Clay Robinson, Co-owner and Founding Brewer, Sun King Brewery
When he started brewing, Sun King co-founder Clay Robinson never dreamed he’d be taking days off from bottling to suit up and lobby the Statehouse. But these days, he’s dusting off his bachelor’s degree in rhetoric and fighting to raise the production cap for Indiana’s breweries. Meanwhile, Sun King has reigned in distribution to just the Indianapolis metro region, breaking contracts with several distributors. For Robinson, each decision is about remaining “true to why we started Sun King in the first place.”
I remember watching you guys sweep the GABF awards in 2011. How has Sun King changed since then?
That was an incredible experience and our whole crew was blown away by the results that year! Directly after that, we began getting calls and emails from pretty much every state in the union and beyond. We were forced to sit down as a group and talk about the possibilities. … We said “thanks but no thanks” to over 50 distributors and got back to business as usual.
How do you keep that spirit going long-term?
I generally tell people that our culture and spirit emanate out from our core and I still think it’s true to this day. … Our other partners are family and friends, which can be tough at times, but it really helps the familial feel, and we are all there day in and day out working hard to make the best beer and [the] best company we can.
What led up to your announcement that you’d be limiting production?
When we launched with our wholesalers in 2013, we were only producing at a rate of 15,000 barrels per year. We were only halfway to our legal limit of 30,000 barrels and thought we had plenty of room to grow. While our sales in those outlying areas continue to grow at a steady pace, the demand for our beer close to home has grown exponentially. We are currently producing beer at the rate of 30,000 barrels per year going into 2015. Considering that 90 percent of the beer we make is sold in Central Indiana, we simply do not have room to accommodate for continued growth in demand close to home or with our distributors. … We haven’t been able to keep up with demand in Indiana, so why would we start selling in neighboring states?
What’s behind Sun King’s philosophy not to distribute out of state?
Dave [Colt] and I agreed very early on that if we never sold a pint of beer outside of Indiana that we would be fine with that. We believe that beer is best when fresh; therefore, it is best consumed close to home. All of our beer is stored, transported and delivered cold. … The further you emanate from your core, the harder it is to market your beer, share your brand’s message and protect its integrity. It also makes us a draw for tourism, which is great for Indiana because it helps draw visitors from neighboring states to Indiana so they can get Sun King and hopefully discover other great Indiana breweries along the way.
What will the country’s beer market look like in 10 years?
I have a feeling that 10 years from now we are going to have a couple dozen major craft brands that are available nationwide. Then we’ll have a lot of really strong regional and local breweries in their home markets across the US, along with a whole lot of small breweries and brewpubs that service their local area. ■