Decorah, Iowa, can now be added to the list of great beer brewing cities in America.
With a population of just over 8,000, its definition as a city might be a stretch, but the quality of Toppling Goliath Brewing Company’s beers has built a following that is, well, huge.
Before co-founder Clark Lewey, 51, got that fateful homebrewing kit that has changed many a career path, he spent 25 years working for Iowa Rotocast Plastics Inc. in Decorah, supplying the beverage/beer industry with coolers, point of sale merchandising equipment, stadium kiosks and the like.
He also had to drive an hour to get a decent craft beer. “You would’ve been hard pressed to find an IPA in northeast Iowa.”
Lewey had no idea he’d enjoy brewing beer until he tried out that gift kit from his wife Barb. Soon he had 20 active fermenters in the basement on a hobby scale that allowed him to “push the edge on hoppy beers and oak influenced beers, extreme beers,” he recalls.
It’s the ethos that has put American craft brewing where it is today:
Beer fan can’t find full-flavored beer. Beer fan home brews full-flavored beer. Other beer fans flock to home brewer’s full-flavored beer.
It’s a labor-intensive prospect that only rewards really good process, which is hard to do when you brew 15 gallons three times a day on a half-barrel system like Lewey did when he and Barb opened their nanobrewery in 2009.
“The town embraced our beer and we’ve been trying to keep up ever since,” Lewey said. He says TG really made strides with a 10-barrel system — that’s 310 gallons per batch — but soon had to move up to a 30-barrel system — that’s 930 gallons. That’s when Lewey and company realized “we have an opportunity.”
The impetus for this growth is not just simply because TG specializes in pale ales and IPAs, which are still the most popular styles by far in America. Their hop centric beers exude fruity character in aroma and flavor with barely a hint of bitterness. “You see a lot of breweries adding citrus fruits like grapefruit, blood orange, extracts, and that’s fine, but it’s fun to get those citrus fruit flavors from the hops,” says Lewey. “We have that smile back at the brewery when we do that.”
Lewey made delivery trips to Kenosha when TG beers first arrived here about three years ago with a few cases of one style or another at a time. You’ll now find numerous cases of several styles even though “it’s a long haul to Kenosha,” Lewey added.
A contract brewing arrangement with Brew Hub in Lakeland, Fla., has resulted in further market growth and the ability to learn how to operate a 100-barrel system. That’s good knowledge, Lewey said, because TG will have a new 100-barrel brewhouse this fall in Decorah — that’s 3,100 gallons per brew. This $14 million investment will make TG the largest brewer in Iowa.
TG’s portfolio includes 27 beers and 13 of them are an array of hop forward pale ales, IPAs and Double IPAs that inspired Lewey in the first place. It’s no surprise that TG’s top seller — PsuedoSue — is one of those. Featuring a generous dose of Citra hops, PsuedoSue is an approachable 5.8 percent and can also be found double dry hopped with Citra or featuring Mosaic hops for a different taste. Then there’s King Sue, a Double IPA weighing in at 8 percent.
Featuring a fierce Tyrannosaurus rex as the label’s namesake, it was only a matter of time before the connection with the Field Museum’s Sue the T. rex in Chicago would lead to a conversation between the trademark owners. The result was a party Jan. 25 at the museum to mark the launch of TG’s beers into Illinois. “It was marvelous and so impressive,” said Lewey. “I’ve always been a huge fan of dinosaurs. It’s just kind of humbling indeed.”
For a limited time, the Field Museum’s food court is the only place in Illinois where TG’s beers are available. Lewey recalls taking his children there about 20 years ago and found only fast food for sustenance. His enthusiasm for museums has included visits to Kenosha’s Public Museum and he’s got a return trip planned with his grandchildren.
The other part of the collaboration is TG will design a beer based on any exhibit at the famed institution. Other craft breweries have done so in recent years and Lewey’s brewers caught sight of an exhibit about ancient grains and old hop varieties, so the wheels are turning.
So what’s the backdrop for the name, Toppling Goliath?
Well, in 2002, he and Barb started a business that offered marketing and financing plans to small businesses trying to overcome the Goliaths in their way. They decided that “cool name” would fit nicely when their nanobrewery produced its first barrels in the wake of worldwide brewing consolidations. “We can’t knock out any big boys and I like all beer,” he admits.
The popular RateBeer website recently bestowed regional Best Taproom, Best Brewery awards, including Top 100 best breweries in the world recognition to TG.
Now the craft beer traffic flow has been reversed and there’s a steady stream of customers coming in from all points to visit TG’s taproom in Decorah. “We went from wasteland to mecca and we’re pretty honored to have that happen,” said Lewey.
Double Dry Hop PseudoSue pale ale: Pours cloudy pale orange with dense foam on top. The double dose of Citra hops creates a pungent, juicy citrus aroma of oranges and limes followed by bold flavors to create a pronounced taste sensation. There’s enough malt to add a touch of sweetness which heightens the citrusy flavors. The finish is as pleasant and tasty as the start. This is an overload of flavors for true devotees of hop forward beers with an appreciative lack of bitterness. More superlatives are inside the bottle waiting to be poured.