When Sun King Brewery sold their first kegs of beer in 2009, they were making history. Up until then, there hadn’t been a full-scale production brewery in Indianapolis since 1948. Today, there are over 40.
They’ve been at the forefront of beer in Indianapolis since their inception eight years ago and haven’t looked back. From their GABF gold medal-winning Sunlight Cream Ale to their commitment to package their products with 100% aluminum, Sun King is always innovating, improving, and honing their craft.
Today, Sun King is the second-largest craft brewery in Indiana, producing around 36,000 barrels of beer a year. And over the last eight years, they’ve lobbied to change state laws, won beer medals, created their own beer festival, and brewed countless collaboration beers with other breweries. Not too shabby. We went down to Indianapolis for the day to chat with Co-Founder and Owner, Clay Robinson, about the brewery and why they can’t wait to sell beer here in Chicago.
Lakeshore Beverage: Sun King Brewery has only sold beer in Indiana up until now, why Chicago? Why now?
Clay Robinson: We’re eight now, and as we’ve grown, we’ve grown pretty rapidly and every time we made more beer, the people of Indiana drank it up. We’ve always been very cautious about expanding. But finally between a combination of law changes and capacity expansions, we hit this point where we felt comfortable and had enough beer to do this. There’s a number of people who really love our product in Chicago — whatever their relationship to Indiana is. Whether they lived here, worked here, or went to school here, I think there’s a market for Sun King up there.
The relationship we’ve built with Lakeshore is really good, too. We’ve taken time to get to know each other and spend time together. Our goals are fairly modest — we want to make beer available and keep it fresh. We want to be in the right places; we don’t need to be everywhere. It also presents more opportunities to go to Chicago and do fun stuff.
Lakeshore Beverage: OK, let’s backtrack a bit. How did you first get into brewing?
Clay Robinson: In 1999, I was 24 years old and I started waiting tables at Rock Bottom in downtown Indianapolis. It was the only place that wouldn’t make me shave my beard or cut my hair to work there. And a couple months in, I met one of the brewers and that was kind of my “light bulb moment” I guess.
I was like, “Holy shit, this guy gets paid to make beer – I want that job.”
So I started asking a lot of questions and tried to learn as much as I could. An assistant brewer job became available a few months later and I got it. I then went on to become the head brewer and worked there for about four years.
Lakeshore Beverage: When you opened in 2009, Sun King was the first production brewery to operate in Indianapolis since 1948 — did people think you were crazy?
Clay Robinson: When my partner Dave [Colt] and I started telling people what we were doing, the main question we got was, “Is it a brewpub?” and when we said no, they said there was no way we’d ever sell any beer.
Greater Indianapolis had a handful of brewpubs at the time, so if you wanted local beer you had to go to a brewpub. There was actually no identifiable local craft beer elsewhere. So that became our idea – ditch the pub and create a brewery that would serve local beer to bars and restaurants all across the city.
Lakeshore Beverage: And how has the city changed in the last eight years since you opened?
Clay Robinson: There’s definitely been a renaissance of entrepreneurs and independent businesses in Indianapolis in the last 8-10 years. The city itself has put in a massive investment in walking trails and biking trails and connectivity of our various neighborhoods which has been fantastic.
I think we also grossly underestimated the demand for local beer just based on our growth numbers over the years. We grew 100% and then 50% then 40% then 30%. Five-or-so thousand barrels worth of growth each year. I think our example of people’s excitement in local craft beer inspired others to follow their dreams and open breweries or other local businesses.
Lakeshore Beverage: Let’s talk about Sunlight Cream Ale. I imagine I’d be hard-pressed to find accounts around Indianapolis without that beer available.
Clay Robinson: I like to joke it’s the national beer of Indiana, ha. It was actually originally our summer seasonal when we first opened. We wanted something approachable and refreshing for these hot Indiana summers. So we talked about a lot of ideas and cream ale came up, kind of a nostalgic American beer that had sort of faded away. Cream ales will traditionally have adjuncts like corn in them but we chose oats instead which gives it a bit more mouthfeel.
So we made it that first summer and it sold really well. When we told people at the tasting room we were going to cycle it out for the fall, they were like, “Please don’t stop making that beer!” So we didn’t. And now it’s 40% of all of our beer sales.
It’s the beer I always tell people if your mother, brother, cousin, or uncle doesn’t like craft beer, you should be able to hand them a can of Sunlight Cream Ale and have them go, “Oh wow, this is really delicious,” or “I didn’t know craft beer was good. I expected this to be horrible.”
Lakeshore Beverage: All your packaged beer is 100% in aluminum cans, even the barrel aged stuff. Why is that?
Clay Robinson: When we wrote the original business plan, one of the thoughts was that if we ever package our beer, we’re going into cans. Dave and I both had beer can collections when we were teenagers so we both had a fondness for cans and for both of us, there was a little bit of nostalgia surrounding that. We had it built into the business plan for a couple years down the road. But when we opened in the summer of 2009 and saw the tremendous response, we changed things up and decided to go into cans sooner so we ended up launching cans in April 2010.
During our first few years we started a barrel-aging program and a wild-fermentation cellar and were creating these really delicious and sought-after beers. So eventually we realized we needed to figure out a way to package and release them in cans. Eventually we found that Ball Corporation makes a re-sealable 16 oz. can, called “The Alumi-Tek“. So in 2011, we worked with Ball, Cask – which is our canning line manufacturer, and Oskar Blues to create the world’s first re-sealable aluminum bottle packaging line for the craft beer industry. It’s a super small, super slow machine that takes six people to can six cans a minute and we hand sticker each and every one.
As I like to say, cans deliver draft-like quality freshness to your mouth every…single…time.
Lakeshore Beverage: Finally, you guys started your own beer festival here in Indy — tell us about that.
Clay Robinson: Every September we host the CANvitational which is our invitational craft can beer festival. We started it five years ago as a way to invite breweries from around the country to come to Indianapolis and visit and have fun. It’s actually part of a totally different agenda that we have which is to get the Craft Brewer’s Conference here someday. But every time we talk to someone about it they’re like, “Nobody wants to go to Indianapolis.” So we invite all these brewers from around the country to Indy and show them a really good time. It’s kind of a PR stunt I guess. That, and a reason to throw a great party.
But anyways, every year we do a collaboration with a different brewery for it. We’ve done a 3 Floyds collaboration, Rhinegeist, Solemn Oath, and varying ones around the country. The Rev folks have become good friends of ours and we’ve wanted to do a project together for a while now so this year we’re doing it with them.
We started talking about what beer we should brew and through our conversations, we realized we were both part of this super secret hop trial with one of our hop providers. So the beer that’s coming out is called Double 00 Session IPA and we’re using these new top secret hop products that our supplier has. It will debut September 9th at the CANvitational and then be available in Indiana and up there in Chicago, too.
Chicago Launch: August 21
Starting August 21, you’ll be able to find Sun King Brewery’s lineup of award-winning beers at retailers throughout Chicagoland. For a list of all the launch events and tastings, please click HERE.
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