‘We’re still here’: How New York’s oldest brewery became Rochester’s ‘Rocky’ story
In the late 1990s, the Genesee Brewery was in big trouble.
An outside firm, Platinum Holdings, planned to come in and buy the whole facility that’s had sat just north of High Falls in Rochester since 1878. The plan was to make ethanol and then sell off the Genny beer brand.
A companywide meeting with Platinum leaders in the old cafeteria building, which has since been torn down, was “one of the worst” days in the career of former Genesee brewmaster Mike Mueller.
As the leaders outlined changes to the storied facility, the “chances of the beer production staying in Rochester were slim to none,” recalls Mueller, who retired in 2018 after 41 years with the brewery.
“That was a pretty shocking day,” he added. “A lot of people were worried about their futures.”
But employees’ spirit, resolve and resourcefulness saved the brewery. Some of those workers, led by former executive Tom Hubbard, banded together and bought the brewery in 2000. They kept it afloat.
That kind of stubbornness and determination exhibited by generations of people who have loved the brewery has allowed the brand to endure in Rochester.
“No matter who walked in the door or what they wanted to try to do, the people who worked there were very dedicated, and we did anything that was asked of us,” said Mueller. “If they wanted us to make flavored malt beverages, we found a way to do it, even though we weren’t experienced.”
Genesee Brewery, the state’s oldest and still one of the 10 largest breweries in the country, has been producing beer in Rochester since the late 1800s. Its beers are as iconic to the city’s food and drinks scene as Nick Tahou’s Garbage Plate or Zweigle’s hot dogs.
“The pride in the product and what we did at the brewery was probably the main key to our success over the years,” Mueller said. “The people who stayed were always willing and able to step up.”
Rochester, a beer-brewing city
The story of the Genesee Brewery predates the founding of the brewery itself. Rochester’s brewing history is rich and varied.
In “A Brief History of Brewing in Rochester,” historian Ruth Rosenberg-Naparsteck counted almost 50 breweries in the city before Prohibition, the 13year span in the 1920s and ’30s when drinking alcohol was outlawed in America.
And while some breweries survived the federally mandated shutdown, Genny was the lone one that persevered to the present day.
Charles Rau started the Rau & Reisky Brewery at the current Genny site in 1857. It later became to Reisky & Spies, which has since been immortalized in the name of the Genny Brew House’s barrel-aged old ale.
Mathius Kondolf bought the brewery and renamed it Genesee in 1878. And in 1889, Louis Wehle, basically the father of the modern Genesee brewery, was born.
The same year, English investors purchased stock in three leading Rochester breweries: Genesee, Rochester, and Barholomay, the city’s largest brewery, which is where Wehle’s grandfather and father both worked.
That placed all three breweries under the same ownership, Genesee historian Paul Constantine noted.
Wehle began work at Bartholomay while he was still in high school and was promoted to assistant brewmaster after he completed his studies in 1911.
Kondolf hired Wehle in 1916, and Jack, Wehle’s son, was born later that year on the brewery campus. (In those times, brewmasters lived in quarters at the brewery.) After the 18th Amendment halted all alcohol production in the United States in 1920, Wehle started the Wehle Baking Company, a pioneering venture in the home delivery of fresh baked goods, according to historian Constantine.
Genny tried a number of different things to remain viable during Prohibition, including producing an extract people could purchase to make beer at home.
Wehle eventually sold the baking company and used the proceeds to buy Genesee in 1932, when Prohibition was nearing its end.
As Constantine noted, customers really wanted their Genny beer then.
“People were basically storming the gates,” Constantine joked.
Constantine said Wehle was blown away by the support for the brewery post-Prohibition as the new owner had hoped to sell 100,000 barrels in the first year. The brewery exceeded that by 50,000.
Jack Wehle joined his father at the family business in 1938, and that began decades of Wehle influence. Ted Wehle, Jack’s son, later joined the brewery in 1968.
The brewery released 12 Horse Ale in 1933. (It is still produced today.) That coincided with the introduction and marketing of the 12-horse hitch with the team of Belgian draft roans that became the brewery’s first noteworthy trademark, Constantine said.
In 1960, the brewery made waves with the release of its iconic and influential Genesee Cream Ale, which has seen been recognized as an American standard-bearer and classic. Brewmaster Clarence Geminn masterminded the original cream ale.
When Mueller, the retired brewmaster, started brewing at Genesee in 1977, more innovation soon followed.
Among the first projects he worked on was developing a light beer to compete with Miller Lite. He came from Anheuser- Busch, which was working on Natural Light when he left. His team came up with Genesee Light, a lower calorie, full-flavored lager, and it was released in 1978. Decades later, it is still among the brewery’s flagship offerings.
“We needed to find a light beer that would compete with the market. The magic number was 96 calories, which was the number of calories in Miller Lite,” Mueller said. “And we wanted to make it taste more like beer than light beer. It was a challenge.”
Genny Light hit that magic number.
Mueller said the team found inspiration in a Genesee beer from the 1940s called Trim.
Geminn’s son, Gary, also a Genesee brewmaster, came up with the gamechanging J.W. Dundee Honey Brown lager after brewery chairman Jack Wehle wanted a beer brewed with honey.
Even though it became a publicly traded company, the brewery was controlled and guided by the Wehles for nearly 70 years.
A future that almost wasn’t
The brewery, under the Wehle family, was exploring options for its future. One alternative included restructuring, while another could’ve included a divestiture of its assets. (The Wehle family legacy continues to this day at the museum it founded, the Genesee Coun-