A pint-sized brewery with big dreams
A national beer start-up grant launches the Roc Brewing Co.
A barroom crowd of maybe forty gathers around tables and chairs discussing Rochester’s potential to nurse startup businesses into existence. Students and professors from RIT and Syracuse University, freelance journalists, successful entrepreneurs and others who don’t know what to try, as long as it’s something.
The discussion takes a pessimistic turn. Investors are tough to come by in a city this size, someone explains, and despite a wealth of educational capital, Rochester might not be fertile ground for startups.
The nearby bartender, Chris Spinelli, had kept his mouth shut—but now, he argues respectfully that yes, it is.
The proof? They’re sitting in it.
Welcome to Roc Brewing Co.
This story is familiar to many Rochesterians, perhaps because it’s just so perfect. Spinelli and his business partner, Jon Mervine, both former Rochester Institute of Technology economics majors, spent a weekend testing a homebrew kit. At the time they were working for the financial adviser firms Manning and Napier and Merrill Lynch, respectively.
“The first hour into brewing we were like, ‘This is easy. We can do this. We should make a business out of this,’” says Spinelli.
The idea became real very quickly. On June 9, 2011, after eighteen months of writing a business plan, pitching to investors, and purchasing equipment, Roc Brewing Co. opened its taps to a thirsty public.
“We were slammed that night,” says Spinelli. “(We) didn’t even know how to open up the cash register.”
Months passed, and customers multiplied. Then in April 2011, Samuel Adams selected Roc. Brewing as a recipient of the “Brewing the American Dream” loan and mentorship program. Most businesses come up short for years before entering the black, says Spinelli. But at the end of its first full year, Roc Brewing actually turned a profit.
The brewery’s kit-to-keg story reads like a hops-infused “Ragged Dick,” but Spinelli and Mervine say their success is part of a larger movement in Rochester—a movement they’re helping to drive from their South Union Street location downtown.
“We fill a niche that I don’t think was otherwise tapped into–pun intended,” says Mervine, who is twenty-seven. “We have something of quality, something that’s made right here in the city of Rochester. I’m not even talking Pittsford; I’m talking the city.”
Mervine refers to other local quality-conscious entities like Flour City Bread Company and Joe Bean Coffee Roasters. “It’s amazing how these little startup companies are getting national press,” he says. “It’s really a renaissance that’s going on.”
Spinelli, also twenty-seven, points to Rochester’s educational capital for the future of the city. The graduates from RIT, the University of Rochester and other area campuses represent a huge resource, he says.
“A lot of my generation is becoming disenfranchised … and looking to make their own mark on life,” he says. “We’re really at a potential turning point for this city to really take off and be something special.”
With talk of Rochester’s rebirth comes a reminder that times have changed. Big industry built the city, but fresh ideas are needed to sustain or add to that historic foundation. This juxtaposition between tradition and innovation are what makes Roc Brewing Co. successful in a city with many other beer companies both large and small.
Spinelli and Mervine strive for creative flavors within traditional brewing methods. Instead of throwing in wacky, exotic fruits or saturating a brew with tons of hops, they might ferment at a slightly higher temperature to extract banana, clove, coriander, or peppercorn flavors from the yeast. They might also find the best coffee in town and use it in an IPA or Belgian blonde.
Incidentally, they actually did that—in partnership with Joe Bean Coffee Roasters.
“We have very similar philosophies in the way we approach our products,” says Kathy Turiano, co-owner of Joe Bean, which won national recognition with a Good Food Award in January. The company collaborates with Roc Brewing to make several beers, including Kyoto Protocol and Drogo Plight.
Beer and coffee seem a natural fit, says Turiano, as do the overarching goals of the two crafters.
“We see urban revitalization as a key component to both our businesses,” she says. “We want to produce, we want to be within the city limits, we want to be strong advocates for Rochester.”
Turiano says that with the unraveling of Rochester’s Kodak and Xerox companies, a rebranding is called for. She thinks it could take the form of craft food and beverages.
“Rochester is really a hotbed for this stuff right now,” she says. “Being connected to other craftsmen—there is so much synergy in it. We all feel like we’re part of creating the new.”
The new. In addition to creating great beer, Roc Brewing Co. is becoming a hub for those seeking the new.
“Over the course of the last year and a half, our building has become this feature point of startups and local community-building,” says Spinelli.
HTR LaunchPad, which helps new tech startups get off the ground, hosted an open mixer there in January, the day before a Hacks/Hackers meetup converged at the same spot. Twelve-foot windows facing downtown, Rochester-based artwork adorning the walls, and a conspicuous lack of televisions make it a place to talk.
“The free flow of ideas just happens here,” says Mervine. “I’ve heard business ideas being born right at the bar.”
Business is good. In fact, it’s great. When winter storm Nemo blasted through town, Spinelli says twenty-five undaunted patrons watched the bluster from the brewery. By the end of 2013, they hope to start a bottling operation, hire their first employees, and double production from 600 barrels to 1,200.
Along with these trappings of commercial success, the guys aim for something more—to replace a tired, worn-out vision of what might have been with a youthful vision of what will be.
“We’re a brewing company, and we’re here to make this community better,” says Spinelli. “It’s hard sometimes. You hear from some of the older generation in Rochester who say the city’s dead. But the city never died because big companies like Kodak and Bausch and Lomb have stumbled. It’s still a viable city with lots of great culture and businesses looking to bring Rochester back to its heyday.”