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When the food trucks pull up in front of Roc Brewing Co. to feed the late-night crowd, the microbrewery's owners, Chris Spinelli and Jon Mervine, like to say the kitchen has arrived.
It's another example of the way Rochester's young business owners support each other, they say.
"Rochester is really undertaking a renaissance right now," Mervine says. Adds Spinelli: "It's wonderful to see all the new stuff springing up. We have so many colleges around here. It's really nice to see people stay and make it better."
The little brewery on Union Street, founded in 2010, has become an incubator for a new entrepreneurial spirit bubbling in Rochester. Startup groups like to gather in the tasting room for networking. It's also a destination for college alumni groups, and engineers and architects are drawn to the midcentury modern lines of the former VFW building. (CJS Architects owns the building and occupies the other side.)
The view from Roc Brewing's huge plate-glass front windows is eight lanes of road surface-Union, the Inner Loop and Pitkin Street. Beyond is the back side of the center city. If the Inner Loop's transformation occurs, Roc Brewing will be strategically situated.
"It's definitely fun watching the young, educated movers and shakers come in here and talk business, because it's what we like to do," Spinelli says.
Conversations tend to spark between groups, Mervine says, because there are no televisions in the bar. The lack of beer menus is deliberate; it forces questions and conversation, not only with the staff but with nearby regulars. In fact, some of the clientele are so familiar with operations that they'll jump behind the bar to wash dishes and help out when it's busy.
"It's great to see people take on our passion as their passion," Spinelli says. "We've had loyal followers since day one."
Roc Brewing refreshes the rotation with a couple of beers each month, both old favorites and new introductions. They range from a golden pale ale to a small-batch porter. Through a collaboration with Joe Bean Coffee Roasters, the brewery has produced a series of India pale ales showcasing the blend of beer and coffee. Mervine, the brewmaster, takes delight in defying the expectation that coffee beers must be full-bodied porters or stouts. The first in the series was Kyoto Protocol, a Sumatra IPA. In December the brewery brought back the delicate but intense Drogo's Plight.
"Beer drinkers are often looking for the next, newest thing, and we try to offer that," Mervine says. "We've stuck with styles that you really wouldn't expect. That's something that speaks to the (beer) community."
The ultimate goal is to build a regional production brewery, but Mervine and Spinelli, both 27, are not in a huge hurry to get there. They want to grow their brewery organically, letting word spread from city to city-much like Great Lakes Brewing, which made its way from Cleveland to Erie to Buffalo to Rochester. Spinelli and Mervine pulled back to a half-dozen accounts this year to refocus brands and assess production levels. They hope to start bottling this year and increase Roc Brewing's local reach within the next month to two dozen accounts
Both partners have finance backgrounds and describe their growth strategy as a matter of hedging their bets. Following the advice of more experienced brewers, they have avoided sinking large amounts of capital into equipment. Wholesale production is handled by Rohrbach Brewing; beer served at the brewery is produced on-site. Total barrel production for 2012 was about 500, Spinelli says.
Fellow brewers are supportive with enthusiasm, advice, contacts and feedback. However, the mood on the selling side can be cutthroat. Like patrons on a busy night, breweries jockey for position at the bar. Taps are a finite resource, and bars have brand loyalties.
That's when Mervine says his days of working in finance kick in. Mervine graduated in 2007 with a B.S. in economics from Rochester Institute of Technology. He went to work as an account analyst for Manning & Napier and then held an investment position at Bank of America for four years.
Spinelli earned a B.S. in economics in 2008 and an MBA in finance the following year, both at RIT. The two were hanging out one Sunday afternoon in May 2009, trying to think of something to do, when Spinelli's mother suggested they buy a home brewing kit. The hobby quickly became something more; by December they were running the numbers to open a microbrewery, and two months later they were signing papers to formalize the operation. (Patty Spinelli is the third partner.)
Spinelli and Mervine share duties in selling, manning the bar and cleaning the brewery. Spinelli handles taxes, finances and licensing, and Mervine brews the beer. Both say most of their time is devoted to the brewery. It comes to mind even during sleep.
"When you truly find a passion, there's no time to be scared," Mervine says. "Be 100 percent committed. Do it right. Take that leap of faith."
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