Graduates on tap to be successful brewers

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A. Sue Weisler

Chris Spinelli, left, and Jon Mervine have turned their passion for brewing beer into a business.

Patty Spinelli got tired of her son, Chris, and his friend, Jon Mervine, wasting the day away on her living room couch. So she bought a home brewing kit to give them something to do.

That was in 2009 and now Chris Spinelli ’08, ’09 (economics, MBA) and Mervine ’07 (economics) are making a name for their Roc Brewing Co. in downtown Rochester. Their beer is sold in more than 15 Rochester bars and restaurants and their microbrewery attracts crowds of several hundred on weekend nights.

The men also are beginning to get national recognition. Last fall, they were named one of two winners of the Samuel Adams Brewing the American Dream Experienceship Award—an impressive feat for a brewery that will celebrate its first anniversary in June.

Mervine and Chris Spinelli have been friends since they met in business classes at RIT in 2005. After graduating, Mervine became an investment broker and Spinelli worked as a financial analyst.

Within a month after that first attempt with the kit, the friends were brewing two to three batches a weekend, taking over the kitchen, basement, living room and garage of the Spinelli home.

The challenge then became what to do with the beer, now made from their own recipes. Each batch resulted in about 65 glasses. They gave it away to friends and family, who praised their brewing skills. Their weekend hobby also was getting costly, and Patty Spinelli wanted her kitchen back.

“We were ambitious and young and thought right away we could do this,” says Chris Spinelli. “By the time we were into our 20th to 30th batch, we were committed to starting a company out of it.”

They researched the legal side of opening a brewery, wrote a business plan, found investors, established an advisory board and rented a building with floor-to-ceiling windows at 56 S. Union St. in Rochester. Spinelli quit his job in August 2010. Mervine, the brew master, or “mad scientist” as Spinelli likes to call him, followed six months later.

Mervine has come up with more than 50 beers, including seasonal varieties such as the Belgium Pumpkin Spiced Ale and the Chicory Cherry Porter. Their house pale ale is called Union 56, named after the brewery’s address. Each batch of Union 56 is brewed with a different blend of hops to give it a unique taste.

“How many things can you be passionate about in life?” asks Mervine. “When I came across brewing, I knew this was it.”

The Samuel Adams award is helping the men share their passion with others. In the fall, the men attended the Great American Brewing Festival in Denver. Samuel Adams brewers also are coaching them as part of a mentoring program.

They continue to get advice from Spinelli’s parents. Financial backer Patty Spinelli is director of dining services and a former director of human resources at RIT. Bob Spinelli ’86 (MBA) teaches business courses as an adjunct professor at Rochester-area colleges, including RIT.

They hope to eventually can or bottle the beer but in the meantime will focus on growing the number of customers who visit the tasting room, which is open on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings and by appointment. Last year, they produced nearly 300 barrels of beer. This year, the brewers want to double that.

Patty Spinelli says the men were well prepared to start their own business because of their education. From her perspective, they are already successful—and she no longer has to worry about them sitting around doing nothing.

“You don’t want to look back and have regrets,” she says. “They are young entrepreneurs with good degrees who understand the risks. This is their opportunity to pursue a dream.”