On Black Friday 2015 Willow Rock Brewing Co. opened its doors. Brewers and co-owners Rockney Roberts and Kevin Williams had stocked up on beers such as Batch 1, a crisp hoppy blonde ale; IPA (later to be named Secret); a brown ale named Jim; and a pale ale called Orange 44. With Kevin and Rockney’s years of brewing together, their partnership had crafted a flavor profile for clean, crisp, quality American ales.
Kevin and Rockney first met as a young hockey player and a zamboni driver at the Twin Rinks in Cicero, New York. Later, they became friends after coincidentally becoming college roommates. On time off from school, they traveled with friends along the East Coast, discovering great beers and breweries. Kevin was the lead man for selecting brewery destinations, while Rockney started crafting the brewery’s future flavor profile.
“When we began the process of opening up this business we wanted to differentiate ourselves from what was going on in Syracuse and get unique takes and ideas behind some classic styles,” Kevin says.
“We wanted to gain a solid knowledge of styles and then experiment from there,” Rockney says. “For instance, our Secret IPA blends techniques from West Coast, East Coast and Northeast-style IPAs to create an homage to all the different types of IPA made in America. There’s nothing inherently experimental about this, but when you start to make saisons with lavender and hibiscus, you’re branching out a little bit more.”
“There’s nothing inherently experimental about this, but when you start to make Saisons with lavender and hibiscus, you’re branching out a little bit more,” he adds.
When Kevin received a brewing kit for Christmas one year, he quickly fell in love with brewing and started recruiting friends – Rockney quickly took up the hobby. From the beginning, they took the craft seriously, educating themselves about the details in creating high-quality beers and a brewery business. Kevin loved the process and the social aspect while Rockney dug into the science and creativity.
“One of my favorite things is seeing the smiles on people’s faces when they’ve tasted something they like,” Kevin says. “It may be corny, but it’s the end game of a great brew day and taking proper care of the entire process from start to finish.”
“Brewing is equal parts art and science and being able to creatively tap into both is the allure of being a brewer. There are thousands of unique and interesting herbs, spices, fruits and flavors just waiting to be folded into a good beer,” Rockney says. “For all the excellent brewers and beers out there, there’s still a lot of room for exploration and that’s very exciting.”
In 2009, the drafts of their first business plan started to take shape. That year, Rockney met an audacious businessman in the Buffalo, New York, area, who starting planting hops for a farm that would eventually be harvested for the future brewery. In 2011, Kevin and Rockney traveled to Denver, Colorado, to purchase their three-barrel brewing system.
The next steps were the hardest, as the two brewers searched for a building. In wasn’t until 2014 that they finally signed a lease for the 115 Game Road location in Syracuse, New York. With its glass-enclosed tasting room, anti-slip tiles, large floor drains and radiant solar heating, it was the ideal facility to start their brewery. The name Willow Rock manifested through Kevin’s last name, Williams, and Rockney’s first name.
“We want to help bring more great beer to Syracuse. The dream of brewing is to make a quality product that people love to drink and that’s the goal we set for ourselves with every beer we make,” Rockney says.
“I wanted to share my craft and my passion with people. I always loved brewing and sharing my beer with friends and family,” Kevin says. ” I wanted to take the next step, making something that I loved doing my profession and share it with more people.”
In the July 2016, the brewery started distributing kegs to local Syracuse bars and restaurants and as of August 2016, the brewery had been licensed for brewing for a full year and served 40-plus batches of its signature and seasonal brews.
“It’s such a great area to live in with so much character,” Kevin says. “It would be great when people think Willow Rock, they think Syracuse, and when people think Syracuse, they think Willow Rock.”
“Our overall goal is to be part of a great Syracuse beer scene and we’re just starting to find ourselves getting in the mix,” Rockney says. “We want Syracuse to become an East Coast destination for great beer.”
Already looking to expand, Willow Rock Brewing Co. is following a well-worn path from local to regional brewery and the owners look forward to bringing packaged products to all corners of New York state.
“Brewing is about being creative and we want that to come through in our products,” says Rockney. “Every brewer is a beer drinker too and we want to push the envelope to make new and exciting beers alongside approachable interpretations of well-known favorable styles.”