8:30am

Mon November 21, 2011
Company Town

Roc Brewing Co.: From mom's basement to craft beer darlings

Craft beer has proven recession-proof. Its sales have accelerated while the overall beer market remains flat.

So in 2010, when two college friends from RIT decided to make a home brewing hobby into a full-fledged business, it wasn't actually that far-fetched of an idea.

After all, they did have the strong support of their earliest investor.

"She told me, 'Don't drink cheap beer'," Roc Brewing Co. co-founder Chris Spinelli says of his mom, Patty. "So we stick to that motto, and we work on building off of some of the things she taught us."

So far it's going pretty well. Roc Brewing Co. is already winning national attention - just five months after opening its sleek new downtown microbrewery.

"Can't help but smile"

On a recent Friday night, a healthy after-work crowd fills the Roc Brewing Co. "tap room."

The walls are lined with paintings from local artists, the building's massive windows frame the Rochester skyline and behind the bar are the brewery's two co-founders.

"It's a lot of fun - especially when we're packed," the 26-year-old Spinelli says over the din. "You can't help but smile at the end of the night."

The bustling crowd is a far cry from Roc Brewing's humble origins.

In 2009, Spinelli and college friend Jon Mervine reconnected. The way Spinelli tells it, the two were between gigs, trying to figure out what to do with their lives.

"And my mom looks at us and goes, 'That's not going to work for me'," says Spinelli. "She literally said, 'I will pay $100, I will drive you up to Homebrew and Hydroponics and I will buy you a homebrew kit.'"

That's what she did. And soon Spinelli and Mervine were hooked.

"Quickly it consumed our lives," Spinelli says.

The leap

Before long, the two friends were brewing multiple times a week - steadily annexing rooms in the Spinelli family home with homebrewing equipment. 

"All the sudden ... we're producing so much beer that we can't even drink it," Spinelli says. "We're starting to give it to our friends, our friends are raving about it, and we go, 'Could we do this? Could we make a business out of this?'"

The two econ majors did the research and came to an answer: yes.

By August 2010, Spinelli had quit his job as a financial analyst at a local telecommunications company.

Rising stars

Since June 2011, Roc Brewing Co. has been operating out of its South Union Street brewery.

Spinelli says the company is on pace to pump out 600-700 barrels of beer this year. He says they'll be in the 1,200-1,500 barrel range next year.

"Our ultimate goal would be to build a production-based brewery and move towards canning and regional distribution," Spinelli explains. "But obviously that's the 5-to-10 year plan not the 1-to-2 year plan."

For now it's just Spinelli, Mervine and Patty, a three-person company that does it all - including deliveries.

"Right out of my little Honda Civic," Spinelli says.

But the brewery's small size hasn't stopped it from bagging big time accolades.

Just last month, Sam Adams - the company that helped launch the craft beer movement - named Roc Brewing as one of only two small breweries in the country that would receive mentorship and a $10,000 loan.

Spinelli says that honor - as well as the emergence of a handful of other local microbreweries - means the Rochester area may soon compete with the rock stars of the craft beer world.

"There's a lot of ground swell and potential for Rochester to turn into one of these towns like Denver, Colo. or Portland, Ore. or Asheville, N.C. - where people literally come here for beer tourism," says Spinelli.

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