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Toppling Goliath brewery puts Decorah, Iowa, on the beer map

By Josh Noel, Chicago Tribune (Tribune News Service)
August 12, 2015

DECORAH, Iowa—To many locals in this town of 8,100, Toppling Goliath Brewing Co. is just the latest business to fill the old space once occupied by a flower shop, a record store, a burger joint and a pizza place.

To beer fans, that modest brown building just outside of Decorah's quaint downtown, above a bend in the Upper Iowa River, is home to the world's second-best brewery. That's right, the world's second-best brewery. In rural northeast Iowa.

Started six years ago like so many of the nation's 3,500 breweries—on a tiny system in a back room by an ambitious home brewer—Toppling Goliath has become an unlikely craft-beer Goliath. Tales of its outsize stouts and India pale ales have drawn a steady steam of tourists to the little town hemmed in by cornfields that lies an hour from the nearest interstate.

Though Decorah, home to the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, is “cute little Midwest college town” personified—Luther College was founded here in the 1860s and continues to be one of the town's engines—it is an unlikely brewing mecca. Decorah is not on the way to anywhere in particular; it sits 150 miles from Madison, the same distance from the Twin Cities and 200 miles from Des Moines. To be here, and to drink the freshest version of a beer lineup deemed world-class by beer fans, effort must be made. And people make it.

Taproom manager Todd Seigenthaler estimated that 80 percent of the people who walk through the doors of Toppling Goliath's taproom are out-of-towners. And in a town of 8,100, the out-of-towners aren't difficult to spot.

“Of everyone in here,” Seigenthaler said while surveying a crowd of 25 on a Friday afternoon, “I see one local. And she's from 20 miles away.”

When I first walked into the taproom during the previous afternoon, a couple from Milwaukee chatted at the bar with a couple from Peoria, Illinois. An hour later, a couple from suburban Chicago walked in with their 4-year-old daughter. All were on their way to somewhere else.

“We drove a long way to be here,” said Nick Yemm, 29, half of the Peoria couple.

“We're on our way to Florida,” said his wife, Betsy Yemm, 27.

Yes, they had driven the exact wrong direction, but the four-hour detour was worth the effort, they said, especially when paired with the chance to play on a grass tennis court in Charles City, Iowa, another 50 miles west.

Nick Yemm explained that he had tried two of Toppling Goliath's IPAs, called Intergalactic Warrior and Golden Nugget, while visiting Iowa City for a concert last year.

“I was pretty much sold,” he said.

He was so sold that he soon drove 90 minutes to the Quad Cities to try scoring one of Toppling Goliath's rare releases—King Sue imperial IPA—but struck out. On this day, Yemm was trying a different revered Toppling Goliath beer for the first time, an American pale ale called PseudoSue. It's a beer that showcases the fashionable and fruity citra hop (think ripe mango). Yemm was happy.

“I'm really glad to finally try it,” he said. “I'm big on looking at BeerAdvocate and at the beer ratings and scores.”

About that: Beer-scoring websites such as BeerAdvocate and RateBeer deserve much of the credit for turning Toppling Goliath into a destination. According to the users of RateBeer, Toppling Goliath makes the single best beer in the world (Kentucky Brunch, an imperial coffee stout aged in whiskey barrels) and is the second-best brewery in the world. According to users of BeerAdvocate, Toppling Goliath makes seven (as of this writing) of the top 100 beers in the world, including Kentucky Brunch, which is ranked second.

That Internet buzz, and the trading of Toppling Goliath beer among connoisseurs across state lines, has put Decorah on the radar of many beer lovers—a passionate group that does not hesitate to travel for the rarest brews. And Toppling Goliath certainly rates as rare; the beer is distributed only in Iowa and Wisconsin, though aggressive growth is planned.

Though Toppling Goliath founder Clark Lewey said hard work has mostly fueled the brewery's success, he acknowledged that the Internet has helped nurture the legend in a town previously known largely for a family of bald eagles that became an Internet sensation (search “Decorah eagles”—you'll see).

The farthest distance traveled to visit Toppling Goliath was by a Japanese man who was touring American craft breweries and made a point of stopping in Decorah, Lewey said. He also met someone from California who visited just to get a bottle of Kentucky Brunch.

“I find it amazing how many people come to visit us,” Lewey said. “I try to be there as much as I can and share a beer with them and find out what makes them tick.”

The legend began with Lewey's home brewing, a hobby he started in late 2008 with a kit his wife had given him for Christmas. Though his siblings weren't fans of his hop-forward beers, they did embrace the lager he made as a tribute to their grandmother, Dorothy, which convinced him professional brewing wasn't unrealistic.

Though Dorothy's New World Lager continues to be Toppling Goliath's “gateway” beer for tamer beer drinkers, the stouts and IPAs birthed the legend. The IPAs, in particular, spurred his interest in starting a brewery because he couldn't find those beers in northeast Iowa and they were what he wanted to drink.

“I got sick of traveling an hour to buy my beer in La Crosse or Rochester (Minnesota),” Lewey said. “The mentality around here was that this is Busch Light country, and that's what people are going to drink.”

Toppling Goliath took off quickly after opening in May 2009 and now brews most of its beer at a production facility a couple of miles from the taproom (it isn't open to the public). A still-larger production facility is being built in Decorah, and Toppling Goliath has joined forces with a Florida-based Brew Hub to expand production and distribution to various parts of the nation.

But the truest experience is stepping into that former pizza/record/burger/flower shop where Toppling Goliath continues to draw a steady crowd. Walking in on a Thursday afternoon, the taproom was such an unassuming scene—there easily could still be a flower shop operating on that peeling laminate floor—that it seemed immediately welcoming. The Peoria and Milwaukee couples chatted at the bar and sipped IPAs. A man in a John Deere hat, presumably a local, sat alone at a table and drank a Dorothy's New World Lager. And that was about it.

I ordered a four-ounce pour of everything Toppling Goliath had on tap; minutes later, the bartender stepped from behind the bar with a carefully balanced tray of 10 beers, which made for a luminous, effervescent rainbow, ranging from pale yellow to pitch black. Half were pale ales or India pale ales, and no surprise, those were the beers that shone, bursting with elements of fresh tropical fruit and pine. In an industry full of IPAs, they truly were a cut above.

Though tourists make up most of the crowd, locals are increasingly interested in the world-class brewery in their backyard. Seigenthaler, the taproom manager, said many Decorah residents learned of the brewery after RateBeer named Kentucky Brunch the best beer in the world in early 2015.

“Local farmers would come in and say, 'I want the best beer in the world!'” Seigenthaler said. “I'd ask what they usually drank. They'd say, 'Oh, I drink all kinds of stuff—Bud Light, Miller Lite, Coors Light.' I'd hand them our lager instead.”

Others know exactly what they have in Toppling Goliath, such as Tim and Carol Stoddard, who sat on the patio, drinking IPAs with fellow locals. The Stoddards said they have traveled to California with bottles of PseudoSue to make friends of bartenders.

“They were excited,” said Carol Stoddard, 61. “They comped us.”

Funny enough, though the Internet has deemed Toppling Goliath a world-class brewery, Lewey said he and his staff grade most of their beers “at a B to B-plus level.”

“The public gives us high marks, and for that we're very thankful,” Lewey said. “But we're constantly trying to improve our process and always asking, 'How can we propagate our yeast more effectively? How can we capture more essence of the hops?' We never stop. We never will stop.”

And that's likely to leave little Decorah on the beer map for quite some time.