The taproom is small, but it’s cozy. With the exception of a tall metal door, the room’s front wall is a large window looking out on South Union Street. Today it’s raining, and the tiny droplets run down the storefront. The powder blue wall is lined with artwork. A growler a 64 oz glass jug of beer sits on the bar’s textured wooden counter. Its label bears the taproom’s name: Roc Brewing Co.
The brainchild of RIT alumni Chris Spinelli and Jon Mervine, Roc Brewing Co. opened its doors July 9, 2011. Six months in, the brewery’s beers are on tap at 15 local establishments, including Park Point’s lovin’cup, and they have gained citywide attention.
THE FIRST BATCH
Spinelli, who obtained his Business Administration graduate degree
in 2009, and Mervine, a 2007 Economics graduate, met during an
undergraduate economics class at RIT. “Eight a.m., [Dr. Michael]
Vernarelli’s class,” Mervine recalls. After spending time in a study
group together, the two became friends.
There is a visible rapport between Spinelli and Mervine, and the two
seem to play off of each other’s personalities. Sporting a handlebar
mustache and pair of overalls, Mervine appears more lively and
hands-on while Spinelli, who leans against the edge of the bar, seems
slightly calmer and more reserved.
In May 2009, the two began hanging out in Spinelli’s parents’ house
while in between jobs. “My mom got tired of looking at us and said ‘I’ll
drive you to Homebrew and Hydroponics, I’ll buy you a homebrew
kit, and that’s what you should do for the weekend,’” says Spinelli.
At first, brewing was a social affair, something to do with friends.
However, a month later, Spinelli and Mervine were brewing multiple
times a weekend, producing more beer than they and their friends
could drink. “It became an obsession very quickly,” recalls Spinelli.
They began researching whether they could turn their passion into a
When discussing names, someone suggested Roc Brewing. “It
sounded generic when I said it, but it was one of the first [names] that
kept coming back to me,” says Mervine. They felt the name evoked
feelings of city pride and memories of the long-defunct Rochester
Brewery, which closed in 1956. “We’re down in the heart of Rochester
for a reason,” says Spinelli. “We wanted to be part of the city.”
During fall 2010, Mervine and Spinelli and began investigating a
commercial building at 56 South Union St. as a potential office. In
January 2011, they purchased the space and began construction. On
July 9 two years and several delays after their obsession began
Roc Brewing officially opened its doors. Starting with the Gate House,
a downtown café, they negotiated permanent places on tap at 10 local
restaurants and bars. Currently, 12 other establishments feature their
brews on a rotating basis.
Roc Brewing Co. has a two-person staff: Spinelli and
Mervine are it. Occasionally one friend helps out, but she’s
got a job of her own.
For the duo, it’s a labor of love. Using his woodworking
skills, Mervine has built everything from tap handles to the
bar itself. “We go from janitor to selling to cleaning,” says
Mervine. “The coat rack’s got and I’ve stopped counting
at least three dozen hats.”
As brewers, they focus on what Mervine calls “home
brewer’s zeitgeist,” looking to bring the spirit of home
brewing to a larger audience. However, they’re not playing
with kits anymore. The home brewing kits they used had
only eight steps, a process that initially led them to believe
that brewing was easy. “A year and a half later, [we’ve] got a
lot more at stake and there’s no instructions,” says Mervine.
Often, Spinelli and Mervine say, it’s much different
running a brewery than hobbyists would expect. “It’s
something you need to be calculated and precise about,”
says Mervine. “It’s not like I’m sitting here drinking beers
all the time.”
Even when they go out socially, the dynamic has changed.
“Every time you’re at a bar, you’re not just sitting at the bar,
you’re talking to the bar manager, you’re wearing your shirt,
you’re trying to get them to buy your beer,” says Spinelli.
For the Spinelli and Mervine, experimentation makes
the work interesting. They’re interested in diversifying
their brews. Just the other week, they tried brewing an
oatmeal stout; a roaring success, the batch lasted just a
week and a half on tap. “Each step you take,
to be calculated
it’s like a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’
book,” states Mervine. “I’m going to turn to page 72 and I’m
going to brew this beer.”
For Roc Brewing, the payoff comes as the finished
product. Says Mervine, “Every time you go out to a bar
or restaurant and they pour you a golden or a red, you’re
getting something that was made by us in the literal sense
and from the existential.”
A COMMUNITY AFFAIR
At approximately 4 o’clock on a Monday afternoon, the shop
is absolutely empty. Mervine stands behind the counter,
sipping a glass of water, while Spinelli casually leans against
the other side.
The two consider the shop intimate, not empty.
Occasionally, they’ll hold events, such as a “No Shave
November” mustache unveiling November 31 or an art
show featuring local tattoo artist Adam Francey. The rest
of the time, the shop may have only several patrons visiting.
Through this atmosphere, Mervine and Spinelli have
gotten to know most of their customers on a more
personal level. “We’ve already established ourselves in
the neighborhood,” says Mervine, “A lot of the neighbors
will pop in maybe once a weekend, once a month.” Other
customers come in for just happy hours; many bring friends
with them the next time. “To have beers that you make and
to be talking about them, people love that,” says Mervine.
"It’s not some buxom babe that’s got her chest flowing out
at the bar.”
The connections Spinelli and Mervine have made extend
beyond patrons. They’re part of an enthusiastic crew of
local brewers. They often meet up at bars or breweries
sometimes each other’s to collaborate and work out ways
to promote local brewing and diversity. “Why should you
have ten West Coast IPAs [India Pale Ales] when you’ve got
seven local breweries that can all make an IPA?” Spinelli asks.
While Roc Brewing has firmly established itself in the
community, Spinelli and Mervine are still looking forward.
In the next year, they hope to begin canning and further
expand their distribution. Someday, they hope their brews
will be available around New York and other neighboring
states. They’ve got a lot of work, but it’s not just a craft, it’s
a lifestyle. “You have to live it,” says Spinelli. “It’s the first
thing on your mind when you wake up, the last thing when
you go to bed, and all in between.”