To individuals in the craft beer community, the town of Decorah, Iowa means one thing…Toppling Goliath. TG was founded by Clark and Barb Lewey in 2009 after transitioning from homebrewing out of their garage. What started as a half-barrel system has transitioned to a 30-barrel system, and it is still not enough for the demand brewmaster Mike Saboe has created since joining TG in 2010. While you might not be familiar with Mike, I’m sure you have heard of “Toppling Goliath Stouts.” Well, Mike is the man behind these whales; Morning Delight, Assassin, and the ever-elusive Kentucky Brunch are all his babies. Mike’s recipes paired with Clark’s passion for the brewery has resulted in an indestructible duo in craft beer today. I spoke with Clark and Mike about their experiences and what we can expect to see from Toppling Goliath in 2016.
Brewmaster Mike Saboe doing some quality control
Paste: What beers or breweries inspired each of you when you first got into beer?
Clark Lewey: I really enjoyed Sierra Nevada, New Glarus and Oskar Blues, but also many other breweries and many different brewpubs around the country that I frequented while traveling.
Mike Saboe: When I was 17 I went to Germany and was able to try many different beers, but I’d say Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier and Rothaus Pils sparked things at the beginning. From there I was very impressed with what Russian River and the Pizza Port Pubs were doing in the mid-2000s.
Paste: Mike, what can you tell us about your brewing experience before joining TG?
MS: I started brewing when I was a teenager. From the first time I brewed, I knew it was what I was going to do. I consider myself fortunate to know exactly what I wanted to do at such a young age. Early on, I worked a lot with hops; they’re forever fascinating. I also worked heavily on several high gravity beers – not just stouts. I’m excited to brew those beers on a larger scale in the future.
Paste: Have any of those homebrews made it into the tanks at TG?
MS: Many of my hoppy beers and the big stouts have. Other styles have had to remain on the backburner for now. There’s definitely a long list of beers I’d like to get out there at some point.
Paste: Clark, you have mentioned that you had the idea for TG for some time. What made you finally decide to open TG in Decorah?
CL: I found myself with a piece of property that had a perfect location for a small brewery to start and see if the local population would enjoy the types of beers we wanted to drink ourselves and could not find in Decorah.
Paste: Did either of you ever imagine the demand would be at the level it is today?
CL: No…of course we had delusions of grandeur as all startup breweries do.
MS: To the extent that it’s happened? No. I knew and met more and more Iowa beer drinkers that were like me. Always traveling out of state to get beers from the surrounding states. One could sense there was a demand there, but for me it was more being able to provide and do those things right here in Iowa.
Paste: Clark, with your wine background, did you have an interest in including sour beers when you first started TG?
CL: I have always enjoyed the sour beers I had from New Glarus and other breweries. Although I had an interest in brewing them, it was not in our plans due to the fact that I do not want to cross contaminate our facility.
Paste: Mike, what have your experiences been with sour beers, and do you have any urges to brew a sour at TG?
MS: The first sour beer that made me fall in love with the style was the first batch of Russian River’s Beatification back in 2006 (I didn’t try the PH-1 barrel). It had a beautiful level of acidity, all very pleasant acids. It’s inspired me to work on sours ever since. As for commercial size batches, there’ve been time issues and various other constraints that have dampened that. Thankfully, one of the major constraints has been attempting to keep up with demands of beers people want every day. The appreciation I have for people enjoying fresh hoppy beer has been enough to offset the anxiety of not bringing sour beers to the forefront…yet.
Paste: This past summer you decided to release Mornin’ Delight in 22oz. bottles. What made you decide to make this change from 12oz?
CL: One thing about us is we like to change it up. We thought that it is a nice beer to share with people and the bomber bottle is nice for that.
Paste: Unlike some of your other big stouts, MD doesn’t spend any time in barrels. Mike, do you ever want to brew MD more than once a year?
Mike: Barrel time is the least of the concerns. It’s a very hedonistic beer that I’m almost surprised I got the go-ahead to produce a big batch of in the first place. Luckily, people have enjoyed it enough to justify repeatedly making it.
Founder Clark Lewey enjoying a fresh batch
Paste: Do you plan to release Kentucky Brunch this year and if so, what are the chances we see it in 22oz?
CL: If all goes as planned we will have KBBS later in the year. The packaging format has not been decided.
Paste: Beers like MD, Assassin, and KBBS are so highly regarded. How do you handle the demand while still keeping your product high quality?
CL: Mike is in charge of the quality of the liquid. Demand is not a factor. We can only make so much, and for that amount we just want it to be very pleasing to us, and our fans!
MS: As the brewery has grown, natural elements and procedures of most everyday beers have been entrusted to the teams we have built. While I wish I had the time to still baby-sit every batch of beer, we have a great team that helps accomplish what needs to be accomplished. As for the stouts specifically; those are kept to volumes that Murph, Clark, and I handle. Not only have those beers in and of themselves been the hardest to give up for me, it’s too enjoyable, and a nostalgic sort a moment for the three of us to dive into barrel samples.
Paste: Mike, what can you tell us about the vision you had when you first brewed these beers. How long did it take until you were actually able to perfect them?
MS: I’ve worked on those since 2006. The original path was simply a hedonistic one. If it was blisteringly cold out, and all I had was a fire and a stout, what would I want that to be like? From there I’ve formed some deviating lineages, some of which have yet to be seen.
Paste: Will you try to produce any of your barrel aged beers on a larger scale?
MS: Additional volume has been produced every single time, but it’s been in small, calculated steps to help assure integrity is maintained.
Paste: The Vanilla Bean variant of Assassin is a “white-whale” for most in the craft community. Are there any plans to release this beer to the public?
Mike: Vanilla Bean Assassin is likely to be released in the future.
Paste: There were so many rumors last year when your barrel-aged stout SR-71 was released regarding what exactly the beer was. What’s the story behind the name and the process used to brew it? Will this ever be re-brewed?
CL: SR-71 is from my days in the Air Force. Our SR-71 program is cloaked in secrecy at the brewery. Only Mike and I know the details and the direction we take with this beer. We can say that it is a very long process and is not always the same path.
MS: SR-71 is an ever-evolving, but always classified experimentation upon various iterations of my big stouts. Where Clark and I determine to send these experimentations and the trajectory at which they will travel would be detrimental to the mission to share. The name SR-71 fits well with the secrecy and experimental nature of the beer and it’s Clark’s favorite aircraft.
Paste: You recently began a partnership with Florida-based contract brewer Brew Hub. What made you want to begin this partnership?
CL: We are hoping to take some pressure off our production schedule for our four main beers and get more time to work on our other interests.
Paste: If you could collaborate with any brewery in the world, what brewery would it be, and what would you brew?
CL: J Wakefield. Mike introduced me to his beers and they are fun. Having fun when creating beers is great! I would like to see what we could do with a mixture of our brewery styles. Either a fruited IPA or a dry hopped Berliner.
MS: Collaborations are interesting social constructs that have a tendency to lead to “too many cooks in the kitchen.” I think the more important aspect is the camaraderie that can come therewith. There are many brewers and breweries I’d enjoy attempting the collaborative process with, but there is not one brewery in particular. That said, I have cherished the friendship I developed a few years ago with my friends at Tree House.
Paste: If you could change one thing about craft beer today, what would it be?
CL: The barrier to raw ingredients would be my first of many changes!
Paste: What does 2016 hold for TG?
CL: A lot of hard work and energy continuing on the path of our production needs, new creation, and building a new facility.
Jason Stein is a New York-based beer nerd. You can find more of his writing on NYC Beer Society.