Best Brew: Readers vote Sun King Brewery best Indiana beer 

"He was a wise man who invented beer," wrote Plato, back in ancient Greece. By Plato's time, beer had already been around a few thousand years. One guess puts the first brew in Persia - what's now Iran - 7,000 years ago. Some people believe it was our thirst for beer that prompted people to settle down and get serious about raising crops.

Beer, in other words, was the beginning of agriculture.

Breweries in Indianapolis date back to before the Civil War. The city's German community brought its taste for beer here and made local brews a common part of the landscape up through the 1940s.

After a hiatus of a few decades, a transplanted Yorkshireman, John Hill, opened Indy's first brewpub in Broad Ripple, helping to reawaken the sense that, yes, great tasting, prize-winning beer could indeed be produced here. After Hill, the deluge, as brewpubs began springing up all over town, turning people on to beer's seemingly infinite variety.

But it wasn't until a year ago that Indianapolis finally got a full production brewery it could call its own. To say the town was ready for what Sun King had to offer is putting it mildly.

When Sun King's founders Dave Colt and Clay Robinson began entertaining the idea that they could make a go of it just doing what they loved doing best, that is, brewing beer, they developed a business plan designed to take them through a five-year span. Twelve months later, on their first anniversary, an adoring public has enabled Sun King to blow past all the milestones Colt and Robinson thought it would take them until 2014 to reach.

How did they do it?

A little science, a little alchemy

"It was the right time. It was the right idea. And it was the right people," says Clay Robinson, the bearded half of Sun King's brewing duo. Robinson is nursing a can of Sun King's Osiris Pale Ale in the brewery's reception room. Walk through a nearby doorway and you find yourself in a hangar-like space with towering rows of gleaming brewing silos and big vats for grain. The place has the aroma of a liquid bakery.

"Brewing is a lot like baking," says Robinson. "We liken it to baking instead of cooking because in cooking you can do a dash of this, a dash of that. But with baking, you have to be precise in how you do it and your processes.

"Brewing is a little bit of science, a little bit of alchemy and a whole lot of hard work," Robinson adds. "You can have a pretty good idea of what the ingredients are going to taste like, but until it all goes together and yeast does the fermentation and actually creates the beer, you don't really know what it's going to be like."

Robinson takes another sip from his can. "Dave and I joke that, together, we make one fully competent brewer."

Dave Colt has the mildly distracted look of a man who'd rather be brewing beer than talking about it - unless he could brew and talk at the same time. He met Robinson while working at Circle V, an early Indy brewpub. It was at Circle V, under the tutelage of owner Mark Vojnovich, that Colt learned the joy of brewing. "Where the hot water meets the grain," he says," that smell was an epiphany."

Colt remembers Robinson stopping by to pick up a keg for a Phish show at Verizon. Later, the two would reconnect at downtown's Rock Bottom, where Robinson was head brewer and, later still, at the downtown Ram, where Colt had landed.

Together, the two men watched the taste for local craft beer burgeon. "Finally, here in Indiana, we're getting a lot of the west coast things that have been going on for a decade-plus," says Colt. "You can see that with the rise of farm fresh delivery type stuff and farmers markets cropping up everywhere. We're taking a look at things and what their importance is to us as far as local ingredients and what we can incorporate and make it signature to the Midwest and Indiana. It goes along with pride in where you're from. In wine they refer to terroir. We now have our own beer terroir, where this is unique to us because of where we sit geographically."

Colt and Robinson love to instill what they consider distinctly regional flavors in their beers, like tulip poplar syrup from Hickory Works in Trafalgar, local honey, or crab apple juice.

"On a day-to-day basis, brewing is both left brain and right brain," says Colt. "There's the physicality of a hard day's work, where you're physically mashing in the grain and putting it in with 200-400 gallons of water. Then there's also the mental portion of hitting the mark every time and making sure that the beer tastes the same, batch after batch. Those are the things I love about this job."

Colt refers to brewing as "mad scientist meets chef. You've got a lot of data supplied to you by the particular grower of the grains. They change from year to year, so you have to adapt your brewing to the changes that happen. The hops' alpha acids may be higher or lower. We have all of these fun equations - we plug stuff in so that we get the same result every time. Then the chef part comes in for creating new recipes, where you're tasting grains or things you might not have tried."

Creativity clearly plays a part in Colt and Robinson's approach to brewing. "We do a lot of playing," says Robinson. "We make traditional English-style ales and traditional German-style lagers, but the essence of what Dave and I wanted Sun King to be was focusing on seasonal and specialty beers. Our seasonal beers tend to be more traditional, but then our specialty beers and the random, one-off things, give us a chance to play and go off the beaten path."

Unabashed hopheads

If there's a hole in Sun King's admittedly crowded production schedule - in just their first year, Sun King has produced four house beers and covered 50 different styles - Robinson and Colt will begin bouncing ideas off one another about the next beer they'd like to make. [See info below]

"Bitter Druid, our ESB (Extra Special Bitter), was originally a summer seasonal," says Robinson. "We wanted to try our take on a classic English-style bitter, so we used a pretty classic English malt that's going to have a nice, earthy grain characteristic to it - very bready. And then, instead of balancing that with English-style hops, we Americanized it and dropped in some hops from the northwest called Glacier, that have a citrus characteristic."

Hops, by the way, look like little green pinecones. They are the female flower-clusters of a climbing plant originally traced to Bohemia and Bavaria. Hops play off the malt in beer, offsetting malt's sweetness with what brewers call a "bitter" or tangy side. Robinson and Colt happily admit to being unabashed hopheads.

"About every four to six weeks we come out with a big, hoppy beer," says Robinson. "That beer is generally designed with the hops in mind first. We say these are the hops we're getting, these are the flavors those hops are going to have. How do we want to use the grains to complement those flavors? A beer like our Doppelbock [which won a World Beer Cup medal last year] is more about the malt. You start by saying these are the malts we want to showcase and the flavors we want to get out of these grains. Then what hops do we use to balance them. There's no one way to go about it."

Sometimes the idea for a beer comes out of the ether. One day in March, Colt was out, working in his yard and listening to Little Stevie's Underground Garage on the radio. "Stevie was going on about how this was the high holy holiday for rock and roll history," Colt recalls. "That weekend was the anniversary of the first rock and roll show."

Three years later, Little Stevie's story continued, the movie Blackboard Jungle came out, featuring Bill Haley and the Comets performing "Rock Around the Clock," the first rock single to break the Top 40. "It changed popular music overnight," says Colt. "So I thought, 'How can I make this a beer?'"

Colt took a bunch of hops known for their grapefruit flavor and aroma and used them for the basis of a beer that he wanted to be "over the top and raw and edgy, that would do justice to that idea."

Ultimately, says Colt, "It took three different hop varietals that brought this resiny, heady, dark zest of grapefruit character... so you've got a triad - which is also rock and roll. Three notes in harmony."

Colt and Robinson named the beer Grapefruit Jungle. It's another Sun King favorite.

Bringing a brewery downtown

The Sun King idea began germinating in early 2006. That's when Robinson and Colt began trading ideas, hopes and dreams based on the experiences they had accumulated working local brewpubs like Rock Bottom, Ram and Circle V. At first, they talked about opening their own brewpub - that was all they'd known.

But the more they explored that option, the more frustrated they became. Something in the business model - the cost, the location, the need for a staff that had nothing to do with making beer - was always off. "We kept hitting this wall," says Robinson. "Finally, I looked at Dave and said, 'What if we just made beer. Do you think that would work?'"

Colt picks up the story: "Clay and I looked around our neighborhood and said, 'We're beer lovers, friends of ours are beer lovers, but there's no brewery saying, By God, this is Indianapolis and this is our beer.'"

They'd seen how local folks clambered for craft beers from other regions, like Three Floyds, Goose Island and Dogfish Head. There's a market here, they thought, so why not us, why not now? In effect, Colt and Robinson decided to make all the other bars and restaurants in the city their brewpub. "We realized if we made a full-scale production brewery that there were a number of bars and restaurants around that were growing a larger and greater beer culture that would be more apt to put our beer on tap because we weren't a competitive entity," says Robinson.

He was right. Today, 98 percent of Sun King's current accounts are locally-owned bars and restaurants.

Robinson likes to talk about the Master Mind principle, something he learned reading Napoleon Hill's entrepreneurial classic, "Think and Grow Rich." Hill worked with Andrew Carnegie and was an advisor to Franklin Roosevelt. He was a great proponent of positive thinking who believed in the power of collective action. As Robinson describes it, Hill's Master Mind principle goes something like this: "Any one person can do anything they want, but in order to do something really well, you need to recognize your weaknesses and surround yourself with people who compensate for those weaknesses."

So not only does the combination of Robinson and Colt amount to a complete brewer, but the overall Sun King team, including the management skills of Robinson's father, Omar and all-around-er Andy Fagg, have enabled Sun King to come as far as it has in a short time.

"We're all really happy to be doing what we're doing," says Robinson. "We're more than just a brewery. We're people doing something."

Adds Colt: "We want this to be an enjoyable culture. We all work very hard, but we need to have some fun at it at the same time."

In addition to teamwork, Sun King's culture also emphasizes a sense of place. The decision on where to locate the brewery was driven by practical factors, like industrial zoning requirements and access to major traffic arteries, but there was also a karmic element. After making the rounds of industrial parks and being tempted by Fountain Square, Colt, Robinson and company realized that their only and best option was downtown. "If we want to be known as Indianapolis' brewery, where do we need to be?" asks Colt rhetorically. His answer: "Indianapolis proper."

The downtown location on College Avenue has also meant that Sun King's tasting room draws a crowd when it's open Thursdays through Saturdays. Many of those people leave the brewery with take-away growlers in hand that wind up as totems helping to spread the news about Sun King beers. "I think people feel proud that Sun King is here," says Robinson. "They're very evangelical - and we love them for it."

The best beer they can make

Robinson and Colt recognize that Sun King is participating in a larger shift in public consciousness about beer-drinking. Although the audience for craft beers remains a fraction of the larger beer-drinking public, enthusiasm and curiosity about local, artisanal products is booming.

"I know there's a portion of American society that drinks one kind of beer and they drink that every day, all of the time," says Robinson. "I discovered there was more than that. I could have a big, rich roasty stout next to a fire in the wintertime. Or I can have a really nice, crisp kolsch or pilsner in the summer. Gradually discovering hops and all the different flavors, the variations are what hooked me."

Says Colt: "People are getting away from the '50s model of bigger, better, exactly as the Joneses. They want things to be custom and important to them. With beer you have a multitude of brewing styles, varying grains - wheat, rye, buckwheat, oats. Anything you can make cereal out of you can use to make beer. Our palate is much broader and we can incorporate zests of fruits or chamomile or spices and herbs, as well as techniques like oak aging."

"There were a lot of people, for a very long time, who thought American beer was shit," says Robinson. "A lot of these people thought the craft beer movement was just a fad. And there are a lot of beer traditionalists who don't like a big, hoppy pale ale. But there are now fewer boundaries on where good beer can be produced."

Sun King has eclipsed those boundaries as far as Indianapolis is concerned. "Our whole goal, setting out, was to brew world class beer for a world class city," says Colt. "We want to honor the citizens of Indianapolis and the surrounding area by producing the best possible beer we can make."

Sample of Sun King:

The following Sun King House Brews are available year round at the brewery Tasting Room at 135 N. College Ave. For more information about Sun King, go to www.sunkingbrewing.com.

Sunlight Cream Ale is a tasty introduction to the world of Craft Beer. Cream ale, one of the earliest styles of American beer, was virtually wiped out by American lager brewers. As an all malt beer [it does not have rice or corn added as filler, its smoothness comes from the finest quality barley, wheat and oats delicately balanced with American hops and a cool fermentation for a crisp, clean finish at 5.3% ABV [alcohol content] and 20 IBU [International Bittering Unit, the scale used to measure hop bitterness in a beer]. Sunlight is canned and is Sun King's best-selling beer. It won a Silver Medal at the 2010 World Beer Cup in the Blonde or Golden Ale Category.

Wee Mac is a Scottish style Brown Ale. Fermented at cooler than normal temperatures to mimic the climate of Scotland, Wee Mac is an easy drinking brown ale that has a nice hazelnut character with rich toffee undertones, making for a satisfying after dinner drink and with desserts. Hops are used sparingly and serve only to help balance the sweetness of the malt. 5.4% ABV; 23 IBU.

Bitter Druid ESB, Extra Special Bitter, is a new twist on an old British favorite. This Americanized ESB blends American 2-row pale malt with choice British specialty malts to create a rich malt start that is followed by a crisp, American hop finish. It is an inviting "gateway" to the world of hops due to its delicate balance and rich array of flavors. It's a rich copper-gold with a 5.8% ABV and 43 IBU.

Osiris Pale Ale, an assertive American Pale not meant for the timid, contains a blend of three choice varieties of American hops to create a spicy, citrus hop punch to satisfy any hop head. Every batch of Osiris is dry-hopped towards the end of fermentation for maximum hop flavor, aroma and character. Its 5.6% ABV is kicked up by 50 IBU's. Osiris is available in cans.

Here are the summer seasonals and specials currently available:

Firefly Wheat is a unique and complex take on Belgian Wheat Beer. Firefly utilizes a special yeast that imparts fruity and spicy notes to the beer which compliments the character of the wheat malt. Firefly is unfiltered and crafted from the finest quality American malts, which creates a refreshing drinking experience at 5.2% ABV and 13 IBU.

The Golden Slumber is the 111th batch brewed at Sun King since its July 1st, 2009 opening. It's a Belgian Golden Strong Ale that was crafted with a magical blend of 7 Belgian yeasts. It has a cloud-like appearance with the aroma of ripe apricots. The flavor is reminiscent of peach cobbler with a hint of nutmeg that gives way to a creamy, yet dry finish at a strong 9.25% ABV and mild 30 IBU.

XX Rye IPA is the latest in Sun King's rotating IPA [Indiana Pale Ale] series. Rye adds a spicy character to the malt, blending beautifully with the American hops used to gives this beer hop punch at 8.3% ABV, 73 IBU.

Rathskeller Amber is a smooth, malty American Amber Ale with a rich caramel malt character that is balanced by German Noble Hops for 5.4%. ABV, 23 IBU. It is brewed exclusively for the Rathskeller Restaurant, Indianapolis' premier German Restaurant and Beer Hall, and also available at Sun King's Tasting Room year round.

Johan the Barleywine, a limited edition brewed on Sun King's first day of production on July 1, 2009, was tapped and served with a dessert specialty, "doughnut muffins," for their first anniversary celebratory dinner on July 1, 2010. Johan is an homage to Dave and Clay's dear friend and fellow brewer, John "Johan" Hanley, who passed away several years ago. Johan is an English-Style Barleywine fermented with a special blend of 10 different ale yeasts and cellared for an entire year before release. It has a huge malt punch that is delicately balanced with hops from the Northwest. 10% ABV, 60 IBU.

Grapefruit Jungle is a west coast-style I.P.A. [India Pale Ale] aptly named for the rich grapefruit characteristics of the three hops used to create it, Grapefruit Jungle is bursting with hop flavor and aroma. With the equivalent of one pound of hops in every keg, Grapefruit Jungle is a hop lover's dream at 7.5% ABV;77 IBU.

Cream Dream III is even bigger. The Imperial IPA is the third in the Cream Dream Series, expanding beyond Cream Dream II with added Centennial hops. 9.9% ABV and 100% IBU says it all.

-Rita Kohn

More by David Hoppe

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