There are a number of reasons to be jealous of Neal Taflinger. First, there’s the hair. You don’t have to be follicly challenged (like me) to appreciate that. Second, there’s the nickname: Taffy. The only candy nickname I ever had was “Zero”. Finally, he’s been out front in covering the beginnings of Indiana’s newest brewery, Sun King. If you haven’t seen his coverage, you can check it out here. And here. And here, here, and here.
Well, my envy of Mr. Taflinger has been reduced by a third. No, I didn’t buy a rug (though I would look SWEEEEEEET!). In early March, by pure luck, I happened to be drinking at the same bar at the same time as Clay Robinson, the headbrewer for the future Sun King. And it didn’t take long for me talk Clay into giving Hoosier Beer Geek access to the birth of a new brewery.
Which is why on a recent Friday afternoon, Rod and I were standing inside of a former ambulance service garage. This large empty space will be the future home of Sun King Brewing. The space will soon be filled, though, with brewing equipment relocated from Maine. The 15 and 7 barrel systems will be capable of producing 2,500 barrels per year. From the fermenters will come a standard lineup of three beers (something wheat, something pale and hoppy, and something malty) plus two dozen seasonal and specialty beers.
When you step back and look at the number of breweries in our state , it's actually pretty impressive. Even though we would all like to see more, opening up an independent restaurant in our city is risky business. Not to mention all the headaches of running a restaurant on top of keeping up on the production of quality beer. Perhaps that's why Clay Robinson decided not to open a brewpub. Instead, he's decided to go commercial.
Clay's no stranger to the brewhouse. Not only does he have experience brewing at both the Rock Bottom and RAM downtown, he's also toured the country in search of wisdom from brewers who have paved the road before him. Now, with a location that already has enough area to rival the largest in Indiana, he's ready to bring his beer to you. Well, maybe not literally to your doorstep, but he will hand deliver it to your favorite bar. Clay is taking "Hoosier Hospitality" to a new level and establishing relationships with many of the owners of the most prominent craft beer bars in Indianapolis. He wants to take an active role in making sure he's selling the right kind of beer to the right kind of bar. Though Sun King won't be offering their beer out of their own brewpub, they will operate a tasting room that will be open at limited hours throughout the week to allow customers to try the beer and purchase growlers and kegs to go.
Sun King is taking great care to make sure they aren't delivering the same product with a different name. Indianapolis has a thriving brewery scene with a lot of breweries doing a lot of different things. The Sun King beers will take a traditional approach to stylistic brewing, with an American flair. Take for example a prototype ESB we sampled. Instead of attempted a pure English-style ESB like Broad Ripple Brewpub is producing, they chose to go the American route and create a well balanced, crisp and refreshing ESB that would make for a great summer beer while still carrying a complex malt character with a healthy touch of hops. Ideally, the Sun King beers will be designed to stand out on their own in the row of tap handles instead of directly competing with other local brands.
Production at the brewery is currently on track for a very aggressive schedule. Clay should have 3 beers available to sample at this year's Brew-Ha-Ha . Not content to restrict their offerings, a full lineup of at least 7 beers are planned for the Microbrewer's Festival. Just like any brewer, Clay also wants to experiment with Sun King's offerings. In addition to the 7 commercial fermenters, Sun King has a small-batch fermenter to produce limited-release beers available for sale on the tap room. We're talking higher gravity and aged beers. The kind of stuff us beer geeks tend to seek out.
Outside of the future brewery, there is a picnic table in the parking lot. That is where we sampled a potential Sun King beer in coffee mugs-turned-sample cups. The success of the business will depend on the success of the beer. And the success of the beer will depend on its brewers, investors, and other contributors. Working along side Clay will be Dave Colt. Until recently, Dave was the long time brewer at the Ram in downtown Indianapolis.
Also helping Sun King become a success is Michael Pearson. Michael's title is "friend of the brewery", as he has no official position with Sun King. He and Clay have known each other for a long time, working together on a Pro/Am beer submission. The pilot batches of potential Sun King recipes are being brewed by Michael on his home brewing equipment. As Clay put it, "I'm a commercial brewer, not a home brewer. I couldn't do successful small batches like these."
While Clay was taking a call, we asked Michael if he thought he would want a full time position at Sun King. He pointed out that he is a process engineer at Eli Lilly and that it would likely involve a drop in pay. Besides, helping Clay isn't a conflict of interest from a business point of view, so he is happy with his level of involvement right now.
Another member of the Sun King dream team is Omar. Aside from being a former bootlegger during his college days, he is also co-owner. Oh, and he is Clay's dad.
On the two occasions that I met Clay, he frequently talked about his dad, his dad's business experience, and how much he is contributing to the success of the business. And in Taffy's writings, you see where Clay mentions Omar on different occasions, mentioning his food service and business expertise as great assets to the business.
But I get the feeling that this is more than just a business. It is more like the ultimate father-and-son project. Screw soap box racers, son, let's brew beer!
As the construction of the brewery advances, we hope to keep you updated. If you have any questions for Clay or about Sun King in general, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll try to get you answers!