Empire of the Sun Kings

The city’s first production-scale brewery in 60 years is fast becoming Indiana’s most beloved beer brand. Are founders Dave Colt and Clay Robinson selling out? No way. They’re just getting started.

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.

“Then it hit me like a ton of bricks,” says Robinson. “‘Let’s just make beer.'”

“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.”
In the parlance of Hollywood, the Robinson-Colt collaboration began with a two-part meet-cute.
Part I went like this: Sometime in the late 1990s, not long after Robinson graduated from Wabash College, he loaded up a Volkswagen Westfalia and drove it toward Deer Creek (now Klipsch) Music Center in Noblesville for a Phish concert. At the time, Robinson was living at home with his parents in Greenwood, working at Roscoe’s Tacos, and generally having a good time. On the way to the Phish concert, Robinson pulled into the now-defunct Circle V Brewing Company on the north side of Indianapolis in search of keg beer. Colt, a bartender at the brewpub, helped Robinson load the kegs into his van. They went their separate ways—two ships.
Part II: A few years later, Colt and Robinson met again. Colt was assistant brewer at the downtown Ram Restaurant & Brewery. He had climbed the ranks at Circle V, learning the profession by following a curiosity that began as a youngster. “I’d always dug beer, ever since I was stealing sips from my dad when I was 5,” says Colt, who also had an interest in cooking and baking—two pursuits that laid a good foundation for brewing. “Freshly cracked malt,” he says. “I remember that smell and thinking that this was an awfully cool job. You’re a glorified janitor, but, at the end of the day, there’s a good pint of beer that you made or helped make.”
By then, Robinson, too, had gotten into brewing, after working his way up from server at the Rock Bottom chain’s brewpub in downtown Indianapolis. Stuart Robertson, now the owner of MacNiven’s Restaurant & Bar on Mass Ave, was Rock Bottom’s general manager at the time, and he recalls Robinson making quite an impression when he came in to fill out an application. “Clay ordered a beer, and then he wanted an interview,” says Robertson. “I wouldn’t interview him. A month later, he came back and did the exact same thing. But at that point, I was intrigued.” After a few months, Robinson was named assistant brewer. He became head brewer shortly after that.

In the early 2000s, the Indy brewing community was a circle of about a dozen professionals, so it was only a matter of time before Robinson and Colt bumped into one another over beers. “I was like, ‘I know this guy,’” says Robinson. “‘Didn’t you load kegs into my VW Westy?’” After that encounter, the two would meet regularly at the Ram and talk shop. Robinson enjoyed the creativity the job afforded, but now calls this the period of “Angry Clay.” He was dissatisfied with working in a corporate system, a latent response to seeing his father, Omar, fall apart after selling a food-production company he founded, which made private-label sour creams and salad dressings, to a subsidiary of Anheuser-Busch in 1982.

“He built a company from the ground up, sold it, and then ran it for a corporate giant,” says Robinson. “And he hated it. He quit, and, at a certain point, he was spiraling. He didn’t have any direction, he had a few businesses that failed, and he was drinking too much. He went from being an incredibly happy guy to an incredibly unhappy one. Everything I do, I think, is a backlash against my dad’s experience.”

Robinson quit Rock Bottom, cashed in his 401(k), and traveled around the country, working construction, visiting family and friends, and reading books. He spent 2003, 2004, and most of 2005 “on hiatus.” Colt, meanwhile, stayed on at Ram.

There’s another act, of course.

By the end of 2005, Robinson had burned through his savings and needed to make a change. Coincidentally, his friend Colt called him with an opportunity at the new Ram location in Fishers. “But I told him, ‘If you quit Rock Bottom over corporate issues, you’re going to hate it here,’” says Colt. Robinson, though, saw few other options. Colt prepped his friend for an interview at Ram, and Robinson landed the job, telling the brass all the things they needed to hear.

The two began having discussions about setting off on their own. “It was like, ‘If you could have your own brewery, what would it be like?’” says Robinson. They had already helped nurture a constituency of craft-beer–drinkers in Indianapolis. The demand for local beer was there, but unless enthusiasts got their fix at area brewpubs—independent fiefdoms of house offerings—they were mostly out of luck. No one pushed a brand that was universally available throughout the city—no one great unifier. The more he and Robinson talked, Colt says, the more they realized they were “dead-on, eye-to-eye about how we were going to do this.”

Initially, the partners made plans for a brewery and restaurant, but after months of drafting business plans and hosting strategy sessions, Robinson grew frustrated while the project lingered. “I left one meeting and was kind of pissed off,” he says. “I remember thinking, ‘I don’t care about a restaurant or food.’ And then it hit me like a ton of bricks: ‘Let’s just make beer.’”

In 2008, Robinson quit his job at Ram, cashed in another 401(k), and began working on a business plan, but this time for a brewery only. In the meantime, one of the founding partners, Andy Fagg—a Circle V and Ram regular who had sold a successful engineering company—put together a group of investors from among friends and family to raise half a million dollars in seed money. It all went so smoothly that after a handshake deal with Fagg, Robinson needed to call him the next day to make sure he wasn’t simply imagining his plan had been funded. Wanting to be close to downtown, the group moved into a former garage on College Avenue that once housed an ambulance service. “Our goal,” says Robinson, “was to sell as many beers as close to home as humanly possible.”
Sun King opened its doors in July 2009 with four employees working 80 hours a week to produce four beers: Sunlight Cream Ale, Wee Mac Scottish Ale, Osiris Pale Ale, and the now-specialty-only Bitter Druid ESB. The short-term objective was to brew as many seasonal and specialty brews as possible and to blanket Indianapolis with them; Robinson and Colt initially targeted 15 area bars that carried proper beer lists. Then, in Year 5, if they were still open, they would hit university towns like Bloomington, Lafayette, and Muncie. (College markets account for a good portion of Indiana’s craft-beer consumption. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, they’re also strong buyers of “under-premium” beers—the stuff that generally comes in 30-packs.)

Sun King exceeded its founders’ expectations so quickly that its beers were in the hands of the college crowd by the end of Year 1. “I was on board before the beer was ready to put in barrels,” says Robertson of MacNiven’s, one of the brewery’s first customers. “I hadn’t even tried their beer. I didn’t need to. Brewing beer for Dave and Clay was a no-brainer. As soon as word got out to other pubs, that was it. They were sought after rather than having to seek out.”

“We were the underdog,” says Robinson. “We’re not anymore.”

Sun King had a few other things going for it. First, it was first. Secondly, the company made its own deliveries, which kept down costs and gave Robinson valuable face-time with customers. Early on, it wasn’t unusual to see him hustling in and out of busy bars on Friday afternoons, pushing in a hand truck stacked with kegs and then hanging out to extol the qualities of Sun King’s latest concoctions. Robinson says they, like other local breweries, could have inked a distribution deal out of the gate that would have put them all over the state and beyond, “but no one would have known who we were.” Although they still self-distribute in the Indianapolis area, they have a variety of distributors now as well. But Robinson and Colt have no designs on selling beer outside of Indiana. They want people to come to them—not the other way around, which would violate their brilliantly pithy slogan: Fresh.Local.Beer. The hometown angle, combined with the brewers’ reputations—Robinson and Colt had each won state and national awards for their pre–Sun King beers—soon bred a loyal following.

What’s more, for drinkers who didn’t know Sun King from Little Kings, these guys were approachable. Sun King’s top-selling product, Sunlight Cream Ale, has the hallmarks of a gateway craft beer (not too hoppy, very drinkable) that isn’t intimidating to newbies. This year, Sun King will make twice as much Sunlight Cream Ale as popular Indy brewery Flat 12 Bierwerks will of all its offerings combined. And Sun King sells its beer in cans instead of bottles (one of the first craft brewers in Indiana to do so), appealing to Joe Sixpack drinkers accustomed to the convenience of aluminum-clad Coors.

In 2010, its first full year, Sun King produced 5,000 barrels of beer (a barrel is equivalent to two kegs). It doubled that number in 2011. This year, Sun King is on track to pump out 20,000 barrels. It recently entered into an agreement with Lucas Oil Stadium, which means its beers will now be available at every major sporting venue in the city. It sponsors radio broadcasts “from the Sun King Studio” on WTTS 92.3 FM and throws one heck of a Friday party in the tasting room, located in the College Avenue brewery just east of downtown. “Basically,” says Robinson, “we give you a pint of beer for just walking through our door.” The lines for growler-fills and tastings often go 10 deep. “I’m really proud of our diversity,” he adds. “Ten years ago, to find a cute girl at the Ram or another brewpub drinking craft beer? Shoot. That didn’t exist. So, this is really odd to witness, and I’m not entirely sure how we did it. Craft-beer–drinkers are supposed to be white males, ages 24 to 28. Here? It’s young women. It’s old men. It’s hipsters. It’s hippies. It’s suits. It’s artists. It’s housewives. It’s everyone.”

In some ways, Sun King’s ability to captivate a crowd seems to flow from its co-founder. This past July, at the Indiana Microbrewers Festival in Broad Ripple, Robinson addressed an impromptu gathering of colleagues while standing under a tent to shelter himself from an unseasonable light rain. He resembled a revivalist (albeit one with a beer in hand) as he rallied his friendly rivals to push for more professionalism in their guild meetings and lobbying strategy. “It’s like we’re playing cribbage when we should be playing chess,” he said before stopping himself. “Cribbage? I don’t even know how to play cribbage, but I know it’s not chess.” The crowd laughed and nodded. He made off-the-cuff speeches for the next couple of hours, and he couldn’t take two steps in the crowd of 5,000 without stopping to offer a hug, back-slap, or handshake. At each sampling stop, fellow brewers seemed to want Robinson’s rubber stamp. Try this one, they’d say, not that. At one point he poured out the contents of his glass after just one sip. “Don’t waste your sobriety on bad beer,” he advised.

Robinson says Sun King is the last job he ever wants to have. His 75-year-old father, Omar (who came out of retirement to serve as the company president) sees it differently. “You know you’re completely unemployable and fucked for anything else, don’t you?” he told his son recently. It’s not that no one else would want him. On the contrary, Robinson serves on the board of Dig IN, a nonprofit that promotes the state’s agricultural and culinary arts, and he was recently elected president of the Brewers of Indiana Guild. In September, he helped organize a new national craft-beer festival, “CANvitational,” on Georgia Street, the first of its kind in the Midwest.

It’s just that Robinson has become his own man. His Sun King office is a token of that liberty. He works behind an avocado-colored metal desk salvaged from the City-County Building. A mini-fridge, toaster oven, and vintage couch all sit within reach. A 3-D rendition of The Last Supper hangs above the door. Across from the desk, he offers visitors a seat in two identical wooden chairs that resemble thrones and once belonged to the Knights of Pythias fraternal organization (he saw them on the sidewalk and paid $500 on the spot)—furnishings suitable for a gangster, a pope, or even, of course, a king.

The real fun, though, is in the beer. Each one tells a story. Sometimes the beer came first. Sometimes the name. Sunlight Cream Ale was a way to circumvent labeling laws, to convey that the beer was easy-drinking without calling it a “light” beer. Velvet Fog came about as an objection Colt once had to the music playing in the brewery. He began scatting to himself, and it made him think of crooner Mel Torme, “The Velvet Fog.” A beer was born. “Dave decided to make something leathery and smooth,” says Robinson. “It won a gold medal last year at the World Beer Cup. It kills it in competitions.” Wee Mac was named for Robinson’s now–father-in-law. Pale Rider, A Fistful of Hops, and A Few Hops More are tributes to spaghetti Westerns.

If the beer is rock-n-roll, Robinson thinks Sun King’s spirits will be more jazz—clean and classic with a free-form flow.

A few steps to the east of Robinson’s hideaway, employees work in cubicles constructed from stacks of empty Sun King cans. In the 27,000-square-foot brewery, 29 towering, gleaming fermenters (27 for ales and two for lagers) hold a variety of concoctions in various states of maturation. The lager fermenters have a colorful history. Originally, a dairy sold the two beasts to Three Floyds Brewing in northwestern Indiana, where they acquired the names George Michael (after the character on the cult TV hit Arrested Development) and George Michael’s Brother. Then they went to Half Acre Beer Company in Chicago, where Brother was renamed Buster, another character from the TV show. When Sun King bought the behemoths, Buster became Andrew Ridgeley, and now the vessels stand as an ode to Wham!, the cloying 1980s pop duo. It remains unclear whether this is a commentary on lager or lager drinkers or “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.”

It’s all a weird recipe for success, but it hasn’t gone unnoticed. Sun King was named brewery of the year at the Indiana State Fair Brewers’ Cup in July, and Colt and Robinson have each won medals at the Great American Beer Festival, the country’s premier competition held each October in Denver. Last year Esquire named Sun King’s one-off collaboration with Colorado brewer Oskar Blues as one of the magazine’s favorite beers. Back home in Indiana, the brand creeps toward craft-beer domination. (Three Floyds, currently the state’s largest brewer, is more Chicago-centric and, according to industry-watchers, doesn’t seem interested in getting into an arms race with Sun King. In fact, the two sometimes partner on new offerings.) Sun King is available in all but 28 of Indiana’s 92 counties; the toe and the heel of the state are, for the most part, Sun King–less, but even that looks to change. By this time next year, Robinson expects to achieve statewide distribution.

Sun King has also attracted its share of suitors looking to buy into the company. But Robinson says they’ve never received a serious purchase offer, and it’s something he wouldn’t even consider: “After watching what my dad went through?”
Being one of the “it” guys does have its downside. Haters, says Robinson, want to hate. “I’ve stood next to people—who didn’t know who I was—while they talked shit about my beer,” he says. “People complain that we’re too big or that we’re everywhere. We were kind of like the indie band that was driving from town to town, show to show—loading our gear in and out of small venues. Then we hit it big. And you know how some people are. They’re like, ‘Fuck that band. Those guys are sellouts.’ But that’s weird to me. Wouldn’t you want your favorite band to be successful? We were the underdog. We’re not anymore.”

This past year, Omar Robinson helped successfully lobby the state legislature to overturn the ban prohibiting breweries from owning distilleries (a post-Prohibition regulatory measure). In coming months, after its federal paperwork is filed and approved, Sun King plans to get into the artisanal-spirits business. They’re already scoping out locations for an additional downtown property, and Robinson and Colt have started batting around ideas. They want to stay away from bourbon (“We’d love to make that, but bourbon purists tend to turn up their noses at anything that isn’t made in Kentucky,” says Robinson). Instead, they will probably produce some other type of whiskey, as well as gin. Whatever they come up with, Robinson promises the end result will have a strong local flavor with indigenous ingredients like popcorn, rhubarb, and crabapples. If the beer is rock-n-roll, Robinson thinks Sun King’s spirits will be more jazz—clean and classic with a free-form flow.

In a way, Sun King is about to start over, which is on Robinson’s mind this afternoon as he pours a cup of Osiris (his “everyday” beer) and slouches into the barber’s chair for Haircut Day. But he doesn’t seem too concerned. He orders “The Clay,” his self-titled version of trim on the sides and back, longer on top. “We want to pull this in a little closer here,” he instructs the stylist, raising his hand to the side of his head. He kicks his feet out from beneath the barber’s cape and takes a sip of beer. He looks suuuppper important.

It’s good to be Sun King.

Thirsty for more? Check out IM‘s virtual Sun King beer tasting with head brewer Dave Colt.
Photo: Robinson circa late ’90s (courtesy Robinson)
This article appeared in the October 2013 issue.