Sun King Brewing
Sun King Brewery (Sun King) opened in 2009 when Omar Robinson retired from his retirement to feed an insatiable entrepreneurial lust. “My son, Clay, is a brewer,” he explains. “He was brewing for Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery and had been talking about setting out on his own for years with his friend Dave Colt of RAM Restaurant and Brewery. They even dreamed up what it would look like if they did it. They had some attempts with the idea that they would start up a brew pub, but I never got involved. I used to be in the food business and when I sold my company, I knew I never wanted to do it again. After some frustration, Clay and Dave asked if I would come out of retirement to help with a production brewery. At 70 years old, my wife and I parked the motor home we had been living in for six years and came back to Indianapolis to start it up.”
In January of 2009, the stars aligned and the beer gods smiled upon Sun King. With all the financing in order, the team purchased used brewery equipment from a brewer out of Portland, Maine. “We spent a dozen days there tearing it up, put it on three semi trucks and hauled it home,” Omar recounts. “It took us four months to put it back together and on July 1 2009, we introduced our first beer.”
In the final six months of 2009, Sun King cranked out 500 barrels. “Our five year goal was to produce 5,000 barrels, but we weren’t very smart and we did 5,000 in our first year of operation,” Omar laughs. “When we first started out, we thought maybe someday we’d do 10,000 in a year. Well we did that in our second year.” The following years have been a complete whirlwind for the crew. Omar credits good fortune, good beer, good press and good people for the company’s success.
Sun King produces 35 to 40 different beers every year. While Omar warns that Clay and Dave can make some pretty extreme brews, the end product is always remarkably drinkable. “Dave is a perfectionist,” he notes. “He has mastered the art of repeatability and the consistency our crew produces in quality and flavor is outstanding.”
The variety and perfectionism have drawn a crowd of Sun King devotees. Through purely organic growth the brewery has ramped up production significantly year over year. “On a Friday afternoon between noon and 7pm, we have anywhere from 800 to 1200 people buying growlers because of the atmosphere and the mojo we have going,” Omar says. “One of the main components of that atmosphere was purely accidental. We had in our budget to build a small tasting room, maybe 30 by 60 feet with a little bar. In order to keep enough capital, we decided to defer the project and we just had an open room adjacent to the brew house and fermenters. People love it. You can come in a see our team working and smell the grain.”
No slowing down
The Sun King team recently purchased 12.76 acres in Fishers, a city just north of Indianapolis, making room for continuing growth. The company is building a new facility that will total 40,000 square feet with 10,000 square feet serving as a combination of retail and office space. While the current tasting room can accommodate 100 people at a time, the new one will allow 400 guests to enjoy the team’s fine craft brews. Omar and the team are looking forward to some unique architectural elements as well. “It won’t be anything extreme,” he notes. “We will maybe go with a classic Indiana barn style, just something other than a concrete square building.”
The new space will make room for new projects as well. While the brewery currently makes bourbon-barrel aged beers and sour beers, the property will allow the business to expand these initiatives. A separate outbuilding will be used for nothing but sour brew. The current location has space for food trucks, but with an increased capacity, Omar, Clay and Dave are considering having some catered events.
The Sun King team, like many craft breweries, is strongly tied in to the local community. The upcoming facility in Fishers will help achieve that part of the brewery’s mission, too. “The City of Fisher has offered us some nice incentives and we have $45,000 from the state to improve infrastructure,” Omar elaborates. “Part of our project will include creating a biking and running trail running from 106th Street to our destination and up to the Mayor’s Office downtown.”
Outside of the infrastructure program, Sunk King maintains an ongoing dedication to giving back. “We want to help the community and promote sustainability,” Omar elaborates. “We have one employee who does nothing but work with nonprofits. We have partnered with more than 300 501-C companies to help raise money for various reasons. All of these initiatives are based in Indiana, if not necessarily in Indianapolis.”
A tasting destination
After five years in business, the brewery is still growing year over year. Though Sun King has attracted quite a following, Omar and his team plan to keep the beer in Indiana; with the exception of occasional brewers festivals. The company self-distributes around 80 percent of product, serving bars and restaurants as well as liquor stores throughout Indianapolis and Hamilton counties. The other 20 percent is sold through three local distributors who make sure the beer gets into stores and restaurants in the surrounding counties.
One of the greatest challenges to distribution that Sun King has faced is state legislation barring the sale of refrigerated beer in gas stations and convenience stores. Sun King beer is popular, but needs to be refrigerated. In late 2014, the crew is rolling out new technology and equipment that will close that market gap.
“Clay and I were featured on Inside Indiana Business, Gary Dick’s television and radio program, talking about it,” Omar says. “That was the first time it was made public that we will for the first time be producing unrefrigerated beer. In the second half of 2015, we will be able to successfully distribute to grocery stores, convenience stores and larger retailers such as Sam’s Club without compromising the quality of our product.”
Sun King is rolling out big changes in the coming months. Despite the potential for growth, the crew has no plans for expansion out of state. “We don’t sell outside of Indiana and we plan to keep it that way,” Omar explains. “We want to be a destination. It is amazing, the way tourism works, how many people visit here. A couple or group will come in from out of town and have one of our beers at a local restaurant. They say they like it and the servers recommend they visit. It has been great.”
The future looks good for the team. Omar foresees growth, but has not put a definitive number on company goals. “We had no intention to grow as fast as we have,” he notes. “Our predictions have us getting around 90,000 barrels in Indiana in the next five years. I don’t know what we’ll dream up next.” As a serial entrepreneur, Omar loves coming to work every day. In the next few years, though, he hopes to be able to retire –for real this time. “I have started more than 15 businesses over my lifetime,” he explains. “Some have been successful, others not as much. This is a good one. I think I’ll live longer because I’ve done this. It’s been a lot of fun.” When the time comes for Clay to take the reins as president, he will doubtless stay the course as Sun King Brewing continues to brew good beer with great people and a sense of humor.