I recently sat down with Clay Robinson, Owner of Indiana’s 2nd largest brewery: Sun King Brewery. His story about how they got where they are today is fascinating, as is their marketing approach and overall involvement in the community. We already knew he was a lover of beer, but also learned about his personal passions for traveling, reading and a particular Alaskan woman. All of those elements are an important piece to how he started one of the 50 fastest growing breweries in America. You’re going to love this interview…
Distinct Images: Sun King was recently named on the Top 100 Largest Craft Breweries in the country…how did this all come about?
Clay: I graduated from Wabash College and began working at Roscoe’s Tacos in Greenwood while refining my interest/tastes in beer. My timeline goes like this…
- 1999: I wanted to work downtown at a place with good beer and landed at Rock Bottom. For the first time, I met a guy like me, but who was making beer. I picked his brain about beer making and he was my first real introduction to the world of professional brewing. He told me that it was a hot, sticky, dirty and sweaty job, but that it was rewarding and fun and at the end of the day there was a pint of beer to enjoy that you made. That year I brewed my first beer: an Oatmeal Stout, and was hooked. After a year as an assistant brewer, I took over as head brewer at Rock Bottom Brewery and ran it for the next 3 years.
- 2003: I left and to take a 6-month break and figure out what I wanted to do with my life. 6 months turned into 3 years, a lot of traveling, reading, and exploring, all the while I was exhausting 401k.
- 2005: I realized I needed to start making money again, so I took a job brewing at The Ram downtown as their Assistant Brewer when they opened up their north side location. I worked alongside my now partner Dave Colt and we began the conversation, “What would you do if you could start your own brewery?”
- 2007: We had been approached by several individuals with money that wanted us to help them open a brewery and we realized that if we helped someone else open their brewery, we would end up in the same position doing something we loved for someone we might not necessarily agree with. We wanted to do things our way, so we started working on a plan to open a brewpub… We had a couple of restaurant partners and we asked our friend Steve, who happened to be an attorney, to join the team. After a year of planning and a lot of obstacles, it dawned on us that Indy didn’t have a brewery that was specifically crafting beer for distribution to local bars and restaurants, so we dropped the brewpub concept and restaurant partners and changed course. We had found our niche!
- 2008: In July I left my job at the Ram on a leap of faith, cashed in my 2nd 401k and headed to Alaska, where my fiancé was born and raised, in order to get away and clear my head. In September we came back and I locked myself in the house for 6 weeks to write the business plan. We pulled my father Omar out of retirement to mentor us and become the business mind behind our new company and we took the plan to our friend Andy who agreed to come on board and organize our investors.
- January of 2009: We purchased brewing equipment from a brewery in Maine that went out of business, dismantled it and shipped it back to Indy.
- March 2009: We started build out at 135 N. College and spent the next four months creating the infrastructure for a brewery.
- July 2009: We started making beer! We then started distribution and a few months later opened the Tasting Room.
- Today: We are the second largest brewery in Indiana, producing over 15,000 barrels of beer in 2012. We are one of the 100 largest craft breweries in America and we’re among the top 50 fastest growing breweries in the nation!
Distinct Images: How did you stumble upon DI?
Clay: Through your involvement with Movember in 2011. We loved the Movember shirt you guys did for us with mustaches, and Jim was easy to work with from day one.
Distinct Images: Why do you think there is value in branded promotional products?
Clay: If you have cool promotional products, people will want to wear your goods. We understand that the products we order aren’t just about the price, it’s about quality. Something people will actually wear and want to use. Promo apparel isn’t just a moneymaker, it helps create brand awareness. Sun King t-shirts are like walking billboards all over the city. We try to sell things at just the right price point so our customers don’t think twice about buying it.
Distinct Images: Have you seen a direct increase in sales or increase in brand awareness due to your distribution of promotional products?
Clay: We haven’t done heavy back-end analyzing, but what we do know so that beer + promo = a good pair. They lend themselves to a no-brainer partnership. Indy gets a lot of tourist traffic and people love to grab t-shirts when they come through a new city. Since we’re located downtown and near a lot of the action, we like to cater to our guests passing through.
Distinct Images: How would you describe your marketing approach?
Clay: It’s grown organically. Everything we do we make sure it’s genuine. We do what we want and participate in the events that seem fun or entertaining. Our primary goal isn’t always to get people to drink more Sun King, we honestly just like being out in the community doing what we love: making great beer and sharing it with people.
We are strategic in our social media, but we don’t have a traditional marketing budget. Our Community Partnership Program is our best marketing tool. We re-invest every dollar that comes in, so we don’t have a ton of money to give, but we have beer, which businesses, organizations and events want and need. So I’d say “giving back” is a huge piece of our marketing approach.
Distinct Images: Do your competitors use promo products as a marketing tool?
Clay: They certainly do, but we don’t want to do what other breweries do. We don’t worry about what the rest of them have going on. In fact, we want to do the opposite. It’s almost a turn-off to hear “other breweries are doing this, so you guys should.” We want to capture our own feel and spirit. What works for others might not necessarily work for us, so we stick to designing to the ‘Sun King’ style, which we feel is an advantage because our logo and artwork are fun and unique.
Distinct Images: What has been the most successful promo products you’ve ordered and why?
Clay: The Canvas t-shirts that you guys designed for us most recently. We can’t keep them on the shelves!
Distinct Images: What do you do off-season to keep your name circulating and business growing?
Clay: We’re busy year-round, but when it’s warmer outside people tend to drink more beer and share it with their friends. Our business increases with each warmer season, then that level becomes our new normal. We don’t do anything different, though. We’re constantly looking to improve, grow and invest more into the business.
Sun King is located downtown Indianapolis at 135 N. College, open for all sorts of fun things throughout the week: retail shopping, beer tasting and brewery tours. Check out www.sunkingbrewing.com for more information.Cheers and Keep Promoting!