“Our beers have a specific niche as food beers,” explains Matthew Barbee, the owner and brewmaster at Ohio’s Rockmill Brewery. “I think of them as kind of a cross over between beer and wine in terms of food and concentration of flavors.”
I’m currently at Inn & Spa at Cedar Falls, about to partake in a degustation menu with organic beer pairing. While I’ve enjoyed my fair share of gourmet meals paired with carefully-curated wines, it will be interesting to try the idea with an innovative twist. All Rockmill beers — which include a Witbier, Saison, Dubbel and Tripel — are brewed with 100% organic yeast, hops and malt. Because only one barrel is brewed at a time, it’s a very artisanal production. And just like with wine, terroir plays an important role in the beer making process.
“Beer is over 90% water and the most important component you will be working with in terms of the end product,” Matt says.
Luckily, their brewery sits adjacent to Ohio’s Hocking River, which happens to have the same mineral content as the waters found in Wallonia, Belgium, where Belgian ale originated. All these facets help Rockmill create brews that are aromatic, full of flavor and containing a strong backbone to stand up to richer foods.
For our first course we are served grilled shrimp served with polenta and chive oil. This is paired with Witbier, a hazy whiteish beer flavored with coriander, bitter orange and hops. The two compliment each other perfectly, showing me just how similar beer-inspired degustations can be to wine pairings.
Matt himself actually grew up around wine, with his grandfather owning two wineries in Ohio. “The wines I gravitated toward had a lot of structure and concentration of fruit. I’ve recreated those elements into my beers through malt bills, hop profiles and featuring the flavor components of our yeast strains.”
The other courses in the progressive dinner are just as sumptuous. A roasted beet consomme matched with a hoppy Saison, an entree of beef short-rib braised in and served with a fruity Dubbel Ale and a plate of butter green and Triple-candied almonds, dried cherries, local chèvre and herb vinaigrette paired with a golden Tripel.
Our dessert, a poached quince with spiced creme anglaise, comes with an unexpected but appreciated surprise — a strong Cask Aged Tripel. For this libation, Matt teamed up with Middle West Spirits to add their whiskey, made with 100% winter wheat, to the Tripel. The result is a mix of cherries, caramel, vanilla, and honey as well as some pepper and oak with a sweet whiskey finish.
As a sit back in my chair, flavors of hops, malts and chocolate still lingering on my tongue, I think about how great it is to have a meal and drinks that are not only delicious, but sustainable. In Columbus and the areas nearby, there is a strong movement toward sustainable production. Throughout the city, you’ll find numerous restaurants, bars and hotels using locally-sourced ingredients and creating eco-friendly spaces. Moreover, Columbus is in the midst of an up-and-coming wine, beer and spirits scene. Matt is happy to be a part of both.
“There are two excellent micro-distilleries in Columbus,” he says. “We have a great relationship with Middle West Spirits and Ryan, their head-distiller, and I have many collaborative projects in the works. I can’t tell you fun and inspiring it has been to partner with a local distillery so passionate about their craft.”
If the future holds anything like their Cask Aged Tripel, I’m in. Apparently, the next year will bring many developments to the beer scene. In fact, over 10 new breweries will be opening up in the central Ohio area. After the success of tonight’s beer dinner, this news ensures I will be back in 2013.
Images via Brian Kellet