How Iowa's Toppling Goliath became a must-stop destination for craft beer fanatics
Thousands packed Toppling Goliath Brewing Company in Decorah for their 2019 Mornin' Delight release. The Des Moines Register
Joseph Anderson's search for the world's greatest beer brought him to Decorah, Iowa, last weekend.
The 36-year-old graphic designer drove 150 miles from Minnesota to spend $100 on two 22-ounce bottles of Toppling Goliath Brewing Company’s Mornin’ Delight.
The Iowa brew is considered one of the best in the world by beer aficionados, who go to great lengths to snag a bottle.
“It generally takes a commitment to get the really good stuff,” Anderson said, sitting at a table inside the brewery’s taproom. “You go to the store, you might find something good. To get the good stuff, generally, you have to go to limited releases, and over the years, you become more and more of a snob.”
In the 10 years since it tapped its first keg, Toppling Goliath has become, well, a goliath in the craft beer world.
Its popularity has turned the brewery's special release events into pilgrimages for craft beer enthusiasts.
Around 4,000 beer geeks — more than half the population of Decorah — flocked to the brewery in northeast Iowa for last weekend's release, each plopping down a Benjamin for the honor of walking away with a couple of bottles and a limited-edition glass.
It was the brewery's biggest event yet, and a lucrative one.
In addition to the $400,000 from Mornin' Delight sales, visitors spent thousands more on $10 specialty beer pours and walked out with armloads of King Sue, Pseudo Sue and Mornin’ Latte four-packs and growlers.
The events are big business for Decorah, too. The brewery estimates its release events add about $1 million to the local economy, including money spent at the brewery, and on food, gas, lodging, and other shopping.
That’s an estimated infusion of $4 million annually when the brewery holds four release events, as it did in 2018 (and plans to do in 2019).
“When you’re talking about a place in northeast Iowa that has that type of business and commodity, it’s huge for the community,” Decorah Mayor Lorraine Borowski said.
Kelsey Seay, the associate director of the Iowa Brewers Guild, said Toppling Goliath isn't just good news for Decorah, it's good for Iowa, drawing visitors from throughout the Midwest.
“A lot of those people will stop and visit a couple other (breweries) along the way or on the way out,” she said.
From homebrewing to craft beer colossus
Clark and Barbara Lewey founded Toppling Goliath in 2009, a couple of years before Iowa's craft beer scene really took off, Seay said.
They followed a typical path — finding homebrewing success before opening their first small brewery.
The name was a leftover from Clark Lewey's earlier marketing and consulting company. The firm folded, but he liked the name and kept it.
In the early years, the brewery operated with a lean staff in a small facility, brewing on a half-barrel system that reduced the potential for a big loss if a beer didn't take off.
It has grown to 110 full- and part-time employees, including brewmaster Mike Saboe.
Lewey said he thought Toppling Goliath "was on to something" in 2013, when it tapped its first iteration of Kentucky Brunch Brand Stout, a coffee-packed stout that's barrel-aged for 15 months.
They set up a release event, but only six people showed up.
A month later, the beer — now one of the most coveted bottles in the country — still wasn't selling. Lewey took it off the tap and bottled the rest for himself and Saboe to drink.
Decorah wasn’t ready for it, he thought.
“Little did we know, word started to catch on about the beer, and so we started to get a lot of questions, a lot of emails, about if we’re ever going to have it again,” Lewey said. “So we let the project continue, and the next time we did a release, this was the real eye-opener for us, we had about 250 people in line before 7 (a.m.), and we did not expect that.”
The business has been booming ever since.
In 2015, Toppling Goliath inked a partnership with Brew Hub, a company based out of Lakeland, Florida, to increase the production of four of the company’s flagship beers.
Lewey said the agreement, which ended in 2017, opened up new states for distribution and created enough demand for Toppling Goliath beer to justify opening a new 52,000-square-foot brewery, with an expansive taproom and restaurant, on 15 acres in Decorah last year.
Toppling Goliath now produces more than 35 beers, not counting its taproom-only offerings. It distributes in 20 states, and cans and bottles all the beer itself.
The half-barrel system it started with in 2009 has been replaced with a 100-barrel system today.
Three Toppling Goliath brews were listed on RateBeer's 2018 "Best Beers in the World" list: Assassin, Kentucky Brunch and Mornin' Delight.
“It’s supply and demand,” Lewey said. “There’s only so much of the liquid, so people are able to do some price-gouging on that.”
'Beercation' is the word for it
Iowa's 99 craft breweries accounted for $861 million in economic impact in 2017, according to the Brewers Association, driven in part by special release events.
Julia Herz, the craft beer program director for the Brewers Association, said release events and "new taste adventures" can help entice beer lovers to breweries.
This year, for instance, the two-week release of Russian River Company's Pliny the Younger brought $4.2 million in revenue for Sonoma County, California.
"What you've got is phenomena of beers that are not mass-produced, not from large global empires," she said. "These are from small brewery businesses, often an annual release or a specialty release that once you buy it, it's gone because it's a small production."
Toppling Goliath has hosted visitors from South America, Asia and Europe along with far-flung U.S. locations.
Last weekend, cars from at least 14 states, including Iowa and all its neighbors, filled the brewery's parking lot.
Buddy White, a 44-year-old engineer from Louisville, Kentucky, made the pilgrimage with several friends. They stopped at breweries in St. Louis along the way and planned to host their own beer tasting — after the release party — at the Airbnb house they rented.
“'Beercation' is the right word,” White said.
Sam Randall, an Airbnb spokesman, said last weekend had the second-most bookings in Decorah since the site started tracking such data in May 2018.
Megan Schifrel, 29, from Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, made the 190-mile trip to Decorah for the release. She planned to stay in town overnight, but had to change plans when she couldn’t find a desirable rental six weeks ago, she said.
Beer-seekers fill hotels in a 20-mile radius of the city on release days, said Sarah Hedlund, Toppling Goliath’s marketing director.
It’s a testament to the beer, she said. Decorah, population of about 7,700, is 90 minutes from the closest airport, in Rochester, Minnesota.
“It’s not easy to get to Decorah,” Lewey said. “You really have to like to drive.”
Brewery is devoted to Decorah
Kristina Wiltgen, executive director of the Decorah Area Chamber of Commerce, said she doesn't doubt Toppling Goliath's estimate that its release events generate $1 million in local revenue.
Along with natural springs, bike trails and fishing, the area’s breweries — Toppling Goliath, Pulpit Rock Brewing Company and Pivo Brewery — are what tourists ask most about, she said.
They can be a gateway to the rest of Decorah and its museums, shops, restaurants and trails, she said.
“It’s one of the most popular breweries in America,” said Steve Wilson, owner of Mabe’s Pizza in downtown Decorah.
The pizzeria is one of the hot spots for out-of-town beer fans. It was one of the first businesses to sell Toppling Goliath beer in the brewery's early days — one of what Lewey calls the "super seven."
Those core businesses sometimes get to offer a tasting of new beers right before they’re released.
“We get the keg Friday night, and so the beer geeks, whatever you want to call them, will come in here and get the pizza and the first taste,” Wilson said. “Then they’ll go down the next day and get their bottles and their tastes.”
Even as Toppling Goliath eyes opening a second brewery on the West Coast, it remains devoted to Decorah.
Lewey said the company is indebted to the people and businesses that supported it in the early days.
“They spread the word,” he said. “We really didn’t have any money to spend on marketing.”
That's one of the reasons it launched the Term Oil brews after out-of-town customers began scooping up all the barrel-aged beers at release events.
When barrel-aged beer, like Kentucky Brunch, don’t meet the right standards, Toppling Goliath brewers play with the rejected beer, adding in new ingredients like coconut, cinnamon or peppers.
Those eccentric Term Oil brews then are available only in the Decorah taproom, where locals may luck out and find a s'mores-flavored stout, a former favorite.
“We need that again,” Lewey said.
Austin Cannon covers the city of Des Moines for the Register. Reach him at email@example.com or 515-284-8398. Your subscription makes work like this possible. Subscribe today at DesMoinesRegister.com/Deal.