We present the results of beam tests with high-energy (8-375 GeV) electrons, pions, protons and muons of a sampling calorimeter based on the detection of Cherenkov light produced by shower particles. The detector, a prototype for the very forward calorimeters in the CMS experiment, consists of thin quartz fibers embedded in a copper matrix. Results are given on the light yield of this device, on its energy resolution for electron and hadron detection, and on the signal uniformity and linearity. The signal generation mechanism gives this type of detector unique properties, especially for the detection of hadron showers: narrow, shallow shower profiles and extremely fast signals. These specific properties were measured in detail. The implications for measurements in the high-rate, high-radiation Large Hadron Collider (LHC) environment are discussed.