11 January 2010

The Hoosier Beer Geek 2009 End of Year Readers Survey: RESULTS! (Part 3) - The Rise of Sun King

For those of us in the Indianapolis area, the winner of this category came as no surprise. The opening of Sun King Brewing (50.85% of the vote) has been a major development, with the brewery establishing a presence in bars throughout the city and a growing net of outside Indianapolis accounts as well.

Perhaps the most amazing thing is that all of this success has happened in a very short (roughly 6 month) window. We stopped in to find out how and why.

* * * *

It's 4 o'clock on Friday afternoon when I step into Sun King's downtown headquarters to check out the crowd and take in one of the more impressive sights that I've seen since we've started this site - the regular Friday afternoon crowds at the brewery's tasting room.

They trickle in slowly at first - groups of two or three, sometimes more, some empty handed, but many more carrying growlers from not just Sun King, but from breweries all over the state and country. It isn't long before a crowd of 50-60 amasses, and despite the regular turnover, the crowd size never seems to diminish.

It's a safe assumption that a substantial part of Sun King's success is accessibility to the brewery. The folks at Sun King understood the need to have a downtown Indianapolis space from the get-go. "There were some brief discussions about space out by the old airport, but neither Dave nor I were willing to give up because we knew that no one was going to drive that far out of their way just to pick up some growlers", says owner/brewer Clay Robinson.

But they never really expected this sort of reaction.

"The tasting room has exceeded my expectations. We get a very steady, very diverse crowd through every week. I expected there would be die-hards that would show up week in and week out to fill their growlers, but it never ceases to amaze me how many new people stop by every week," said Robinson.

The success of Sun King's tasting room wasn't the only surprise. Initial plans for beer styles and varieties included tying public feedback and brewer/customer conversation into recipe tweaking, but initial successes in sales soon became an easier route to gathering public feedback.

Robinson: "Sunlight Cream Ale is a prime example. It was meant to be a summertime seasonal, but the response to it was overwhelming. We brewed it a second time and had discussions about when to cut it off, but it became very obvious, very quickly that it would be a bad idea! Bitter Druid was also never meant to be part of our house line-up, but it was the beer that right out of the gate people went nuts over it, largely because I don't think there any other beers out there quite like it.

We also talked about doing several wheats and letting our fans pick their favorite, but once our house line-up grew to four, from our original hopes of three, we decided that it would be more advantageous to treat our wheats in a seasonal capacity. There are so many styles of wheat beers and interesting things that can be done with the style that it seemed counter-intuitive to pigeon hole ourselves into one style of wheat beer."

The brewery is backed by a substantial group of investors and was sold as a long-term investment for those who bought in. Although the failure rate for microbreweries (apart from brewpubs) is below 1% (2008 numbers), in a year in which Indiana's Warbird Brewery closed its doors and admitted that it had never been profitable, it must have come as a surprise when Sun King reached the break-even point just a few months in.

"Our initial penetration was really good with craft beer bars and we received a lot of attention from the local media, which opened up a lot of doors and caught the attention of restaurants and bars outside of our initial scope and has helped to solidify our business. So from a business standpoint, we are ahead of where we thought we would be and things are going very well for us," said Robinson.

Another part of Sun King's success has been the repeated availability of new styles, giving drinkers something new to look forward to almost every time they visit the tap room. "We have been able to produce an impressive amount of seasonal beers in our short time. We are averaging 2.666666666666 seasonal/specialty beers every month, which means that Dave and I get to play, try new ingredients," said Robinson.

While Sun King's success is (obviously) a good thing for the brewery, it may also be a good thing for all craft beer in Indiana. World Class Beverages' Bob Mack said, "Locals beers are, in theory, an easier sale to a consumer who might consider getting into the craft category for the first time. And once a person gets into the craft category, they tend to experiment with many different brands, local or otherwise. So the local brewer brings more people into the craft category, which ultimately benefits all craft brewers, local and non-local."

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