Hops & Culture

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Beer has had some hard times. It's been maligned by teetotalers, outlawed by Congress, watered down by heartless corporations and abused by more than a few rock stars. But in Indianapolis, one brewery exemplifies how the marriage of hops, barley and malt can be key to not only supporting music and the arts, but also making our city a better place to live.

Sun King has a working mission of "enriching the lives of Hoosiers one pint at a time," and I've been witness to that almost since it began. And I'm not just writing about enjoying its Osiris and Popcorn Pilsner, which I have, a lot. Sun King makes a deep investment in Indianapolis, in its art community and its problem-solving institutions. So, I recently talked with Clay Robinson, the company's owner, brewer and vice president, about why it does what it does.

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When I worked with Second Helpings, a great organization that fights hunger, rescues food and trains unemployed people for jobs, we asked Sun King brewery for a bit of help with a fundraiser. It was still a youngish venture, on the verge of canning and new to its location at College & Market downtown. But it didn't take much wooing or promises to get them on board. Clay just wanted to know how many people we'd need to serve. He was excited to get behind a meaningful mission.

When you find a supportive, engaged donor, it's your job to see if they want to get more involved. So, we invited Sun King to support the Tonic Ball. Would it give us beer to sell to fight hunger? Yes. And, just for kicks, it offered us beer for every band (all 40 of them) that played the benefit show.

For Sun King, donating kegs or cans is about more than just supporting a cause. It's about getting deeply involved, supporting all the pieces. And, really, it's about fostering a strong community. Often, that community is connected to the arts, not a surprise for a business named for a Beatles song lyric.

"We have fabulous cultural institutions in Indianapolis that elevate our city to world-class status," says Clay. "While we aren't able to write big checks, we work more creatively to support them and use the power of fresh local beer to get people out and help further their missions."

I love Sun King's involvement not just because its employees worked with projects that I'm a part of. Nope. They are connected to dozens of local cultural and social service organizations. Basically, they've wedded their brand to the coolest people and events in town. A few highlights: Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Phoenix Theatre, Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra, The Eiteljorg, Indianapolis International Film Festival, Heartland Film Festival, WARMfest, Indiana State Museum, and Harrison Center for the Arts.  Sun King is so engaged that in 2013 the Arts Council of Indianapolis awarded the brewery an ARTI, which honors those with "outstanding achievement" in supporting the arts.

Yes, the company gets a benefit from its donations. Maybe someone else will discover that he or she loves a smooth drinkable brew, like I did with its Sunlight Cream Ale. But the real plus side goes beyond letting people know about its good product.

"It benefits us because we find ourselves in great company! We are exposed to people who are as passionate about what they do as we are about what we do," says Clay.

And that's what I like. The folks at Sun King really want to join in. They want to be immersed in the life of Indianapolis, in its vibrant events, in the organizations that improve the circle city.

Beer has power. It's not only, as Homer Simpson says, "the cause of, and solution to, all of life's problems." In our town, it's building up community, giving us more to be proud of and showing us we can have nice things - good food, good beer itself, businesses that care, and a cultural community that collaborates and forges new connections. Sun King isn't alone - we have several generous breweries that contribute -- but it is a powerful example of the upside of booze.

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