Here Comes the Sun: Clay Robinson's indirect path to founding Indy's Sun King Brewery
INTERVIEWED JULY 25, 2017
AT SUN KING BREWery's taproom - INDIANAPOLIS
The recent history of craft beer in Indiana has been turbulent to say the least. Faced with a drinking culture backed by laws that made it difficult to open, much less successfully operate a small brewery, the state's largest city was certainly no hotbed of craft beer less than a decade ago.
Enter Sun King Brewery, the first production brewery since the 40's in Indianapolis at the time it opened in 2009. Co-Founder Clay Robinson and his partners are, in part, responsible for the exponential growth of craft beer in the Hoosier state. Whether it's been their insistence on sticking strictly to cans for their packaging far before it was the cool thing to do–or hitting the podium at the state capitol building to fight for legislative changes, Sun King has proven to be a persistent advocate for better beer in Indiana.
On the verge of their latest market expansion, we sat down with Clay to discover his indirect path to becoming a brewer without having previously brewed a beer, how he's pushed for change in the state he loves, the importance of brewery culture, and what his expectations are as Sun King prepares to launch their brand in a completely unique and somewhat daunting market: Chicago.
Most of the people we talk with start as homebrewers. We hear that's not the case for you.
That is not the case, no.
Where did it all start for you?
Well, I graduated from Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana with a degree in Rhetoric.
You can get a degree in Rhetoric?
It's all about talking to people...so basically I got a degree in talking. Rhetorical Studies is the study of words and how they affect people. So we did a lot of speech analysis and of media and advertising.
And what was your goal with that degree?
I had no idea actually. It was one of those things. It was a liberal arts school and all of the degrees were really basic. You can get a degree in Biology, Chemistry, or Mathematics. The speech classes I'd taken I really enjoyed. I realized that no matter what I did in life, I'd have to talk to people. So if I could do that well, it would serve me no matter what industry I'd end up in.
That's certainly true, especially in your current line of work.
I was one of those people who never worried about what I was going to do for a living. I never had a particular passion as a kid. I wasn't someone who said, "I want to be a dentist!" But I always this general sense of self, probably from how my parents raised me. My dad was an entrepreneur and was a power of positive thinking type person. I always figured that no matter what I did in life, that as long as I enjoyed it, I'd do well.
So then you ended up in the restaurant world, correct?
Yea, so in college I needed a job to help pay the bills. There was a little place called Joe's Bar and Grill in Crawfordsville. I started as a busboy when I was 19.
And there was beer there?
Yea, at the end of my first shift, Joe said I got a shift beer. I said, "You know I'm not 21, right?" He replied, "I believe if you work an honest day's work, you deserve a beer at the end of the day. Go ahead and take a look at the list and pick any beer you want."
What did that list look like?
At the time they had a draft selection that was Guinness, Bass, Harp, Newcastle, and all the classic imported beers of the 1990s. Then they had a bottle list that was imports and micros like Pete's Wicked Ale—all the classics. I could pick any beer, I just had to drink it in the kitchen, out of sight. So I started trying beers, and that was really where I fell in love with craft beer. There were so many different flavors and styles coming from all over the world and craft beers from all over the Midwest. I went from busser to server to bartender in the three or so years I was there. When I got out of college I had no idea what I was going to do with my life so just continued working in restaurants.
And it ended up being with Rock Bottom Brewery, yes?
Yea, in 1999, I got a job at Rock Bottom in downtown Indianapolis because it was I wanted to work someplace with good beer. At the time I had long hair and a beard. A lot of the restaurants I would go to interview for would say, "You seem great, but about this beard...." Well thanks, but I'm not interested. I had lines of principle. I'm not going to cut my hair or shave for a job.
That's definitely a theme in the brewing industry.
That's a principle that maintains here. We don't care what you look like, what your personal politics are, any of it. If you've got a good head on your shoulders and you're here to be a part of the team, that's great. Back then, I had a friend who worked at Rock Bottom who had long hair and a beard so I knew they hired hippies. So I started serving there. During the training period they do a brewery tour. The guy who gave the tour was a brewer named Tom. I worked days, so at the end of the day I'd have my shift beer and sit there and shoot the shit with him about beer. I started asking a lot of questions about it. It was the first time I'd realized that brewing beer was a job. Until I met Tom, I didn't realize it was a job that someone like me could have.
Sounds like a real turning point for you. How did you take that first step into the brewery?
After a couple months of waiting tables, I was at the bar after my shift and Tom said, "Hey, you ever think about making beer for a living?" He said he had an opening coming up and he thought I'd make a good brewer. I got really excited. He stopped me and said, "First, you've gotta know a couple things. It's hot, it's sweaty, and it's dirty. You're basically a glorified janitor, but at the end of the day you get to kick back with a pint of beer you made." He literally picked up his pint of beer, sipped it, and said, "And it's fucking delicious." I was totally in.
And at this point you'd never brewed a beer before?
Never before in my life. I had a couple friends in college that homebrewed and I would try their beers. But I just loved beer. My first batch was an oatmeal stout. We walked through everything you do to brew beer and all the processes. The minute we started to mash in and that smell was released from the grain... it was love at first smell.
So you'd finally brewed your first beer at Rock Bottom. What was next for you?
I brewed at Rock Bottom for a little over four years. I went from Assistant Brewer to Head Brewer and ran that brewery for a while. In my late 20's, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do with my life. Rock Bottom at the time was going through a lot of corporate changes and were tightening up for what would eventually become the sale to private equity. I was uncomfortable with the overall direction. I knew I loved brewing beer, but wasn't sure I wanted to be 40 years old and still lifting bags of grain. I wanted to take an opportunity to explore the world. I cashed in my 401K and decided to take six months off work and travel. Six months turned into three years.
That's quite the risk. What did you do during that time?
Over that three years I worked part time construction. I'd work for a few months, then travel for a month or two, come back and jump on another project. After a while doing that, my savings had dwindled and it wasn't going to get me anywhere in life. I was trying to figure out what to do when my phone rang and my friend Dave [Colt, Co-Founder of Sun King] called looking for someone who knew how to open a brewery. It all kind of came full circle.
Wow, so you're really coming right back to where you started before your hiatus. When was this?
I started working with him at the end of 2005. At the end of probably our second work week together, we were having a beer and the conversation centered around what we would do if we could open our own brewery. That conversation lasted for a few years on and off. We spent some time trying to work on a plan for a brewpub to start our own thing. We both got approached by people who had money and wanted to open a brewery but needed people who knew how. We quickly realized that if we helped the people with money open a brewery, in five years we might be no better off than we are at a corporate brewpub job. We should band together as two professional brewers and put together a plan for the brewery we want to open and find the people with money. In 2008, after three years of working together and talking about it, I quit my job on a leap of faith, cashed in my second 401K and set off to make Sun King a reality.
Did you have the name right out of the gate?
No, actually. We were looking for names and we would come up with something and inevitably someone in California or Washington or Idaho had it already. We were trying to come up with something that led to seasonality. The next best name we had was "Solstice." The only market research we've done in the history of Sun King is go to bars and talk to people about how they felt about word associations. Often times the question would be, "What's a solstice?"
So why 'Sun King'?
Dave came in one day and said, "I've got it! Sun King!" I thought, that's a great name for a brewery if you're in southern California where the sun shines all the time. He literally grabbed me by the sweatshirt, on a grey Midwestern afternoon, and dragged me to the front windows. He looks out and says, "What's that, peeking through the clouds?" "That's the sun Dave." He said, "Yea, the sun shines everywhere, even on us lowly Hoosiers." The name just stuck with us.
Tell us about your legislative efforts in Indiana. We know there are some pretty odd laws here.
Yea, we have some pretty weird laws. We are the only state in the union that regulates beer by temperature. So liquor stores can sell cold beer, but grocery stores can't. We don't have Sunday alcohol sales and a couple years back we passed a law that that allows for breweries and wineries to sell on Sundays. So you can't buy beer on Sunday in Indiana unless you go to an Indiana producer.
What about from a production standpoint. We know there have been changes there.
We've worked together in conjunction with the brewers of Indiana guild and 3 Floyds, who have had capacity issues. In our eight year history, we've helped change at least four different laws, mostly to up capacity and also to allow a craft brewer to own a distillery. We're starting a distillery that opens next spring. As for production, when we first started, a craft brewery in Indiana couldn't make more than 20,000 barrels in a year. We raised that cap from 20 to 30, then later we went back to the legislator. They didn't want to raise the limit again so they exempted beer sold out of state against your production limitations in state. That helped the Floyds. A couple years later, we got close to 30 again. The Indiana legislators have been really good to us and we have some strong allies there. When we first started talking about changing laws, several lobbyists told us there was no way they'd do it. Honestly every time we've approached changing laws, it's been about jobs, taxes, tourism, and revenue.
What do you produce now?
Last year we produced 36,000 barrels of beer.
What is the new cap?
The new cap is actually 90,000. We have some room to grow.
You're about to enter the extremely competitive Chicago market. Why should someone in Chicago care about Sun King?
Well because our beer is delicious. We strive to make really great beer. People ask us what we want to do when we grow up and what our goals are for business. Our answer is always, we want to be awesome. We strive to make great beer, be a great place to work, have a great culture, to be a good partner to our community. We want to be the best at what we do. We work hard to make really great beer and I think we've achieved that. Over the last eight years, we've won a lot of medals, so our beers have been nationally and internationally recognized. Hopefully people will want to drink our beer because it's delicious. Hopefully people want to drink it because it's appealing. We've got what I think is a really good total package, and really good liquid inside the package. There are breweries that are very extreme in what they do. We strive for balance. We want to make beers that when you finish one, you want another.
It sounds like the culture at Sun King is really important.
Culture is super important here.
How have you been able to maintain those values as you've grown?
There is a lot of pressure to do that. Originally, the culture just existed and flowed out from the four main owners. We were here day in and day out in all four corners of the brewery. Still, to this day, there's not a job at the brewery I haven't done. Nothing is beneath me. I'm happy to bus tables or clean the bathrooms if I have to. I'll do whatever it takes to get things done. Staying in it and connected I think helps with that. But as we've grown we've had to take steps. We've had to work to make sure the culture you want to have gets cultivated. It's no longer easy and given. There's different departments and people do different jobs. But we're really all part of this big wheel.
That's pretty obvious when you walk in the front door here.
Dave and I have often described our staff as the island of misfit toys. I mean that in the best way possible. There's definitely something wrong with each and every one of us, all the way from the top to the bottom. There's certainly something wrong with me. It all goes back to me not wanting to shave and cut my hair to get a job.
So...your beard is pretty tame nowadays. What broke you down?
I shaved my beard, partially because it's hot. I go on and off with beards. I tend to let it bush out in the winter. Aside from that, this is easiest. I used to grow a beard because it was fun. Now I just want what's easiest.
Where does Indianapolis fit in the in the Midwest beer scene?
I don't think many people know much about the Indianapolis beer scene. I think, in general, the city is overlooked. There have been a lot of really positive improvements here. I grew up here. My career was built here. Even when we started the brewery eight years ago, people weren't sure why. We're in that weird spot where we get passed over a lot. You see great bands in Chicago, but we didn't have a great music scene for example. But in the last decade, we've had some pretty good leadership at the city government level as far as investment in the local community. When I was younger, I used to spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to get out of town. There are a lot of people in Indy now who have created careers here. When I told people we were going to open a brewery, the first question was always, "Is it a brewpub?" They didn't get how it would work. "If you don't serve food, how are you going to stay in business?" Indianapolis Brewing Company closed in 1948. There were a couple brewpubs in between, but we were the first since they closed their doors. Sun King was something like the 32nd brewery license in the state of Indiana. Now there are over 140. In Indianapolis proper, there's about 40 breweries.
What do you know about Chicago? It's a very different market to Indianapolis.
Whenever I go to Chicago, there's just so much stuff happening in each and every one of those neighborhoods. We've had people ask about going to Chicago almost since we started. I always say it's kind of intimidating. There's a lot of great beer that gets to Chicago. There are a lot of great beer bars there and and great breweries opening up. We became friends with the folks at Half Acre and Rev right away and there are a bunch of people we have great relationships with up there. Chicago is a tough market too. I don't know that much about what is where which is why we're thankful for our friends at Lakeshore. Our goals for Chicago are modest. We want it to be available and we know there are people who want it. We had other distributors come down here and promise big things. Lakeshore came down and asked, what do you want to do?
We heard you had a beer can collection growing up... What was your crown jewel?
Dave and I both had beer can collections as kids. The crown jewel of my collection as a kid was a Michelob can that had gold balls inside from a golf outing my dad did. I thought it was adorable.
Music also seems to be influential here. What's playing at the brewery when you're working?
I grew up with a lot of Honky Tonk. I like Sturgill Simpson and Nicky Lane. They both played our Sun King anniversary party actually. But on the rotation, it flips from old school country and honky tonk, to funk, to blues, to jazz, to rock. We just don't need the summer hits of the 90's playing at Sun King.
What are you doing on your day off in Indy?
Honestly, I'm just biking around the city. The Indianapolis Museum of Art has got a 100 acre park that you can wander around. The Cultural Trail winds through a bunch of different cities. We've got a lot of great patios and spots to drink beer.
What's in Clay Robinson's fridge right now?
Well right now there's a lot of Firestone Walker because I did a trip to California and brought that back with me. There's some Alaskan IPA because I just got back from Alaska. There are a couple great things from Denver as well. Lately, I'm really into a good lager. I've got Pivo Pils. I've got a lot of Pachanga, our Mexican Lager we made this summer as well. I've been crushing that.
Photography by Jack Muldowney.
A big thank you to Clay for hosting us at the brewery and taking time to sit down to tell us his story. Look for Clay, the rest of his team, and most importantly his beer, across Chicago as they launch their brand continues to roll out into the Windy City beginning late August 2017.