Writer: Amelia Jeffers
Photography: Madeleine Snare
After a particularly busy work weekend, I found myself wrapping up my last call of the day just as I turned off the highway for a meeting with Matt Barbee, owner of Rockmill Brewery. Pulling into the gravel parking lot, I was struck immediately by the festival atmosphere: a patio and grassy area with picnic and bistro tables full of people, dogs and children romping about; a cohort of women in sundresses, wide-brimmed hats, and a beer in hand hiking over a hill (to what I did not yet know); the sounds of music and the smell of pizza wafting through the air. Not quite sure where to go, and already wondering why I had never been here before, I happened upon a table of my friends who were finishing up dinner. Armed with their
suggestions about what to eat and see, I approached the bar area to ask for Matt - who I suspected was the rakish guy I had passed as he charmed a group of 20-somethings. A beaming Katie Brewer (General Manager of Rockmill, and yes - that is really her name) greeted me and asked if she could pour me a beer before she grabbed Matt. A few moments later, armed with a Rockmill Lite (I am that person), I asked if she could let him know that I would be exploring the property and available when he was ready.
Just steps into the walk, with flashes of my beloved West Virginia mountains in my heart and mind, I breathed out what seemed like a year full of stress and breathed in the fresh country air. Below the tasting room and patio, I happened upon a stunningly cool grotto with time-worn rock exposing fossils and damp, lush foliage surrounding an incredible view of the ravine, and the sounds of happy people and music drifting over the edge of the cliff above. After a few moments of meditative peace, I wandered back toward the main path where I saw Matt and his two beautiful Dutch Shepherds circling him as he approached. With a huge grin and no small amount of obvious pride and joy, he held his arms out as if to embrace the very property itself: “Welcome to Rockmill! What do you think?”
As we strolled past the large pond with woods beyond, Matt described the scene from less than 24 hours before: a concert from the summer music series had seen more than 400 people dotting the expansive landscape in the natural amphitheater at the center of the property. At the top of the driveway, Matt pointed out the original farmhouse (the first taproom for Rockmill, which now serves as an ancillary event space, bridal room for weddings, and Matt’s home), where a celebration of life for a Rockmill regular that started earlier in the day had turned into a bit of a community open house. We ventured back to the spot where I had started my visit and settled down to a table in the grass, beginning what would be several hours of history, plans, and delicious food (and great beer and wine) in the warm and relaxed community atmosphere that is the hallmark of Barbee’s vision.
Nearly a decade ago, Matt Barbee, inspired by the breathtaking natural beauty of his family’s 23-acres of farmland, began the journey toward creating one of the most successful breweries in central Ohio. Rockmill Brewery, family owned and operated since its opening, has made a name for itself among the Columbus craft beer community. Barbee originally hoped to open a winery, his original passion, on the property.
However, a serendipitous discovery led to his conversion and eventual success as a craft brewer: the mineral content of the water found on the land is almost identical to that found in Wallonia, Belgium, an area renowned for its brewing perfection. “I knew wine better than beer,” Matt explained, “but I had confidence in my palate either way.” Barbee is rarely on the brewdeck these days, instead trusting development to his experienced and proven head brewer K.C. King, who has helped to lead the team to renown as a distinguished brand of high-end craft beer.
As the business grew and space became an issue, Barbee leaned on one of his neighbors, acclaimed architect, talented land planner, and close-friend Brian Kent Jones. The two collaborated to modify the 19th century farm to accommodate a variety of uses, from the new tap room / restaurant / tasting patio, to a modified patio outside the farmhouse - creating dedicated spaces for private events and weddings so that the restaurant could remain open on a regular schedule. Now, as Barbee’s vision really starts to emerge, nearly all of the 23 acres is utilized, creating a unique experience for every guest.
Beyond the unmatched atmosphere and crisp and refreshing brews, Rockmill serves up an impressive culinary program headed up by Anthony Schultz, previously at the Inn at Cedar Falls. Signature snacks include an addictive Duck-infused Popcorn that pairs well with anything, a bright seasonal Watermelon Salad, and the requisite bar staples including Marinated Olives, Woodfired Spiced Nuts, and Cheese and Charcuterie board. Though the pressed-sandwich selection is delicious, the crowd favorite remains the Wood Fired Pizza with distinctive house-made dough. We enjoyed the Burrata, with San Marzano sauce, cheese, and fresh basil and the Prosciutto Bianca with confit garlic, evoo, burrata, rosemary, and satisfyingly savory prosciutto. My kind of host, Matt ordered all three desserts for us to share: a Salted Chocolate Chip Pistachio Cookie, Double Chocolate Chip Brownie, and Lemon Rosemary Shortbread (the mvp from my perspective).
Conversation with Matt was easy, his appreciation for the world he has created as evident as his ambition and enthusiasm to grow and do more. During dinner, a sweet little girl brought us a homemade (mud and leaf) pizza which Matt promptly “bought” with his (relatively) unused napkin. With golden curls under her cowgirl hat and in matching boots, she proudly showed off her jean jacket with pins from all of the places she has visited, including a Brewdog pin! Matt laughed and suggested that she ask her parents to bring her back in a few weeks, assuring her that there would be Rockmill pins stocked just for her.
Editor’s note: Rockmill fills up on most weekends, and reservations are recommended. For more information, visit rockmillbrewery.com. Barbee’s other location, Rockmill Tavern in the Brewery District, has been closed since May, with a re-opening scheduled for September. Check Sophisticatedlivingcolumbus.com/rockmill for a digital version of this story and updates about the Tavern re-opening as they are available.