Interview: Sun King Brewing co-founder Clay Robinson

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Craft Beer Indianapolis

Clay Robinson co-founded Sun King Brewing in Indianapolis in 2009 with Dave Colt. They’ve caught on thanks to their cans and kegs and recently brewed Batch 666, a beer they’re calling Sympathy For The Devil. On June 9, I met Robinson at the inaugural Firestone Walker Invitational Brew Fest, and he helped to explain how he’s found hop-fueled success.

Was it a given that you would work with beer for a living, or did you consider other careers?

I worked my way through college working in bars and restaurants. I worked in an English pub and that was really my first introduction to good beer and craft beer, and at the end of every shift, you’d get a shift beer, so I would try different beers. I had 60 or 70 different imports or micros available and a dozen different beers on tap. I started trying different beers and found my passion for flavorful beers. After I got out of college, I continued working in restaurants and I ended up working at Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery in downtown Indianapolis as a server. We did all the beer training and I got really intrigued by the process and everything to do with it. When I’d get done with work and have my shift beer there, I’d get done with work and sit down with the brewers because we had workdays and we’d finish up around the same time. I started talking to them, asking a lot of questions and just kind of became friends with them. A couple months into serving, a position opened up. The assistant brewer was moving on, so the head brewer asked if I wanted to make beer for a living. I said yes and that pretty much started it. I worked for Rock Bottom for about four years as an assistant brewer and then I ran the brewery for three years before leaving and ending up at The Ram, which is also in downtown Indianapolis, with my partner Dave Colt. The two of us spent about three years working side-by-side trying to figure out what we would do if we could open our own brewery, and Sun King is the end result.

Is there anybody who’s mentored you along the way?

I’ve learned from a lot of people. Rock Bottom, when I was with them, was a really great company to work for. They have a really good beer program overall. Kevin Reed, their Director of Brewing Operations, has always been really supportive of all the brewers. We’d do a yearly summit where all the brewers got together. You’d always have a senior brewer, so Scott O’Hearn, who’s out at Rock Bottom in Westminster, one of the flagship locations out there, was my senior brewer for awhile. I credit him with a lot of my development as far as recipe formulation, as far as other things go. Todd Hauge, who’s now at Surly, has been a good friend for a really long time. He was my senior brewer for awhile and was kind of in charge of the maintenance aspects of things, so I learned a lot about fixing shit from him.

What do you look for when you’re hiring people to work in your brewhouse?

We actually look for people who are passionate about beer and fit with our culture more than anything. Pretty much everyone that’s there at this point in time is somebody who Dave and myself have known for a long period of time. Dustin used to be my assistant brewer at Rock Bottom a number of years ago and was out at Rock Bottom in Indy for a year. We have six or seven fully qualified professional brewers on staff. About half of them don’t actually brew beer anymore because they do a lot of other things with the company. A lot of the people, we start off in the tasting room, first off. We very rarely hire straight out of the box somebody, although we recently hired somebody, James Hellmuth, who came from Schlafly brewing in St. Louis. His wife was going to grad school, he’s got a Siebel degree and had been at Schlafly for three years. We got to talking, he fit really well and he joined our team and is running our quality control program right now, doing all our lab work. You’ve got to be a little crazy.

What’s the criteria for a beer that you brew at Sun King?

We do all types of different beers. The essence of Sun King, from its beginning with Dave and I, is we wanted to make as many seasonal and specialty beers as we possibly could. We do three beers year round, Sunlight Cream Ale, Wee Mac Scottish Ale and Osiris Pale Ale. We do cans of all three of those beers, and for those beers, we strive to make those really well balanced and incredibly consistent, so if you try it here and show up in Indy in three months and try the beer, it will be what you remembered. On our seasonal and specialty runs, we try to do different things, interesting things, fun things.

We’ve got Popcorn Pilsner here today, which is made with Indiana grown heirloom popcorn which we air pop and add in the mash tun as an adjunct grain, and it kind of has a hint of popcorn at the end. We try to incorporate unique ingredients. Sometimes we’ll play with new hops, if there’s a new hop available. We’ll make a single hop pale or IPA version to get a really good idea of what those hops are gonna do before we might incorporate them elsewhere.

We also brought the Velvet Fog, which is our 333rd batch. With our Belgian beers, we tend to experiment more on the yeast side. Brewing Science in Colorado is our main yeast supplier and the guys out there have a really good understanding of what we do. Like for 333, it has a blend of six different Belgian yeast strains that have characteristics we really enjoy and want to impart in the beer. It depends on really what we’re doing, when, and as far as how we feel, what we do. In our first year, I think we did 50 different styles of beer.

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Do you have a very first beer memory, good or bad?

Actually, my very first beer memory is a really painfully early beer memory, cause I was 8. Actually, even earlier than that, when I was 3 or 4, my grandfather would drink Michelob, the short, stubby bottles with the silver foil on the top. I would always sneak sips of his Michelob and get slapped in the hand by my mom because I wanted to sip his beer. And I used to go on fishing trips with my dad in Canada, so I think when I was 8, it was my cousin’s 21st birthday and they thought it would be funny if they got me drunk. I probably had one or two beers, and experienced my first ever hangover the next day.

Who’s a brewer that you’ve never brewed with before who you would most like to brew with?

Just being out here and seeing what Firestone Walker has going on, doing a beer with Matt Brynildson would be great. The new facility was amazing. There are a lot of brewers. We’ve only done a handful of collaborations. The Oskar Blues collaboration we did, Dave Chichura, the head brewer at Oskar Blues, Dave Colt and myself have all been friends for 10, 15 years now and we’d never had a chance to brew together. That was really fun experience to get to do. I’d love to brew with the guys at Surly. We’ve done one with the Floyds, and that was a lot of fun because they’re our neighbors up in northern Indiana, and some good guys that we get along with. I would actually brew with anyone who’s at this Invitational.

What music do you like to listen to while brewing, if any?

We run a pretty eclectic mix. We’ve got a pretty large range of people and I listen to honky-tonk, hip-hop, rock and roll, punk, all eras and genres. Generally at the brewery, it will shuffle, rotate between like old school ’90s hip-hop to Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, all the way out to Wire or some ’70s rock. We brewed 666 recently and listened to a lot of AC/DC that day. We mix it up.

Where and what do you like to drink when you’re not working?

Mostly beer. Through my fiancée, I’ve come to a greater understanding and respect and taste for wine. It’s nice to branch out from beer, because I’ve been so heavily beer-centric forever. Beer-wise, I’m a hop head, so I love a good pale ale. As a brewery that cans, I’m always on the lookout. Right now I’m having the Yo-Ho, the Japanese IPA, and I had their pale. I’m always searching for good canned beers. I do like a really sessionable lager. I like all beers, I prefer most of my beers be in the 5-6% sessionable range because as a beer drinker, I like to drink a lot of beer. It makes it a lot more accomplishable with that range.

If you could travel to any city in the world right now, primarily to drink beer, what city would it be and why?

I’m lucky because I get to travel to a lot of cities, especially lately. Just in the last month, I’ve been in San Diego, here in Paso Robles, down in L.A., I was in Phoenix a couple weeks ago for a canned beer fest and in Chicago, all of which had really great, thriving beer scenes, but if I could go anywhere, I would go to Belgium and tour around and see some of the older breweries there. Recently, I’ve been developing a taste for sours and wild fermented beers. I think it would be really great to travel in a region like that, that has so much rich history and variations of styles of beer.

If you could only drink one more beer and you could not brew it, what would it be and why?

It would probably be Maui’s Big Swell IPA. It’s just really a fantastically delicious IPA.

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Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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