Sun King brewing another round of growth

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Clayton Robinson is determined to retain the unique culture of Sun King Brewing Co.—an environment built around a work force of interesting, eclectic people who are a little bit crazy—even as he navigates head-spinning growth.

When Robinson opened Sun King in mid-2009, he figured the company might be producing 5,000 barrels of beer in five years. It turns out, Sun King hit that figure in 2010, reached 10,000 barrels in 2011, and is on pace for 16,000 to 18,000 this year.

Next year, 25,000 barrels is “entirely possible,” said Robinson, 37, who spends much of his time these days evaluating options for the next phase of expansion at the company’s 135 N. College Ave. brewery, which is likely to occur next year.

After just three years in business, Sun King finds itself the second-largest brewer in Indiana, behind only Three Floyds Brewing Co. in Munster, which produces about 23,000 barrels and also is growing quickly.

robinson-clay-mug.jpg Robinson

It’s an overnight success story. Or at least it looks that way from the outside. But in fact, Robinson has been building to this point since the late 1990s, when he began brewing for Rock Bottom. He later joined Ram Restaurant & Brewery. Another partner, Dave Colt, brewed for the former Circle V Brewing Co. and then Ram.

“A lot of people look at Sun King, and they are like, ‘Wow. You came out of nowhere and have exploded,” Robinson said. “But what I think a lot of people don’t realize is, I was a professional brewer for a decade before we started Sun King, and Dave was a professional brewer for 12 or 13 years.”

That experience—and the relationships they developed along the way—were vital to getting a foot in the door at local restaurants from the outset. Also key, Robinson believes, was putting its brewery and its tasting room near the center of the action. Downtown workers flock to the tasting after work on Thursdays and Fridays, filling their growlers for the weekend. Many share what they buy with friends who might not know Sun King, expanding the fan base of the beer.

Sun King’s timing didn’t hurt, either. Its rise coincides with the rapid growth of the craft beer industry in Indiana and nationally. As interest in craft beer has increased, breweries have proliferated. The state now has 49 breweries, with Three Floyds, Sun King and Upland Brewing Co. in Bloomington by far the largest.

Robinson said the company also benefits from having five owners, each with a different set of strengths. One of them is his father, Omar Robinson, a serial entrepreneur who came out of retirement to work at Sun King full time.

Even so, managing the growth is tough and gets even more so the larger Sun King becomes. The company wants to keep supply just ahead of demand, so that its beer is fresh and high-quality. Yet everything from ordering the right amounts of hops and grain at the right price to buying pricey new brewing tanks—is tricky and must be done weeks or months ahead of time.

“I have always said from the beginning, ‘Beer is not doughnuts. You can’t just make more of it,’” Robinson said.

Which helps explain why Sun King last summer temporarily rationed the supplies to liquor stores, a move that ensured it could continue to service all of its 700 accounts. At around the same time, it stopped taking new customers, and now has a waiting list of 40 bars and restaurants.

The challenges will become all the greater as Sun King approaches the 30,000-barrel threshold. Under Indiana’s quirky alcohol laws, it wouldn’t be able to continue operating its tasting room or handling its own distribution, unless it sold everything above 30,000 out of state.

The threshold had been 20,000 before the General Assembly increased it two years ago. Robinson hopes lawmakers provide a similar reprieve at 30,000, and he thinks he has a persuasive case—the negative impact enforcing the law would have on Sun King’s 35 full-time workers and the 80 part-timers who work in the tasting room and staff special events.

“If we were to go over 30,000, we would actually have to fire over 100 people,” he said.

Ex-CPA firm chief found guilty

A former big fish in the Indianapolis accounting community could face up to five years in prison following his conviction on bankruptcy fraud charges. An Orlando, Fla., federal jury handed down the verdict Aug. 23.

John K. Freeman, 66, served in the 1980s as managing partner of KMG Main Hurdman, an Indianapolis accounting firm that at its peak had more than 75 employees. He later moved to Monticello, and then to Florida.

Prosecutors charged that when he filed for bankruptcy in 2005, Freeman failed to disclose that he was in possession of more than $700,000 in checks, many made out to his 85-year-old mother, for whom he served as “attorney in fact.”

Investigators said Freeman used the money to pay a Florida country club, buy a luxury car, and pay off the mortgage on a Monticello property, then transferred the balance—$380,000—to a separate account.

Freeman is scheduled for sentencing Nov. 30.•

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