Indiana's Sun King Leaves Home for the First Time

Michael Kiser

THE GIST
Signaling the company’s debut away from home, Sun King Brewing has announced plans to expand its distribution reach beyond Indiana borders. In a statement, the company says it has signed on with Lakeshore Beverage for coverage in Chicago, Ill., while River City Distributing will handle the brand in Louisville, Ky. Sun King beers are slated to be available in the new markets beginning this August, supported by a slew of launch parties and tap takeovers.

This post has been updated with comments from Sun King's Clay Robinson at the bottom.
 

WHY IT MATTERS
The move away from home – its first since being founded eight years ago – follows a number of investments that the brewery says have enabled it to produce enough beer to finally begin satisfying demand in neighboring markets. That includes a $2 million expansion at its Indianapolis headquarters, which saw the addition of another 420-BBL tank (though even before that, Sun King was one of the state’s largest breweries).
 
But capacity constraints haven’t been the only factor tethering Sun King to its home base. Since launching, changing antiquated production laws that long limited how much beer breweries could make had been core to Sun King’s mission. And in 2015, the company – with help and support from the rest of the state’s brewing industry – succeeded, when then-Gov., now vice president Mike Pence signed a bill allowing brewers to sell up to 90,000 barrels per year in-state, up from 30,000.
 
These two things together – added production and more lenient laws – have cleared the way for Sun King to explore new terrain, according to Clay Robinson, brewery co-owner.
 
“We haven’t sold our beer outside of the state due to constraints caused by our own capacity and restrictions that were in place because of antiquated state laws,” he says in a statement. “Having worked to increase Indiana’s barrelage limitations and increase Sun King’s capacity to make more beer, we’re now in a position to not only meet the demands of Hoosiers throughout the state, but also to share our beer in other markets where craft beer enthusiasts want to enjoy it.”
 
What’s interesting, though, is that in the past, Sun King has suggested that simply staying home was itself reason enough to stay home. In fact, the company has oft likened itself to New Glarus in nearby Wisconsin, which has become famous for its unwavering commitment to not growing beyond its borders, while still manufacturing quite a good bit of beer.
 
Here’s Dave Colt, Sun King co-founder, speaking with theIndianapolis Star in 2014:
 
“Our model is New Glarus in Wisconsin. When I think of Wisconsin, I only think of New Glarus. I just think, here is the giant stamp of New Glarus (smacks fist into palm) – boom – all over the state. That’s kind of what we’d like to do here.
 
And here’s Robinson, a second later from the same story:
 
“When Sun King opened in 2009, New Glarus executed a $20 million new brewery that took (their capacity) to 150,000 (barrels). This year they are doing a $10 million expansion of their $20 million brewery that will take (their capacity) to over 200,000 (barrels), and they still have no plans to leave their own state. Sunlight is New Glarus' Spotted Cow, which is a cream ale.”
 
In this week’s statement, though, Sun King mentions Sunlight as a beer that will now see distribution in new markets. Thus, the move into neighboring territories seems born not only of increased capacity and legislative progress, but also of an apparent ideological shift.
 
This isn’t a judgment by the way! Things change, and companies adapt accordingly (Sun King leadership has also gone on record detailing how the company eclipsed its 5-year goals after year-one). But from the outside, it’s certainly fascinating to keep track of not only a brewery’s evolution by numbers, but also its fluid philosophies. Some ideals are strongly held, while others are born of constraints at the time, and it's not always clear which are which until you have the opportunity to otherwise. 

For its part, New Glarus has just doubled its cellar capacity to 400,000 barrels and still says the possibility of out-of-state distribution is remote. Whether that holds true remains to be seen.
 
GBH has reached out to Robinson for additional insight about this, and will update the post when we hear back. 

UPDATE
So what changed and made Sun King head across statelines? Reached by GBH, Robinson says that while the company has always been “inspired” by New Glarus, there’s plainly a disparity between the two markets that make the New Glarus model viable in Wisconsin, but not necessarily in Indiana.
 
“There are some significant differences between the Indiana and Wisconsin [landscapes], the biggest being per capita consumption, which According to the BA numbers, Wisconsin consumes four times more craft beer per person per year than Indiana (1.5 versus 7.3 gallons per 21+ adult),” Robinson tells GBH. “So while we’ve grown tremendously over the past eight years, from non-existence to over 36,000 barrels in one state, it will take a near seismic shift in the habits of Indiana consumers for Sun King to see substantial growth at home.”

 
- Dave Eisenberg


READ MORE
Sun King Brewery Celebrates Expansion Outside of Indiana – Announces Distribution in Chicago and Louisville [Indiana On Tap]