“I first discovered Sun King Brewing Company at charity events [soon after they opened]. I would go to charity events and Sun King’s beers were there supporting the charity and introducing people to craft beer. That’s what drew my palate and drew my heart,” explained Robert ‘Bob” Whitt, who joined Sun King on April 18 as its second president and as a co-owner, following the retirement of Omar Robinson, SKB’s founding president and co-owner. Whitt has been the executive director of the White River State Park Development Commission for the past eleven years.
April 5, Bob Whitt and I pulled into the Sun King Brewery parking lot within seconds of each other—we ‘hobbled’ together into the building—he’s recovering from a skiing mishap, I’m a product of osteoarthritis. We both agreed a taste of Sun King at 11 a.m. just might be a fine way to the ease pain—though neither of us is medically trained for such conjectures.
Seated at a picnic table fashioned from rehabbed materials in the now luxurious feeling taproom, we reminisce about the ‘early days’ in 2009, when standing around a very much smaller brewing operation was the norm.
“[In] 2009 I would have been one of five or six patrons stopping in late afternoon, and it was easy to establish a relationship with Dave [Colt] and Clay [Robinson],” commented Bob, adding, “Over these past years it made sense for us to work together for the benefit of White River State Park, particularly Victory Field, one of the park’s dozen venues. So we developed a relationship that led to my being here.”
He acknowledges that this long tenure of working together allows him to feel comfortable in a situation where “Omar was a major force within this organization because of his knowledge of the production process and his vision for the growth of Indiana’s craft brewing industry.”
“Every business in the end is about people.” In Bob’s way of thinking, “Sun King would not be what it is without the people who are Sun King. The business model here is, you find the best people and place them in jobs where they are most productive and engaged and have fun.” For Bob, that’s a business plan that engages strengths while simultaneously developing any weakness into a strength.
Bob Whitt started his career in sales and marketing and during his tenure with White River State Park brought these private sector management skills into the continuing evolvement of the disparate organizations that make their home throughout the park’s 28-acres in the historic edge of downtown, providing a composite of opportunities for people to engage in on a continuing basis.
“The thing I’m most drawn to is the utilization of art with science—not purely one alone. Starting with a great idea for a beer, you need to move the art of creating something new into the science of production to replicate a product time after time. It’s art creating a thing that is consumable.”
Within a short time patrons trickled into the taproom, filling up the bar-height round tables. Bob and I chuckled when we noticed they were all able-bodied, and a pre-lunch pint didn’t seem out of the ordinary for meeting up, with groups of two and three engaging in conversation.
Stephen Aspling was tending bar. He brought us a sampling tray of six brews on tap . “I’m here to help where I possibly can,” offered Aspling, when I asked what drew him to SKB. He said that with a career in restaurants behind him, he’s poised to unite his expertise in customer service with Sun King.
Bob explained this is part of Sun King’s movement toward full service in the taproom. This is a change from the original intent of Sun King purely as an Indianapolis-based production brewery. At that time this goal was a major move from the modern craft beer brewpub model established by John Hill with the opening of Broad Ripple Brewpub in 1990.
“Food would have been a distraction in 2009 for Sun King, drawing away capitol and energy,” explained Bob. He added that a conscious decision to concentrate on growing craft beer patronage through already established bars and restaurants opened the way to grow new audiences, with an intention to educate servers to introduce craft beer to their patrons.
“Sun King took leadership in growing the industry to get more and more people to try craft beer, not just “a” beer, but a number of varieties.” Bob recalled the situation a mere seven years ago when “there was minuscule knowledge” about craft beer in Indianapolis, let alone all of Indiana. “In Portland, Oregon, 50 percent is craft beer; when you talk about potential, Indiana is in the early adolescent stage of growth. There are lots of opportunities to expand knowledge and patronage throughout Indiana.”
Sun King established itself as an Indiana craft brewery with intentions to bring craft beer into all corners of the state, all 92 counties, in a timely fashion. The initial step was to grow patronage in Indianapolis and enlarge distribution territory in sync with production capability. With legislation finally allowing for production growth, Sun King now is poised to enter the liquor store and grocery store markets on a wider scale.
Bob pointed out ‘making tweaks’ to Sun King’s core beers—Osiris Pale Ale, Sunlight Cream Ale and Wee Mac Scottish-Style Ale— enables them to be shelf-safe if the cans are not constantly refrigerated. Initially, Sun King cans went only to locations with guaranteed refrigeration from delivery to point of sale. The inherent nature of craft beer is for cold storage until served, and then to be allowed to warm up so as to experience multiple layers of taste.
That brought us to the samples we were sipping. Bob took the lead in commenting. He noted the relationship between taste and temperature and that balance relates to all aspects—creating a recipe, the brewing process, presentation and the ambiance where food and drink are enjoyed.
“Balance is so integral. So many beers I’ve tasted over the years, something was out of whack. Here, with these beers I’m able to appreciate the balance.” While Bob is not a brewer per se, he has an understanding of what is required. “I went to Culinary School [Ivy Tech] for fun. All the elements on a plate contribute to the whole; you want to create a composite where all the elements contribute equally, without one being overbearing. I love the layers of flavor in a dish and in a beer.”
While recognizing that people expect consistency batch after batch in a beer, the challenge for craft brewers is with variables that occur naturally because of changing weather conditions for growing grains and hops; and water is constantly in a flux. Adjustments are essential. Craft brewers can’t be complacent about ingredients—something different is a daily expectation, so “nailing consistency and quality” is a team effort, Bob notes.
At this point head brewer Adrian Ball came by to say hello. Adrian, in his sixth year with Sun King, agreed with Bob’s assessment that “you have to have a little bit of crazy obsession that goes into creating a new recipe and brewing it,” underscoring that “obsession starts with Dave and moves to the brewing teams, who are equally obsessed.”
Dave Colt from the start of his brewing career two decades ago, has had a commitment to sourcing locally and to sustainable practices, which basically is a craft brewing industry standard. Bob believes Sun King will figure even more so with the emerging Indiana Grown movement as Indiana hops and malting operations continue to grow. Expect to find Bob Whitt, in concert with co-founder Clayton Robinson, leading the momentum towards what he finds laudable across Colorado where grocery stores sport banners announcing “Colorado Proud” above shelves and bins of locally grown and produced products. “The State of Indiana has to do a better job educating the public about the values inherent in supporting home grown, home produced.” Bob is intent on “building initiatives,” working with the Indiana Department of Agriculture and proceeding with all the other state and county agencies to boost consumer education about shopping local, particularly when it comes to choosing quality beer.
“I’ve never seen another industry with this much collaboration as there is between brewers, and with brewers and their local communities and neighborhoods,” summarized Bob. “There is enough potential business out there statewide for craft breweries to thrive, though in the natural way of business there might be some culling along with more growth."
From its start, Sun King intended to pioneer ’Indiana beer,’ to have craft beer be embraced in all corners of the State. As with their commitment to philanthropy throughout greater Indianapolis, Sun King intends to be involved with communities where their brews are available. “For us it’s a source of pride to be a major player in the culture of Indiana. We have pride in being local,” said Bob, echoing Omar Robinson’s original mantra, adding, “We have a sense of ownership in our role as a cultural asset for communities of every size.”
Bob noted too that Sun King takes its employee relationship to a special level by providing a daily balanced and nourishing lunch, in the early years catered in and now prepared by a master chef on-site. This perk is a by-product of Sun King’s business model centered on making working at Sun King an enriching, productive experience in a variety of ways. Enjoying a meal together helps grow team spirit.
From the point of view of his broad spectrum of experiences, Bob posits, “Basic principles apply to all manufacturing businesses because all have the same issues connected with sustained quality as a core value and planned growth to remain viable. I see Sun King getting into distilling in the next couple of years.” Bob Whitt looks to this future as a way of maintaining the adventurous spirit inherent with Sun King. “It’s the fun of going into the process of a realm different from brewing beer.
“Being an executive director is a best job period. Being executive director of Sun King Brewing Company might be the best job in the State of Indiana. I’m honored to be here.”
End note: The seasonals and specials we sampled included Alrye’d Alrye’d Alrye’d Rye IPA; Big Iron English Barleywine; Indians Lager, a Vienna Lager; Fistful of Hops/Green 2016 American IPA; Velour Soccer Mom, a Mixed-Fermentation Sour of Raspberry and Hibiscus; and Rebrand Stout, a fine reminder that smooth taste with a spice kick remains a perfect interpretation of the musical “Once” for which the beer originally was brewed under the name of “Guy Meets Girl.”
: Hyman’s Handbook of Indianapolis: An Outline History, published in 1907, states [pages 290-293]: “It may not be uninteresting to know that of all the manufacturing industries in this city, the particular one that gives to us the widest advertising is the Indianapolis Brewing Company, which sends its product not only to all parts of the United States but also to Cuba, Porto Rico, the Philippines, China, the Argentine Republic and other South American States, to Central America and to Africa.” The entry credits IBC’s international recognition “lies with one of the leading brands of its manufacture, in competition with the highest class beers on earth, has earned the name Gold Medal Duesseldorfer,” having won grand prizes at the Paris Exposition in 1900, at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 and subsequently at the expositions held in Liege in 1905 and in 1906 in Paris (hygienic exposition) and in Milan, Italy.
More than a hundred years ago quality beer was a source of local pride.