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The high-level negotiations open late on a Friday afternoon, behind closed doors, in an office at Sun King, Indianapolis’s first full-scale production brewery in more than half a century. Clay Robinson and Dave Colt, the founders and creative force behind a brand that has gone from unrecognized to ubiquitous in just four years, sit across from one another, divided by a metal desk and indecision.
The men wear T-shirts and shorts. Not a jacket or tie in sight—none of the business trappings that might give the impression Sun King rang up roughly $5 million in sales last year.
Robinson, 38, swirls a plastic cup of Kolsch 4 Life, a German-style ale that is one of the company’s specialty offerings.
“So, what do you want to do, man?”
Colt, 47, hands folded, forearms resting on his knees, a touch of salt-and-pepper at the temples, leans in. He knows that what the two men decide in this meeting could affect every one of their 40 full-time employees, as well as the way he and Robinson will be viewed by their adoring, beer-consuming public. A crowd of fans is clamoring just a few steps away in the Sun King tasting room, sampling and socializing before leaving to spread the gospel of craft beer.
“Friday,” says Colt. “No—Thursday. Thursday.”
It is done. By decree, next Thursday, at Sun King, is Haircut Day.
“Once every four to six weeks, we’ll call one of our friends—she’s a stylist—and she’ll come in and cut everyone’s hair,” explains Robinson, who has a heavy brown beard and a short, thick crop. “It’s, like, the most gangster thing we do. We even have a red barber’s chair. I always make it a point to have a beer when I’m in the chair getting my hair cut. That way, when someone comes to me for something, I look suuuppper important. It’s like real backroom Italian-restaurant stuff—like we are really running this shit.”
The Mob analogy isn’t a bad one, but it slightly misses the mark. Though Colt does self-deprecatingly refer to himself as the “Don of the Downtown Beer Mafia,” the story of him and Robinson more closely parallels the meth lords of Breaking Bad, the Emmy-winning television series that charts the unlikely rise to power of Walter White, milquetoast high-school chemistry teacher, and Jesse Pinkman, aimless student. Before they met, Colt was a tap jockey and Robinson hopped between a job at a taco joint and excursions to Phish shows. Together, they may not be breaking bad, exactly—the partners are decidedly more legitimate and far less lethal a pair than White and Pinkman. But their company is making good on a no-less-ambitious scheme: to become the house beer of Indianapolis.
Today, that goal is in hand. In fact, Robinson and Colt have far exceeded it. Sun King is the second-largest beer producer in Indiana—and it sells more beer in the state than any other Hoosier brewery. But that isn’t enough for Colt and Robinson. They aren’t in the beer business or the money business. They are in, to steal from Breaking Bad’s most indelible phrase, the empire business.In Indiana, beer is a $1 billion–a–year industry. And, as in every other state, the giant corporate “macro breweries” that produce Budweiser, Miller Lite, and Coors dominate the market. The competition is not even close: Statistically speaking, Americans, and Hoosiers in particular, like crap. Craft beer is among the fastest-growing segments in the business, outpacing overall beer growth by a wide margin. And yet for every 100 beers that people in Indiana drink, craft brewers—the little guys like Sun King—make just 5.6 of them. This puts Indiana way down on the list. The national average is 6.7 percent; in beer-snob states like Oregon, the share approaches 40 percent. Last year, Indiana beer distributors sold more Bud Light Lime-A-Rita and Straw-Ber-Rita—Sprite-ly abominations that make even Zima seem butch—than all Hoosier brews combined.
“Craft” can be a nebulous term, but according to the Brewers Association, a national organization “of brewers, for brewers, and by brewers,” the American craft brewer is: “small” (less than 6 million barrels of beer per year), “independent” (one of the beverage giants owns no more than 25 percent of the company), and “traditional” (predominantly makes malt beers). From A—okay, there are no Hoosier breweries that begin with the letter A—to ZwanzigZ in Columbus, about 50 craft breweries currently call Indiana home. While 5.6 out of every 100 beers sold in the state are craft beers, only about one in 100 is made in Indiana.
Brewpubs aside, the state’s most populous city hadn’t had a production-scale brewery since the Indianapolis Brewing Company closed in 1948. Robinson and Colt figured Indy needed a good beer. They were right. Sun King currently brews about a quarter of the beer that is made in the state and then consumed here, and analysts are bullish its share will grow. “Sun King opened up the consumers’ eyes,” says Jim Schembre, national general manager of World Class Beer, a division of distributor Monarch Beverage that handles craft and specialty brews. “They brought new people to the category, made it pop, and opened up the doors for all of those other people. How many craft breweries have opened here since Sun King? Five? Six? Seven? I don’t even know—I lose track, and I’m a wholesaler.”
Photo: Colt, at left, and Robinson (by Tony Valainis)
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