Roc Brewing solid after two years

Image By Mark Tichenor

When Jon Mervine and Chris Spinelli opened the ROC Brewing Company in 2011 on the outskirts of Rochester’s East End, they didn’t have a ton of commercial brewing experience, but they did have a distinct vision, a truckload of chutzpah, and a plan to carve out a small niche in an industry dominated by much bigger regional and national players.

So far, so good. The brewpub is poised to celebrate their second anniversary, and their beer is better than ever.

If there’s one thing Mervine and Spinelli do not feel the need to do, it’s try and grow too fast. With most of their sales coming from within the brewpub, the current brewing system is adequate, if labor-intensive. One plan currently in the works, however, is the creation of an outdoor beer garden-style seating area.

Spinelli and Mervine have tackled the problem of limited in-house kitchen space in an innovative manner– by partnering with area food trucks to move the cooking, and a wider variety, just outside the brewpub’s front door.

Brewing commercially with a one-barrel brewhouse is like a never-ending boot camp. In order to produce saleable volume, Brewer Mervine has to make beer pretty much every day. When you do it that often, you get quickly get good.

“I feel extremely comfortable,” Mervine says. A personal quest for me is challenging myself every time I go to brew.”

For Mervine, that challenge can be in designing the unique “Don’t Fear the RIPA” (A silky India Pale Ale brewed with an absurd amount of Rye), or in tweaking ROC’s elegant and understated Golden Ale, with its hints of apple and biscuit.

The ROC Brewing Company’s standout, however, remains the Dark Mild. It’s a fluent crossing of mild ale and milk stout–two styles that just don’t find a lot of favor in the American craft world.

Dark Mild gives you the whiskey and vanilla notes of an oak aged imperial stout, but pulls the alcohol punch, leading up to a creamy, but clean finish. What really makes it stand out, however, is it’s surprising amount of body for a low-alcohol session beer. All too often, these tend to be thin, with bold flavors like vanilla just petering out to nothing. Dark Mild manages to stand up and really give the drinker some substance.

The brewery is celebrating its two year anniversary with a limited-release IPA series: Big DIPA double IPA, Li’l SIPA India Pale Ale, and Down Unda IPA, which will use all southern hemisphere (read: Australian and New Zealand) hops.

ROC Brewing is participating in two major events during Rochester Real Beer Week: The third annual Rochester Real Beer Expo, on Gregory Street June 15, and The Old Toad Cask Beer Festival on June 23, to which they’ll be bringing Union 56, a light, straw-colored, estery bitter based on West Coast pale ale, but decidedly more mild.

Mervine is bullish, not only on the health of his brewery, but on the growing number of craft area craft breweries and the creation of a real Rochester beer scene. “I think we really started pushing each other a little bit more, and we’re going to see twice the amount of breweries in the future.”

“Every beer has a story,” Mervine says with a smile. So far, the Roc Brewing Co. has had a pretty good story as well.

Mark owns a laptop and likes beer. For more on beer, check out the beercraft blog, updated regularly, at Find him on Twitter @beercraft. Send your questions, suggestions, or comments to


Fairport Brewing Company grows to fit its village

FBCThe Rochester area’s smallest commercial brewery is expanding.


The one-year-old Fairport Brewing Company, which produces its beers one half-barrel at a time, is renovating the old Pure Oil service station at the corner of Fairport Road and South Main Street in Fairport Village. The new facility will serve as a tasting and retail room, freeing up space at their existing Turk Hill Park facility to increase production capacity.


The expansion is a case study in how thirsty people are for local beer. In addition to making their own investments, and banging the turf hosting beer samplings around town, partners Tim Garman and Paul Guarracini turned to the crowdfunding website Kickstarter to raise capital for the new building and new brewing equipment. With six days to go at the time of this writing, the campaign exceeded its funding goal, leaving a smile on Garmin’s drywall dust-stained face.


So now it’s business as usual for the self-described “picobrewers,” as they continue to pump out six taps worth of beer at a time, along with the added responsibilities of opening the new shop and figuring out how to shoehorn a newly ordered  three-barrel brewing system into their current boutique-size space.


Nanobrewing (or picobrewing in this case) is the latest wave of growth in the brewing industry. Brewing on an extremely small scale obviates the massive capital investment costs of the typical craft brewery, but the low output of beer makes it hard to grow a commercial customer base and expand the business.


Fairport Brewing works on the latter problem by brewing several times a day. Guarracini, an award-winning veteran of the Rochester homebrewing scene, serves as the company’s brewmaster but is canny enough not to try to do it all himself. Unusually for a nanobrewery, FBC took on two part-time brewers, allowing for shift changes and extra hands to take care of unglamorous but critical tasks like cleaning and sanitation.


Garman and Guarracini have also learned to use the brewery’s low output as an advantage, using the small system’s flexibility to gush forth a dizzying array of creative beers and keeping them in a constant rotation in their six-tap retail area. FBC beers span a wide gamut, from powerful double IPAs to a soon-to-be-released Kölsch. Many of these are quite good, and almost all of them are solid, respectable craft beers.


The new retail space is a result of Garman, a lifelong Fairport local, staying true to his vision of slow, organic growth. Apart from the occasional guest tap at Fairport bars and restaurants, it will be the only place to buy FBC beer for the time being. The new brewery may change that however, more than tripling capacity. Even when regular retail keg distribution becomes a possibility, Garmin still holds to his “think Fairport” approach.


So far, that strategy paid off. Not only have Garman and Guarracini built the foundations of a dream for themselves, but they’ve earned the respect and trust of Fairporters who are proud to have their own local brewery, and they created a few jobs along the way. It looks like someone else is about to become New York State’s smallest brewery, because Fairport Brewing Company just got a little bigger.


Mark owns a laptop and likes beer. For more on beer, check out the beercraft blog, updated regularly, at Find him on Twitter @beercraft. Send your questions, suggestions, or comments to



Column: Pilsner on the patio: perfect

by Mark Tichenor


Now that the warmer weather is being forcibly dragged out into the open, maybe it’s time we sit down on a sunny patio and consider what the perfect summer beer might be. The answer, of course, is pilsner, a historic and much-revered style from Europe that gets unfairly maligned in craft beer circles on this side of the pond.


This is primarily because pilsner is a crisp, clean yellow lager. It was the principal type of beer adapted by immigrant German brewers in the 19th century, and it became the model upon which mainstream American beers were more than loosely based. As a result, the term ‘Pilsner’ became a descriptor for the blandest of bland beer.


Pilsner also found little love among craft brewers. It’s a technically difficult beer to brew, and the clean flavor magnifies flaws or shortcuts in the process. As a lager, it  also needs to spend more time in the tanks than rapidly fermenting ales, and thus costs more money to produce. While you can find absolutely stunning North American craft pilsners, they are still few and far between.


It remains difficult to pinpoint Pilsner’s characteristics, since even the Germans tend to infuriatingly refer to every kind of beer as ‘Pils.’ Broadly, the style divides into two types: Czech and German. Czech pils is the original and most famous; indeed, the style was originally developed in the Czech town of Pilsen, hence the name. As the story goes, the poor burghers of Pilzen were sick and tired of bad beer, so to show their displeasure they theatrically dumped it all out (Call it the ‘‘Pilsen Beer Party”), invested in a new brewery, and hired a Bavarian brewer used to working with the newfangled lager yeast to come over and create the town brew. Bang! Pilsner.


Ranging from medium to light amber in color, with an attractive soapy head, it has a medium body and a slightly sweet buiscuity grain character, followed by the Pilsner trademark, a quick, butter Saaz hop kick in the finish that fades away leaving just the ghost of an aftertaste.


The prime example of Czech pilsner is Pilsner Urquell, a descendent of the original beer brewed in Bohemia back in 1842. Czechvar is also very well known, although more for its famous unsuccessful intellectual property battle with Anheuser-Busch which didn’t think that a beer originally named ‘Budweiser ’ or ‘Budvar’ since 1785 had any right to use the that name.


The German take is a little different. It retains the big, foamy head, with a noticeably lighter pale straw color and a cleaner flavor. The hop kick is also much more powerful than in the Czech stuff. A good rule of thumb is, the further north in Germany you travel, the more bitter the hop finish. Until American craft brewing, the pilsner made by East Frisian brewer Jever (pronounced YAY-ver, should you want to suavely order one at the pub) ranked as one of the hoppiest beers in the world.


Jever remains the most prominently exported North German pils, although you can find notable examples, such as Dinkel Acker CD Pils from Stuttgart and Radeberger from Frankfurt, as well as a slew of borderline quasi pilsners (Beck’s, Veltins, St. Pauli Girl) that blur the line between purist style and mass-market blandness in pursuit of the almighty Euro.


On these shores, the Victory Brewing Company of Downingtown, Pennsylvania reigns as the champion of pilsner, producing both a German style (Prima Pils) and a Czech (Braumeister Pils). Needless to say, these are both excellent and a worth addition to any summertime cookout. Sly Fox Brewing of Phoenixville PA also produces the standout Pikeland Pils, which has the added bonus of coming in handy cans.

Pilsners are at their best when the mercury starts rising and the sweat starts flowing; no other style quenches and refreshes quite as thoroughly, or goes as well with a home-grilled meal enjoyed out on the patio. They’re also fantastic ‘lawnmower beers’ for consumption as you do summer yardwork,  although it is recommended that you not begin their consumption until you are done using the heavy bladed equipment.


Mark owns a laptop and likes beer. For more on beer, check out the beercraft blog, updated regularly, at Find him on Twitter @beercraft. Send your questions, suggestions, or comments to

Drink locally or think globally?

by Mark Tichenor

Finger Lakes Region beer lovers rejoice! Another legendary brewery is entering our area. Founders Brewing of Grand Rapids, Michigan, will be on tap in Rochester this May.

That’s a big win; Founders’ beer is consistently some of the best and most highly rated in the country. Currently it’s sought after by beer traders, and many a Rochesterian visitor to the Midwest is pestered to bring a trunkload home for friends. But the imminent arrival of Founders also gives some pause for thought and reflection about our own local beer, as well as the direction of the craft beer industry.

National, or at least regional, distribution is crucial to an ambitious craft brewery’s success. A beermaking operation is an expensive small business to start up and run, and many places simply don’t have the market size in their home regions to expand. Getting the beer to other markets is often the necessary solution.

We crazy beer lovers benefit from that necessity, and from the fact that there’s a mad-effecient distribution structure already set up to handle it. Because of this, you can walk into the right small-town pub and pick up a menu of the best American beers. Stone Brewing, Green Flash, Victory, Lagunitas, and now Founders. It’s a dilemma just to choose.

But there’s a downside as well. Having easy access to beers from every region makes the beers, well, a bit less special. Things homogenize; they’re no longer rare treats, rather just some more beers on the tapline. It also takes away some of the joys of vacation. Travel is a bit less fun when the unique tastes of a city on the other side of the continent are familiar to you from your barstool back home.

This national distribution also adds a huge weight of competition for our local brewers. That is as it should be. It prevents complacency among our own scene and awakens the creative fire in our local brewmasters.

In that sense, it’s gratifying to see how adeptly our guys can hang with the big boys. From Jamestown to Canandaigua, brewers in Western New York and the Finger Lakes are producing more exciting beer than ever before, beer that can stack up, sip for sip, to anything the glitzy rock star breweries can keg and ship.

So bring it on, Founders Brewing. We Rochester beer lovers welcome you with open arms and open taps. We will rejoice in your deliciousness. Just don’t be surprised if, at some point, a Finger Lakes brewery succeeds in creating something just a tad more special.

In other beers:
The Rohrbach Brewing Company is reviving their Brewtopia series of beer socials, complete with talks given by the brewers and an insight into Rochester’s beer history. You can join them at the Railroad Street brewery as they pair their own beer and that of the Roc Brewing Company with tasty, tasty food on April 25th. The cost is $12. More information is available at (585) 594-9800 or at rohrbachs. com

There’s a new startup in the works. The Fairport Brewing Company jumped some major hurdles on its path to opening for business, receiving their Federal license. Tom and Tim recently held their first community sampling at the Fairport Village Inn, and will surely be doing more of that around the area. Find them at

Mark owns a laptop and likes beer. For more on beer, check out the beercraft blog, updated regularly, at Find him on Twitter @beercraft. Send your questions, suggestions, or comments to

3 Heads Brewing looks back on a year in the business

by Mark Tichenor

in early 2010, three friends took a giant leap. Buoyed by unshakable confidence that the beer they brewed at home was world-class, Dan Nothnagle, Todd Dirrgl and Geoff Dale surmounted the last in a long line of bureaucratic hurdles and 3 Heads Brewing was born.

Fourteen months later, Dale seems pleasantly dumbstruck by how far his beer has come. Not only is it all over Rochester, but you can even get a bottle of 3 heads in Chicago or Boston, where it sells steadily despite being a relative unknown on shelves full of Dogfish Heads and Victorys. For Dale, the growth of 3 heads is a journey, and he still has a long way to go.

“I feel like, we’ve finally reached the point where we’re not getting surprised. We’ve sort of dealt with how the industry works,” he explains, reflecting back on the challenges of building the business from the ground up. “The first year was sort of tough because we all dealt with stuff we haven’t done before.”

Dale is quick to praise his local community and retailers for being supportive as they learned how to schedule their brews, get label approval, and cope with initial demand that was higher, and lasted longer, than projected.

He credits that to the high quality of his beer, and to being friendly, approachable and genuine. “Look at me,” he says. I’m in a dirty hoodie because I’m out delivering kegs. My sales pitch is, we’re drinking some beers” he chuckles.

3 heads partnership with CB’s Brewery also factors into their success. Although long term plans are to open their own facility, all their beer is currently brewed at CB’s in Honeoye Falls. “We’ve really strengthened our partnership with them. We’ve become their biggest customer and they’ve invested in new equipment to meet our demand” Dale says.

Until this point, 3 heads beer has been big and on the strong side (their flagship IPA, “The Kind,” is that dangerous sort of beer that might not pack the hardest raw alcohol punch, but compensates by being deceptively easy to drink). The guys aren’t shy about whimsical flavors, the (bacony smoked-maple “Bromigo”) or style combinations (“Loopy” is an oatmeal-red ale). Every quarter sees an fun, experimental and often downright exciting new seasonal beer. With their next release, “The Common Man,” 3 heads is ready to move in a different direction.

“The Common Man” will be a take on a celebrated American style that’s really only regularly brewed by San Fransisco’s Anchor Brewery. Anchor calls it steam beer (and no one else can or they’ll hear from Anchor’s lawyers), but  the broader term is California Common Ale.

“Now we’re coming out with our accessible beer,” Dale explains, and he’s not afraid to speak boldly. “It is the beer that is going to unite the everyday beer drinker and the beer snob. It’s a beer that will cross all those boundaries. It’s going to change who we are as a company.”

Mark owns a laptop and likes beer. For more on beer, check out the beercraft blog, updated regularly, at Find me on Twitter @beercraft. Send your questions, suggestions, or comments to

ROC Brewing brings youth and ambition to the scene

by Mark Tichenor

The ROC Brewing Company has come a long way in eight short months. It’s remarkable considering brewer Jonathan Mervine never worked in a commercial brewery, having gone from homebrewing to brewery co-founder.

That’s a tough hurdle to jump, and some of the fledgling brewery’s beers aren’t quite there yet, but daily labor over his small brewing system, and fundamentally moving into the brewery, has allowed Mervine to develop rapidly as a brewer. It’s evident in the ever-increasing quality of the beer.

ROC Brewing was an audacious venture from the start. Mervine and his partner, Chris Spinelli, pretty much came out of nowhere, opening up in a glitzy glass-fronted building and brushing aside the hurdles one would expect to surmount when opening an alcohol production facility in business-friendly Rochester, NY. But strong support from the local beer community and a knack for shoehorning themselves into local media allowed the brewery a strong start out of the gate.

Mervine and Spinelli also caught the attention of the Boston Beer Company (brewers of Sam Adams), who awarded them a $10,000 loan and brewing mentoring under their “Experienceship” program.

Currently, their tap room is open three days a week, and ROC Brewing Co. LLC beer is on tap at 15 bars and restaurants around town.

That’s a lot of beer for a one-barrel brewhouse, so ROC Brewing established a partnership with the Rohrbach Brewing Company to produce their flagship golden ale. In house, Mervine focuses on specialty styles, expanding his brewing range and fluency with each subsequent batch.

To date the pinnacle is ROC Brewing Belgian Blonde, which hits all the benchmarks of the style, from the grapefruit and clove notes to the earthy funk in the swallow. The beer promises a more rounded fruit character that doesn’t quite show itself, but satisfies as a well-balanced, beyond-competent blonde ale in the mold of Duvel or Afflingen. Its ruddy amber color also satisfies the eye, the head leaving attractive lace patters as you happily quaff. One to seek out.

I’m a sucker for oatmeal stout; I love how the deep, almost cola-like malt flavor combines with that silky finish from the oats added to the mash. It would have been nice to get a bit more of that silkiness out of ROC Brewing Oatmeal stout, but that’s just a quibble.

As you’d expect, the beer pours black, with a creamy tannish head that dissipates after just a few moments. It’s very sweet, and slightly cloying but hardly overwhelming. There’s a ton of vanilla both in the nose and on the palate. Overall, the Oatmeal Stout works as a solid, uncomplicated beer that does best by not trying to do too much.

ROC Brewing is still very young, and thus has a ways to go on the path to greatness, but these are solid beers, with distinctive character that shines because of, not despite, their simplicity, and, like Polaroid pictures, they develop further with each subsequent batch. It’s evident in the final product that Mervine and Spinelli have ambition, passion, and a can-do attitude which suggests that, in the long run, the only thing limiting these guys might be the physical dimensions of the brewery itself.

Mark owns a laptop and likes beer. For more on beer, check out the beercraft blog, updated regularly, at Find me on Twitter @beercraft. Send your questions, suggestions, or comments to

Beercraft Newspaper Column #56: Low alcohol, big flavor


Low Alcohol, Big flavor
By Mark Tichenor and Bruce Lish

So how were you feeling under the harsh dawn of New Year’s Day?

A bad hangover, which some of you readers undoubtedly had, can put a person off of alcoholic beverages for quite a while, and rightly so. A hangover is a message from your brain that you were drinking in an irresponsible fashion.

One of the trends in craft beer over the past few years has been to make the occurrence of those hangovers much more likely. Strong beer has been king. The alcohol content of craft brew by volume usually tops 6%, and routinely spikes over 8%. Some of the strongest “extreme” beers pack an alcoholic punch eclipsing wine, up to 22% alcohol by volume in some cases.

These are fine, but it’s difficult to have more than two of these alcohol-bombs and still remain socially acceptable. Fortunately, and especially if you’re cool with drinking imports, there’s a whole range of commonly available beers that offer huge flavor while treading a bit more lightly on the old liver. If you’re planning a longer night out, you can’t go wrong with any of the following.

We’ll start with the obvious session beer: Guinness Irish Stout. Imposing, nearly opaque black, and bursting with dry, nutty, roasty flavor, Guinness does much to explode the myth that high alcoholic content is necessary for a satisfying beer.

Guinness is the beer we use to free beer newbies from their preconceptions. Many people believe that darker beer is stronger and heavier. But the only thing that makes Guinness dark is the roasting of the malt before brewing. A heavy roast results in grain that’s nearly black in color, and the use of this grain in brewing gives Guinness its inky, seductive hue.

Take a look at the numbers. The black beast of Dublin clocks in at 4.2% alcohol by volume, the same as a Bud Light. At 220 calories per pint, Guinness isn’t murder on the waistline either.

Of course, the flavor of Guinness isn’t for everybody. If you prefer a crisper, lighter, clean-tasting beer, a Pilsner might be just the thing. Pilsner Urquell, from the Czech Republic, is the original Pilsner beer (it’s brewed in the town of Pilsen). Over the years, the term “Pilsner” has become bastardized to refer to any light colored lager.

But the original Urquell is packed with flavor. You can taste the sweet malt in each sip, bready, yet light on the tongue. As you swallow, that clean sweetness rounds into a gentle bitterness imparted by Czech Saaz hops, lingering on the back of the tongue and inviting another sip.

Urquell is refreshing enough to drink outside on a hot day, complex enough to stand up to most food pairings, and, at 4.4% alcohol, light enough to make it your “go-to” beer when out with friends.

Our third suggestion comes from the Rhine river town of Cologne (spelled ‘Koeln’ in German). The city’s breweries are famous for their Koelsch- a slightly sweet, light colored low-alcohol ale that serves as an accompaniment to many meals and an excellent social lubricant in the evenings. It’s not the easiest style to find in Rochester, but Gaffel Kolsch has recently been on tap at the Tap and Mallet, and is available bottled at Beers of the World.

While Gaffel Koelsch is in fact an ale, its clean flavor and grassy body seem very lager-like. The key to this beer is balance, with neither the hops nor the malt dominating the flavor. Instead they combine to impart a gentle spiciness with noticeably grain and floral aroma.

Gaffel checks in at an underwhelming 4.8% alcohol, making it a good choice if you’re planning to have multiple brews over the course of an evening.

So who says you have to compromise? Pick one of these beers, or really pretty much any Irish stout, Koelsch, or Pilsner, and you can be assured you’re drinking a beverage that’s absolutely delicious, and is likely to split your bladder prior to splitting your skull. High alcohol content is great from time to time, but moderation hurts less in the morning.

In other beers

The annual Scottsville Ice Arena Winterfest is taking place on Saturday, January 19th, from 5pm to midnight. Included in the $10 admission is a beer and wine tasting from 7-9pm. Head on over to darkest Scottsville and sample the finest from Southern Tier, Rohrbach, Brooklyn Brewery and many more fantastic New York State craft brewers. There’s also music provided by The Meddling Kids and Random Act, and by you if you bring bongos and join the rhythm-optional drum circle.

Bruce is a certified beer judge and commercial brewer. Mark owns a laptop and likes beer. For more on beer, check out the beercraft blog, updated regularly, at Send your questions, suggestions, or comments to