Rockmill Brewery opened to the public in Lancaster in September of 2010. I was there shortly thereafter in November of 2010. It is interesting to reflect how much the world and in particular my world has changed in the span of just six years. In the world of local craft beer, imagine if you will the thrill when Rockmill nudged central Ohio breweries closer to the number ten. At my last count, we can expect to see well over forty microbreweries in Central Ohio by spring.
With all of these changes afoot, owner Matt Barbee knew he needed to get a bigger footprint in the Columbus market and he realized the best way to do that was to establish a taproom(s). An attempt to open a location in German Village fizzled out but another location he had in the works in the Brewery District found some solid traction and uncommonly launched close to on time.
Rockmill Tavern opened it’s doors to the public at the end of October this year. This was pretty amazing turn around, the previous occupant, World of Beer closed without warning on October 31st 2015. Barbee had much of his attention devoted to making the prospective German Village location come together so the Brewery District tavern was fast tracked as the other project got sidelined. The space has a lot of history that fits well with his concept. The space was literally made for beer. The original occupant of these hallowed brick walls was Hoster Brewing Company. Up until 1919 this address on Front Street was part of one of the largest breweries in the state churning out up to 500,000 barrels of beer per year. Rockmill’s production is a bit below that number (by about 490,000 or so). The particular space the tavern fills was once part of a stable for 125 horses for Hoster Brewing. So it is fitting that Rockmill’s logo is that of a horse. This truly was a match that was meant to be.
I am excited about this development for many reasons. I have stayed in touch with Barbee since our first meeting years ago and have always been impressed by his vision and focus on how he wanted to grow the brewery and engage with the community. As for the Brewery District, I feel that the opening of Rockmill Tavern marks the official rebirth (3.0) of the Brewery District. If you are not a native of Columbus then you are probably not aware that the Brewery District was the place to be in the 1990’s. And in the early 2000’s it very quickly became the place to flee. A few businesses stuck it out and in the last year the area has seen a significant upswing with the success of Copious, Arepazo and other new hot spots.
The main downfall of the World of Beer location was a lack of food. Some failed attempts were made to try to coordinate with food trucks but those efforts were…uncoordinated. Barbee saw the potential in the space but knew the key was to squeeze in a kitchen to churn out something better than fried fare and wings if he wanted guests to stick around for more than one beer. He ensured a slam dunk for food by engaging great talent in both the front and the back of the tavern. In particular, Chef Andrew Smith, most often cited for his work at Salt and Pine but in my book, well respected for his work at the Rossi.
As for the food, they have nailed it. Open a short two months, I have seen Rockmill Tavern listed as the best new restaurant of 2016 as well as noted on the short list of best overall. Not bad considering they have just started cooking. I can only speak to the lunch menu but looking at dinner and brunch offerings I see nothing to fear in this line up. I shared lunch with a few members of the Columbus Ale Trail team and was lucky to be in the company of two young ladies that share the same affinity for Brussels sprouts and beets that I do.
I’ll start with the sprouts. While they seem to be ubiquitous to any new menu in town I rarely find them executed to my liking. Those that I sampled at Rockmill Tavern were cooking to my loving. The portion size was perfect. They had just a bit of char to them and a trace of carmelization. They tasted fresh and flavorful with just a hint of crunch and chewiness.
Moving on along, the beet salad was a slam dunk. I don’t often fret about presentation but in the case of this salad it certainly looked good enough to eat but more importantly the layout of the ingredients made the salad easy to enjoy. The goat cheese was an ample portion and placed in such a way that I could easily control how much or how little I wanted with each bite. The beets themselves were cooked to pure perfection. I could not have been happier and I commit to ordering this salad whenever I am at Rockmill Tavern, even when I am not there to eat.
Here is an insider tip. I usually don’t get excited about biscuits. In my world I associate them with breakfast more often that lunch, brunch or dinner. More importantly, I encounter bad biscuits 90% of the time. Finally, I found a biscuit worthy of this quote -> Poetry is the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits. – Carl Sandburg. The addition of a bit of cheese and a lot of love has produced the finest biscuits in the city. And since readership of the blog is down, I am going to give my readers a little insider knowledge (but don’t spread this around). If you know Cheryl Harrison (and you probably should because she is a good idea) then you should know that she LOVES these biscuits. If she had her way, they might become a form of currency.
And last, but not least, the Tavern burger – made from good ground beef and not dolled up too much but I did appreciate the ciabatta bun and the bacon jam. It continues along my burger mantra of keep it simple to make it special. A burger should just be a burger but most places threw this belief out the window years ago. Don’t pitch this burger, pinch it in your hands and hold on to it for dear life until you finish it.
In conclusion, most importantly, I am very happy for Matt Barbee. The Rockmill Tavern is a place and space that truly reflects his passion(s), not just for beer but the design of the interior and the rugged feel it projects connects with both the history of the building and the history of his brewery. When I met him six years ago, I enjoyed a great afternoon at a time when I really needed to reconnect with the good things he had going on in Lancaster and I feel all of those elements have successfully landed in this Brewery District space. (And extraneous note, I am writing this piece sitting next to my co-pilot on that first Rockmill trip – my dog CMH Tobias). Go for the food and stay for the beer and equally important, stick around in the Brewery District and help rebuild the area, one beer or bite at a time.