The Sun King & I

I had the pleasure of scribing an article on Indiana’s microbrewing industry for our upcoming January/February edition of BizVoice. One of my subjects was Sun King, an Indiana Chamber member whose recent success has been remarkable. Considering owner Clay Robinson earned his degree in Rhetoric from Wabash College (a school that actually produced quite a few of the key players in the Indiana brewing industry), it should come as no surprise that I received more valuable info than I could fit into the article. So I’d like to share his thoughts on Sun King’s beginnings here. He reflects:

Dave Colt and I started working together in 2005. We had been friends for about a decade, and saw eye to eye on beers and brewing styles. We started a discussion surrounding, “What would you do if you could open your own brewery?” I was working at a restaurant/brewery; it was a corporation and I left because of some corporate culture clashes after four years. It wasn’t the same company I’d been involved in. I was feeling like I worked for a small company that happened to be a corporation that was family run, and it turned into a different thing. It’s frustrating when someone 2,800 miles away tells you how to do your job when they come visit one day out of the year.

Dave and I talked about what we liked, loved and hated about different jobs. I was raised by an entrepreneur, so that’s in my blood. Then in 2007, we started working to put something together – actually a brewpub. It initially started with Dave, myself and a chef and restaurant manager. We were looking at a location, cost per square foot, lunch/dinner traffic – we kept hitting walls in trying to find real estate. We were planning a pub because that’s all we’d ever known. We actually met every Sunday for a year to come up with plans and after a year of not getting anywhere, I expressed my frustration. We then realized we didn’t really care about food, so we started looking at just doing beer…

I decided that to get it from the idea stage to actual fruition something extreme had to happen, because I was working 50 to 60 hours a week at a brewery and was exhausted at the end of the day. So I quit my job on a leap of faith in July 2008 and it was my goal to get Sun King off the ground, come hell or high water. I then cashed in my 401(k) as a primary investment into Sun King.

After spending two months with his girlfriend and her family in their native Alaska to clear his head, Robinson came back to Indiana and locked himself in a house for six weeks to pound out a business plan.

The key for us was determining our shortcomings. That’s a philosophy laid out in Napoleon Hill’s book, "Think and Grow Rich"; there’s a principle called the Mastermind Theory, saying if you truly want to accomplish something, you have to find people who will complement your skill set and understand your own shortcomings.

Robinson also convinced his father, Omar, to come out of retirement to help, as well as other friends with legal and financial expertise. Now, Sun King has taken American craft brewing by storm with a record-setting performance at the 2011 Great American Beer Festival and saw 850% growth in 2010, followed by over 120% growth in 2011. What’s more, Indy beer drinkers now pack the brewery’s tasting room on many afternoons, filling growlers and quenching their thirsts with samples of the latest fare.

Devoted Sun King customer Michael Pittman, a 33-year-old mechanical engineer at Rolls Royce, relays why he quenches his cravings with the local brew.

"I remember Clay telling me when it was his last week (as a brewer at his previous job) and he was opening another gig," he says. "I continued to watch the Sun King web site for an opening date."

Pittman now patronizes Sun King for a couple of reasons.

"It’s a mix between taste and supporting local (business)," he asserts. "Luckily in this case, good tasting beer and shopping local go hand-in-hand. I always try and support local businesses whenever I can … shopping local just makes sense."

He says he can be found filling up growlers at least twice a month and has recruited his peers to join him.

"Who can beat $5 growlers?," Pittman asks. "I have talked some co-workers into going with me the past couple times. They have since bought growlers, so it will probably turn into more of a social event."

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