Head brewer Zack Cline pushes beyond Belgian limits

Each workday, Zack Cline rises before the sun and makes the 40-minute drive from Westerville to Rockmill Brewery on a former horse farm in Lancaster, Ohio. The company's sole brewer, he logs about five miles walking from building to building — the brewery, the walk-in cooler and storage, and the taproom. When he needs water for the brews, he retrieves it from a 90-foot well on the property.

“One of the things that attracted me to [the job] was that I felt like I was going back to the old days of brewing, where this is your water source,” said Cline, Alive's 2018 Brewer of the Year, during a mid-July interview at Rockmill Tavern in the Brewery District. “You just make what you can make with that water source.”

With its high concentration of minerals, the Rockmill well water is comparable to the water sources in Wallonia, Belgium. Since the brewery opened in 2010, it has been producing flavorful saisons and other, traditional Belgian-style beers. But when Cline came on board in 2016, the brewery began branching out.

“We put a pilsner out almost a year ago, which you generally want soft water for, but I found a way to make it work,” said Cline, who explained the pre-boiling technique he uses, which removes bicarbonate from the water. “It's just like hundreds of cases are flying out the door.”

The pilsner was the featured product of Rockmill's first rollout of cans in May. Still a small-production company that might approach 1,000 barrels for the first time this year, the brewery has also gained momentum with the opening of the tavern two years ago. That city presence has created awareness for the tasting room in Lancaster, which has seen increased traffic.

Cline is also heading up a new sour program, which began with his Cerise Cherry Sour. A nectarine-infused Brettanomyces (aka “Brett”), or wild yeast beer, is currently aging at the tavern.

“I got a little science project going on at the farm, too,” Cline said. “I came across some rose barrels and I did a spontaneous fermentation with strawberry and rhubarb. So that's doing its thing down there.”

Though Cline received excellent grades in chemistry and physics in high school, he was “seduced by the arts.” He studied jazz guitar at Ohio State and played music in Colorado and Seattle while working in restaurants before settling in Montana with his wife, Regan. After a period of unemployment, he worked his way up from a keg washer at a brewery.

Cline continued his brewing career when he moved to Westerville several years ago. Now with two small children, 4-year-old Jackie and 6-year-old Keoki, he doesn't have as much time for music.

“They've ‘helped' me make beer before,” Cline said of his kids, whom he allows to taste his creations. “I'm trying to promote a healthy European attitude towards alcohol and not make it this forbidden thing.”

“[Jackie]'s got a real broad palate,” he continued. “So maybe she'll be the future brewer. My son, he doesn't like to drink beer so much, but he does enjoy visiting at the brewery.”

If Cline had his way, his kids would visit him in a larger building on the property, which Rockmill may be moving its brewery to in the future. He'd also love to expand beyond its 15-barrel system. He'll definitely get an assistant in the coming weeks as he continues to push Rockmill forward in the market.

“Everyone's into the hazy IPAs now, and our distributor asked us, ‘Do you guys think you can make one?'” Cline said. “I don't see why not. We broke from tradition with the pilsner.”

Regarding his personal career goals, Cline downplayed his ambitiousness and emphasized his fortunate circumstances. “I'm lucky to have gotten that keg-washing job because it's allowed me to have a real career that I can support a family on,” he said. “I'm not waiting tables or working at the espresso stand anymore. I have a real, decent pay that I can support my family with, which I never thought I would have.”