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Sun King turns seven: A chat with Indy brewing royalty

Dave Colt, co-founder of Sun King Brewing tells how they've come so far and what the future holds


Sun King co-founders and brewers Dave Colt (left) and Clay Robinson celebrate a NUVO Best of Indy win in 2010. - STEPHEN SIMONETTO
  • Stephen Simonetto
  • Sun King co-founders and brewers Dave Colt (left) and Clay Robinson celebrate a NUVO Best of Indy win in 2010.
Seven years ago, two Indianapolis brewers had an idea, they looked at our city and thought, “There are other cities around and they have a brewery, we should be that brewery for Indianapolis,” Dave Colt tells me while we sit at at wooden picnic table in Sun King’s newest Tap Room in Fishers, “That was always our goal, but we didn’t realize the appetite was bigger than we even imagined.”

Colt and his business partner, Clay Robinson could never have imagined just how much Indianapolis wanted and needed a true brewery. But, with their 7th anniversary celebration coming up on June 25th, the duo has now seen it and they’re living a brewers dream; the city they live in has embraced them wholeheartedly, and they have made a name for themselves outside of just this market.

Dave is animated and happy when he talks beer, even after twenty years in the brewing industry he is excited to be doing what he is doing and to celebrate his life’s work. “Our anniversary sort of marks the first brew that we did. Clay and I had talked about Sun King about three years prior to that, so all of that pre-discussion culminates with our first brew on July 1 of 2009. Where we are now compared to where I thought we would be at this time is lightyears ahead.”

To give you an idea of where they are, you first have to know just how big the Sun King family is. When you look at the majority of breweries in the state, they run on teams of less than ten, sometimes they get in the twenties, but never much more than that. “We currently have 70 full-time employees and 50-or-so part-time folks,” Colt tells me, pointing out that the part-time number fluctuates with the seasons; right now is the extremely busy festival season.

Sun King's flagship beers. - STEPHANIE DUNCAN
  • Stephanie Duncan
  • Sun King's flagship beers.
He continues to describe his amazement with just how fast everything has taken off for Sun King. At the beginning, in their wildest dreams, the two brewers “thought that we would do 1,000 barrels per year, up to ten years; and if we were really lucky, we could get to 10,000 barrels by year ten. Last year we did almost 30,000 in year six and this year we’re going to surpass that. So, it’s insane.”

It is an insane number, but the team really hit a trifecta of factors that has helped them reach this level of success. “You know we got lucky with timing, there was a huge desire for craft in Indiana when we started. The city and state really didn’t have a big craft brewery and we needed it,” Dave says.

Timing was important to their success, they became a part of the craft brewing scene when the market was still in its infancy. “We were the 33rd craft brewery when we opened and now I think that number is up to 130. Wait” he exclaims, “another just opened and now it’s 131,” he laughs at his jest, and I can’t help but laugh along, the craft beer market rising at a seemingly uncontrollable rate. I’m not complaining, I’m always excited to try a new beer, but it is a much more volatile environment for new breweries than it was seven years ago. Dave agrees, but he’s quick to point out that we haven’t and most likely never will reach a tipping point. Dave explains it in simple terms, “We might be getting close to a point of over-saturation, but there is always room for people who make great beer. So, the weaker ones, whose financing might not be in order or their beer is just okay, but not great, some of those will go away. It’s just the nature of things.”

Sun King employees past (Owen Thompson, left; Ross Bercot, center) and present (assistant brewer Jon Clampitt) enjoy canned brews at Sun King's inaugural CANvitational in 2013.
  • Sun King employees past (Owen Thompson, left; Ross Bercot, center) and present (assistant brewer Jon Clampitt) enjoy canned brews at Sun King's inaugural CANvitational in 2013.
Another part of the timing that played into their popularity was the immense amount of love people have for craft beer. A decade ago craft beer drinkers were few and far between — an exclusive grouping of people who had grown tired of the swill that has for so long passed as beer in the U.S. Dave remembers the early days with a fondness, but he sees how much better off the scene is now, “The acceptance and appetite of the community has grown each year; when we were going to a craft beer festival seven years ago, there was a chance it would sell out, if it was a really nice day. We were excited when they sold out, because it rarely happened. Now, they are selling out faster and faster and there are more and more of those events popping up all around the state.”

Even though there is no doubt timing played an incremental part in Sun King’s meteoric rise, I still think Dave is being humble. While timing can be a big thing (just ask Malcolm Gladwell), there is no substitute for hard work and a clear vision. This vision was drastically different from the status quo in 2009 and it was this that set them apart. In 2009 the places that were serving beer in Indianapolis were restaurants that also made beer (sometimes incredibly good beer), “We didn’t invent beer by any stretch of the imagination, but what we did do is change the thought process. Prior to us coming on-line, the tried and true method was to open a brewpub and we knew we didn’t know much about the restaurant business, so we did what we knew how to do and that is make beer, and so far that has been a pretty wild ride.”

Possibly the biggest factor that has set Sun King apart in a massive market of Indiana craft beers is their dedication to community. Dave tells me how this is more or less the lifeblood of their business, “We are trying to stay relevant by being innovative with our new products, while still always offering our tried and true beers that you know by heart. But, I also think a huge part of our success is our commitment to community, it keeps us on people’s minds. We are at nearly every community event we can be a part of. Last year we engaged with over 350 different community partners in and around the city and now we’re trying to expand that to the fullness of the state.

A collaboration event between Indiana Humanities and Sun King - @INHUMANITIES
  • @INhumanities
  • A collaboration event between Indiana Humanities and Sun King
“Community was one of our big goals from the get go, kind of a boy scout motto of ‘Leave this world a little better than you found it.’” We do that relentlessly, we have a full staff that handles that for us; Heather Hall leads up our community partners program and she is a force, a force for good, and we have three others that work in that department with her just for our community.”

Not only are they highly active within their local community, they also have always made it a point to be active within the national beer community. They’ve mainly done this through their annual Canvitational. Dave explains that even though Canvitational is a great event for Indianapolis, the event, for them “is more about the fellowship with other breweries, it’s honestly an excuse for us to get a bunch of people who wouldn’t normally come to Indy to come here for any reason under the sun,” he laughs, but it’s true, “We invite the person whose mindset is, ‘I live in Southern California, why the hell would I come to Indiana? I’ve heard of the state, or I’ve flown over it, or been near it in Chicago, but why would I come there?’ We bring them here and try to ensure that every brewer that makes their way here has an amazing time in our city, they are treated exceptionally well . . . We’re really trying to bring in beers to the state that you can’t get elsewhere. So, that way it is different than almost any other brew fest.”

These three factors combined with an immense amount of hard work and passion have led Sun King to here, and this Saturday they get to celebrate it with each other and the people that have loved their beer for seven years. When I ask what Dave is most excited about with the 7th anniversary, he points out that their anniversaries always bring back “an old friend” into his life, “I thought up Grapefruit Jungle and so it is an old friend, and I don’t get to see this friend but once a year.”

Sun King's Grapefruit Jungle, don't miss out once it's on shelves. - SUBMITTED PHOTO
  • Submitted Photo
  • Sun King's Grapefruit Jungle, don't miss out once it's on shelves.
Grapefruit Jungle has a near cult following due to the limited amount that is released each year. “The reason behind the small amount we produce isn’t because of some crazy mindset of keeping it restricted to this one event a year,” Dave explains, “it is a because of the hops. We use Amarillo hops. These hops are one of the hardest on the planet to get your hands on. Four years ago we were putting out GFJ in spurts when we could get some Amarillos, but then we decided what if we pool all of them and make the biggest batch that we can.”

Once it is released the supply will run out in, give or take — three weeks. “It sells out quickly, first off, because it’s a darn fine beer,” Colt says, “but it definitely is also a hot item because of the laws of supply and demand.” He has met people as far away as California who seek out cans of GFJ. It will hit stores and restaurants on the last week of June to the first week of July and people will travel here, or trade for them. But, the best place to get them is during the event on Saturday while listening to Nikki Lane, HONEYHONEY, and the Turnpike Troubadours.
When looking at the future, the next seven years and beyond, it looks bright for Sun King. With their Research and Development Taproom in Fishers we can expect more experimental and innovative brews coming out. “It truly allows us to get weirder,” Dave says with an almost mischievous grin, “we can finally make smaller batches of beers that maybe no one has heard of before, ones that we may have cool ingredients for. In the past that wouldn’t have happened because that would have meant that we wouldn’t be making Sunlight, and we have to make that. We actually just made a kettle, sour beer that I was just tasting moments before you got here and it’s tasting really good and interesting. We’re currently working on a spruce expressed IPA that will be coming out in a couple of weeks.

“So what can we look forward to, I guess the answer is more weird and wonderful beers and pretty soon some spirits (but more on that later) . . . We will be staying true to who we are, our belief in Indiana and our community, and a continued pursuit of awesome.”

Don't miss out on the 7th Anniversary, Saturday June 25 from 4 - 10 p.m.


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