In this CBB Exclusive we sit down with Clay Robinson and Dave Colt, co-founders of Indiana’s Sun King Brewing to chat about how they’ve steadily (and successfully) diversified their product mix with spirits (a new vodka is coming out this month) and now seltzers (same). Check out the full interview below, but here are my big takeaways:
Consistent, smart growth. Sure, Sun King Spirits launched in 2018, but a spirits line was part of the vision from the brewery’s founding in 2009 — so much so that they helped lead the effort to create the permit that made it possible for a brewery in Indiana to also sell spirits and become a distillery. That happened around 2013, and Sun King Spirits still didn’t emerge for another few years.
The power of branding. Sun King isn’t a cross-country beer behemoth, but in its territory (mostly Indiana, but some bleed out into Chicagoland and hilariously Florida because it’s the sunshine state and vacation home to many a Midwesterner) the Sun King brand matters. So when Sun King has a new vodka, or a hard seltzer, that means something. It’s also a way to subtly expand the brand’s power by grabbing new customers who aren’t beer drinkers, but can now understand / gravitate to what “Sun King” means when they see it.
“Once we established the distillery, we were seeing some trends as far as our mix of sales products,” Colt says in the video [watch it!]. “Beer was still outselling spirits, but it was slowly starting to gain more traction and momentum, and we thought, ‘OK, there’s a whole group of people out there, weird as they may be, who don’t like beer but really just like spirits.’ So let’s backfill all of our other locations with the special licenses [that allow breweries to sell spirits] and start incorporating our spirits program into the taproom.”
Being intentional, not chasing growth. Each new taproom has its own vibe and feel (soon to be six taprooms with a new spot opening in the Indy airport this month), and every new product line fills a gap.
“Our first foray out was a small batch taproom, which is why we didn’t want to make another small batch taproom when we did this Carmel [distillery] project,” Robinson says. “At the end of the day they are all taprooms, and we focus on the overall customer experience.”
They also mention how great it is that their distillery space has no room for physical expansion: “It is locked into the size that it can be, which is great.” And Colt explains around the 12:00 mark why their move into hard seltzers continues to build on one of their core strengths.
Developing local partnerships. That’s not to say they won’t continue to produce more new spirits. This new vodka brand, for example, was sorely needed in its portfolio based on customer demand in their taprooms, but they can’t produce it themselves because they don’t have the space. “The number one spirit we sell is vodka, and if we made vodka, then all we would ever make is vodka,” Colt says.
Enter nearby West Fork Whiskey, which they’ve worked with on some barrel-aging projects in the past. They had the extra capacity but no desire to have a clear spirit under their branding. Thus, Sun King vodka was born and is ready to crush.
Pull instead of push. The hard seltzer is just hitting Indiana distribution right now, and it will stay that way unless there is “pull” from other states in their territory. Example: The Orange Vanilla version of their Sunlight Cream Ale was just something they tried. It sold out in the taproom in a day where other variants took a couple days. They had something here. Despite questioning the rationale of distributing a new brand during the pandemic, it blew up huge. Social media clamored for it in their other states, so they expanded its reach. It is currently their No. 2 SKU.
“Ever since we started, we try to have our fans pull our brands from the outside rather than go to our distributors and say you’re going to sell 10,000 case equivalents of Orange Vanilla Sunlight!” Robinson notes.