the nuances offered by other beers.
Pilsner is marriage. A style that’s tried and true, that you can always depend on. Wherever you are in the world, you can always find a good pilsner.
Kill IPA. I think there are plenty of IPAs in the market. I don’t think we necessarily need any more.
4. You’re on death row. What’s your last-supper beer?
Avec Les Bons Voeux, a special blonde ale that Brasserie Dupont puts out for the holidays each year. We make a beer called Saison Supér that pays homage to Bons Voeux. The label art is Jean-François Millet’s famous painting, “The Sower,” which I feel speaks to the etymology of saison.
5. You can only drink one beer for the rest of your life. What is it?
Assistant Manager, a golden ale by Seventh Son here in Ohio. It’s low in alcohol, with bright aromatics and a ton of flavor. I’m so impressed by how layered that beer is, considering the low ABV.
6. What’s the best and worst beer in your fridge right now?
It’s hard to say what the best beer is because I live on the farm and there’s a kegerator and bar right outside my bedroom. So, it’s whatever’s on tap.
Worst, while it’s not beer, that’s much easier to answer. I have some leftover White Claw from a wedding we hosted here. They snuck it in.
7. If you could no longer drink beer, what would be your beverage of choice?
Wine is my first love. My grandfather had a couple of wineries. I lived in Luxembourg for a few years, and I quickly fell in love with the way in which Europeans eat and drink. It’s done with such care and preparation. It’s not uncommon to spend an entire day preparing. That just fired me up, seeing the ceremony around it. I knew I wanted to explore the world and live my life through food and drink.