Science, creativity key ingredients for Sun King brewer

Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share
On The Clock A Look At Interesting Jobs

It’s late August and co-owner Dave Colt is already fielding requests for Sun King Brewing Co.’s Oktoberfest seasonal beer, which needs another two weeks in the fermenting tanks before filling kegs throughout central Indiana.

Colt Colt

Since its first tapping about 13 months ago, Indianapolis-based Sun King has generated a noticeable buzz—pun intended—in the craft beer community. It’s available in kegs and cans in more than 200 locations, and Colt and his partners plan to invest $400,000 over the next six months to double production capacity.

“I’ve been really impressed with those guys,” says Lockerbie Pub owner James Waanders, who buys four Sun King kegs each week and soon will have a tap devoted solely to its seasonal selections. “And I don’t think I’m the only one.”

Assured by the brewmaster himself that the malty German lager will be available soon, Waanders leaves Colt to his work in the College Avenue production facility.

The 44-year-old throws down a couple of Long’s Bakery doughnut holes before making his way from the front office to his cathedral: a 18,500-square-foot one-time warehouse that now holds the tools of his trade.

There’s a malt mill for cracking open roasted grain, a “mash tun” tank for combining the malt with hot water, a kettle for boiling and adding hops, and a heat exchanger that cools the substance before it enters one of the 13 fermentation tanks, where the hoppy sugar water coalesces with yeast to create the preferred libation. This fall, the brewery will add six more fermentation tanks, which hold anywhere from seven barrels—the equivalent of 14 kegs—to 60.

Getting the mixture from the malt mill to the heat exchanger can be done in a day’s time, but once it enters the fermentation tank, the process dramatically slows. Depending on the batch’s alcohol content, it will ferment anywhere from two weeks to six months.

Understanding the flavors

Sun King Adrian Ball, of the Sun King brew crew, cleans lines, essential for the correct fusion of flavors in its signature craft beers. (IBJ Photo/ Perry Reichanadter)

On this Friday morning, Colt works on what will become 15 barrels of Osiris Pale Ale, the 195th batch of beer Sun King has produced.

Colt, a 14-year brewer, climbs a set of metal stairs to the top of the mash tun, where the grain is introduced to hot water and compressed, eventually producing sugar water called “wort,” free of large grain particles and syrupy proteins that might have formed.

Crouched atop the stainless steel tank, Colt inserts a water hose 3 inches in diameter into the top of the mash tun, which eventually will reach about 160 degrees Fahrenheit. The grain is delivered through an auger and starts to soak.

When tanks are being filled or drained, the craftsman turns his attention to other duties—scrubbing and prepping vacant tanks, for example—and occasionally monitors what’s going on inside active vessels. Still, getting to that point is anything but easy.

“I liken it to a mad scientist meeting a chef,” Colt explains. “There are calculations that lead to the right combination, but knowing and understanding the flavors and ingredients is crucial.”

The making of a craft beerThe inaugural batch of Sun King was crafted in July 2009. The brewery has since churned out 40 styles, invented using distinct blends of the 30 grain and over 100 hop varieties it has in stock.

This day’s 15-barrel batch of Osiris uses 1,000 pounds of barley, 300 gallons of water, 10 pounds of hops, and five gallons of yeast. The blend combines three kinds of hops and “is not meant for the timid,” the Sun King website suggests.

The ratio of ingredients is relatively fixed, Colt says. Sun King’s recipes are written down and brew sheets are kept for the Alcohol and Trade Commission’s excise police and for state records.

Not so formulaic—the environment inside Sun King.

Play that funky music white boy,” Wild Cherry howls through a set of speakers. “Play that funky music right.”

“A funky beat comes on,” Colt explains, strumming his air guitar. “Bootsy puts on a fat bass, I mean, what are you going to do?”

Wait. Who’s Bootsy? Colt staggers away, bursting out a solo. Ugh, never mind.

Finding ‘peanut butter and jelly’

This isn’t Colt’s first tour, metaphorically speaking. The South Bend native served eight years as head brewer at the Ram downtown, brewing 650 batches of beer there. Sun King co-owner Clay Robinson worked as his assistant brewer starting in 2005, and the two began to entertain thoughts of opening their own brewery.

Although the brewery would not disclose revenue figures, Sun King’s apparent early success mirrors that of the burgeoning craft beer industry. While total beer sales in the United States dropped an estimated 3 percent in 2009, craft beer sales climbed 10 percent to $7 billion, according to the Colorado-based Brewers Association.

Sun King Jaroslaw Petruniw fills a 64-ounce growler with Chinookie I.P.A. (IBJ Photo/ Perry Reichanadter)

Sun King is one of more than 30 breweries and brew pubs in the Brewers of Indiana Guild, and at least three more Indianapolis microbreweries are in the planning stages. For the time being, though, Sun King is the only full-scale production brewery in the Circle City.

It’s hungry work, and Colt makes his way to an office adjacent to the brewery, where employees have cut up Landjäger sausage from Claus’ German Sausage and Meats market for lunch.

Again, it’s down the hatch and back to the grind for Colt.

He usually works more than 60 hours each week, and figures this day will require a standard 12 hours, mostly involving the beer-making process.

The mash tun has done its thing, and Colt now equips the hose lines necessary to transfer the sugar water to the heating kettle, where hops are added.

The process commences and he waits, periodically checking the composition by dipping a yard-long ladle inside the kettle, being heated by a gas-powered burner. The content typically boils one to two hours and sometimes as long as four.

In the meantime, he strolls over to the grain inventory—bags upon bags each weighing about 2,500 pounds. Colt samples a few small handfuls, including a caramelized rye that tastes like Raisin Bran and a black patent malt with an ashy aroma and little residual sweetness.

He washes out a sampling glass and begins filling it with a new variety called Crab Apple Wit, a brew infused with crab apples that has been fermenting for three weeks that’s set to be distributed the following Friday.

Unusual ingredients have become signature components in several Sun King varieties. Indian honey, shagbark hickory syrup and bark from a tulip tree—the Indiana state tree—are among the oddballs with which Sun King brewers have experimented.

“There are some combos that just don’t work, and then there are those that fit together really well,” Colt explains. “You try to find that peanut butter and jelly.”

He checks the kettle again. The now-boiling, hop-induced substance will pass through a heat exchange—reducing its temperature to 70 degrees—before mixing with yeast inside a fermenting tank. Yeast is a living organism, Colt explains, and will die if the hoppy wort is not cooled. If the ingredients get along, beer will be made.

Of the people, for the people

As afternoon sunlight enters through the building’s windows, Colt provides samples of six selected brews to patrons who have made their way to the tasting room that opened at 1 p.m. He mingles, talking beer with visitors as only a hop head can.

Sun King Brewing Co. factsDespite not having a defined marketing budget, the brewery has been aggressive in getting its name out—and winning over fans.

Along with tasting room hours on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Sun King hosts tapping events at local establishments.

“They get out for tapping parties, so you have a personal connection,” says Waanders, the Lockerbie owner. “It’s like that Sam Adams commercial, but real.”

Sun King also sells its product at Victory Field, and recently signed on with the Lawn at White River State Park concert series.

Robinson has spearheaded projects aimed at capitalizing on social media, Colt says. Photos and updates are posted “religiously” to the brewery’s Facebook page, which has 5,422 fans, and its Twitter account, which has 1,810 followers.

Personally, Colt likes what brewing demands of him.

“It’s creativity, it’s math, it’s the physicality of the job,” Colt says. “That’s satisfying.”•


  • finally
    I buy it because it's local, but also because it's a better quality product. It was just a matter of time, because craft beer sales are still a small segment in Indy compared to some other cities. I hope they make it "refill accessible" in Broad Ripple like Upland did recently. We are lucky in BR to have Brewpub and Upland, but at 10% annual growth (there is probably higher growth rate in Indy, since our base is so small), there is more room for everyone.

  • Excellent
    Gotta love it when local businesses are supported like this. A true success story.
  • Cheers
    Great story.
    I've never been so proud to promote a business and brand. Sun King has really become a part of the fabric of Indianapolis in a very short time.
  • awesome
    great to see the sun king story play out so well - perfect timing for some really great beer.

Post a comment to this story

We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in IBJ editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by

facebook - twitter on Facebook & Twitter

Follow on TwitterFollow IBJ on Facebook:
Follow on TwitterFollow IBJ's Tweets on these topics:
Subscribe to IBJ
  1. Good Day I am Mr (Victoria Wright) from United state of America, i stayed in NEW YORK, and i have a broke up business, until i found this company email who help me to gain a loan for business,, and now i want to used this short medium to congratulate the below company for the fast and safe money they loan to me without any form of collateral, i loan 500,000USD from the company to save my business and lots more, i saw their mail on the internet, everyone always give testimony for what they did, so i quickly contacted them and they all did everything for me without stress and my money was sent to my account just 3 days later, i was surprise and i feel so glad, now i have a standard business control agent who help me, now i will advice those who need urgent loan to contact him at the bellow email:zenithfirm12@gmail.com

  2. NOTICE:This is to inform the general public that Vampires are real. My name is James Franklyn.,am an agent of vampire,am here to introduce our new world trend to you,a world of vampire where life get easier,we have made so many persons vampires and have turned them rich,you will be assured long life and prosperity,you shall be made to be very sensitive to mental alertness,stronger and also very fast,you will not be restricted to walking at night only even at the very middle of broad day light you will be made to walk.In case you are wildly oppressed by some unscrupulous persons we can still help you fight them.Your protection is assured immediately you join.Just contact the bellow email if you are interested we are here to attend to you anytime you want us. Contact the bellow email for more details. Email:vampirescreed@hotmail.com Sincerely: James Franklyn.

  3. Bravo! Someone else that is willing to speak the truth! Bravo!_____NBCSN is available in almost 2 MILLION more homes than just a few years ago, but Indycar STILL gets less total viewers than it did just a few years ago when NBC took over Versus. Attendance and ratings cratered with the end of season races (just when the title battle got "interesting" HAH!__________And now...new race in Basilia, where Miles celebrated the "rich history" of Indycar racing there. Rich history? What, 7 events in the 100 years of AOW? Yep, some history. Well, at least its an oval. It's not??? Are you kidding me??? Gosh darn road racin furriners.

  4. PURITY RAY LOAN OFFER........ Have you been denied by your banks,or are you in need of of an urgent loan to pay of your bills we are capable of giving loans @ cheaper rate to interested individuals, student, companies and members of the public in need of finance to settle bills, we do offer considerable loans which you can count on. For more information on our various types of loan,then you will have to contact PURITY RAY LOAN FIRM, to help you achieve your desire LOAN APPLICATION FORM TO BE FILLED BORROWERS INFORMATION * Full name:………………………. * SEX * ……………………………. * Country………………………….. * State:……………………………. * Land:…………………………….. * Occupation:…………………….. * phone number:…………………. * Telephone: ………………………….. * Age:………………………………. * Amount needed as loan:……… * Loan Duration:………………….. * Propose of Loan:……………….. * Annual revenue:………………… * Monthly Income:……………….. * Guarantee:………………………. * Payment: monthly or annually Email.....purityrayloanfirm@gmail.com Thank you and God bless Mr Purity Ray PURITY RAY LOAN FIRM we tend to serve you better

  5. Problem: most of the people responding to this article don't know about this service AT ALL! Why? Lack of awareness. This isn't IndyGo. This is CIRTA: might as well be the mattress company because they are asleep at the wheel - something like 3 directors over the last year? Playing with federal grant money is great! This "region" wants commuter rail service, has spent MILLIONS on Transportation studies yet can't even support a commuter bus line? This is largely for suburban riders to get to downtown - not for "service people to work in our hotels and restaurants" ! Get your head out of your backside!! These are professionals, students etc. that don't want to fight traffic, save some money on parking, gas, stress.... if CIRTA would put their federal money into widely promoting the sevive to Greenwood, Fishers & Carmel instead of finding directors and studies - this would be a successful service. Our family uses(d) it daily for the last several years - but the recent uncertainty & now unreliability due to cuts from Carmel has been a problem. Now, costs us an additional $350/month for gas & parking ( $4200/year) plus vehicle wear, service, environmental impact ... YES - this REGION needs this this type of service in order to keep growing and getting the people it needs to fill skilled positions in downtown Indianapolis. Think outside of your own car !!!