When Clark Lewey sees a need for something, he builds a business to fulfill that need. When he got tired of having to drive a hour from his home in the Decorah, Iowa area to LaCross, Wisc. To get craft beer, he realized there was a serious need for good beer in Northeast Iowa. So he did what any serial entrepreneur would do—he started his own brewery.
“At the time, there wasn’t even a single IPA on tap here,” said Clark, who started his brewing venture in 2009.
“I was just tired of—the distributors in Northeast Iowa just didn’t believe that the consumer would drink that kind of beer. They all were Bud, Miller, Coors houses,” he said.
Six years later, Toppling Goliath’s brews are not only in high demand across the Upper Midwest but they’ve received national recognition within the craft brewing industry, as well as a rating of 100, or “World Class,” from Beer Advocate. All this for a guy who’d only been brewing beer for five months when he decided to open a brewing business.
Prior to starting Toppling Goliath, Clark had been in the beverage industry for 28 years. Clark describes himself as having had “super lucky career.” When he was a teenager, his family started a business that provided merchandising display items to the rental industry. After doing a tour in the Air Force, something he says he’d wanted to do since the age of five, Clark returned home to help run the family business. By that time the business was pivoting toward the beverage industry because they saw a need in that industry for products like coolers, carts and Point of Sale products that companies the likes of Pepsico, Coca-Cola, Anheuser Busch, Miller Coors need to help run their businesses.
That company, Iowa Rotocast Plastics, is now one of the largest rotational molding companies in the country and sells products to almost every team in both the National Football League and Major League Baseball, Clark said, as well as to Frito Lay and Gatorade. Along the way, Clark also eventually developed a graphics company in addition to some other ventures before he decided to get into making his own beverages. Lucky for him, having been a part of the beverage industry for so long taught Clark every nuance and minutiae of how beverages are distributed.
“I knew that inside and out before I started a brewery, which is helpful in setting up distributor relationships,” he said.
From wine to beer
Despite the success Clark has already had with Toppling Goliath, beer was not the first beverage he thought about growing a business around. Also a wine lover, Clark actually got his start in fermented beverages by making homemade wine. But because Northeast Iowa’s climate is not exactly hospitable to grapevines, Clark bought grapes from California and Italy so he could experiment with wine making. He looked into buying some vineyards around the country and thought about starting a winery, but he really wanted to make his product in Iowa. After realizing that grapes were far too sensitive to travel very well, he shelved that idea and turned to beer because he knew he wouldn’t be able to make wine of the quality he expected in Iowa using grapes that had been transported cross country.
“The very best wine in the world, you’re watching the brix all the time and Bam!” he said. “You don’t ship ‘em across the country. You can make some really fantastic wines that way, but the best are really make right at the source.”
Instead he “dusted off an old idea for a brewpub in Decorah.” Clarks says that he’d actually been toying with the brewpub idea for a number of years but had been dissuaded from the brewpub model by a friend because it would involve not just brewing but also running a restaurant. After doing his research, looking at the local demographics in Northeast Iowa and studying the brewpub business model, Clark found himself agreeing with his friend. He felt he would be more successful by starting a nanobrewery where he could partner with local restaurants and bars rather than compete with them.
“I did not want them to feel like I was going to compete with them for food. I just wanted to provide a great draught beer for them,” Clark said.
Clark started his forays into brewing making homebrews with his wife. Like most homebrewers, Clark and his wife learned to brew by “reading a lot.” He credits two brewing classics, Extreme Brewing by Sam Caligione and The Joy of Homebrewing by Charlie Papazian, with helping him to learn to make beer. Big fans of hops, Clark says the brews they were making ended up being “pretty extreme.” In fact, Clark says his brothers “hated them.”
Not to be dissuaded, Clark decided to develop a less hoppy beer that might have more universal appeal. So he developed “Dorothy’s New World Lager,” as an homage to his grandmother, who had recently passed away and who had been responsible for introducing Clark to beer at a young age. And after trying Dorothy’s, Clark said, his brothers had to admit they did all liked it. “I thought to myself, if they like it, I can start a brewery,” Clark says. So after brewing beer for only five months, he decided to become a professional brewer.
About eight months into the formal venture, Clark found a master brewer that he could trust his operations with. As Clark tells it, a former employee from another of his ventures, Mike Saboe, came to him looking to get into brewing. Although Clark didn’t know Mike, he checked with one of Mike’s former supervisors to see what he knew about him. The supervisor told Clark that he felt Mike was one of the best beer makers he’d ever encountered and had a fantastic work ethic. With that, Mike Saboe became Clark’s master brewer.
“He’s fantastic—within 30 days, I turned the reigns of the company over to him,” Clark said. “The main thing he had to learn was the business model for our pricing structure.”
Determined to push the envelope in making tasty beers, Clark did what he says most brewers only dream of—he gave Mike the money and resources to get the best hops he possibly could from wherever he needed to get them.
“I gave [Mike] a very high budget to chase hops all around the world—which we do—and told him he could make whatever he wants, any time he wants as long as it falls into our structure,” he said. By that time, Clark said, they already had 20 successful brands, so he also needed to make sure Mike would be willing to maintain the integrity of those brands. “I was just astonished when he embraced everything we have and just added to it,” he said.
According to Clark, Mike was also able to add some key biological components to the brewing process that Clark wasn’t even aware of at the time. Because Mike had attended the University of Iowa with the intent of becoming a pharmacist, he had a lot of chemistry and biology classes under his belt. That knowledge of chemical and biological processes lent itself well to understanding the fermentation process and how to combine ingredients to make great beer.
Hops in liquid form
With Mike’s talent for brewing and Clark’s head for business, Toppling Goliath is on a mission to make “hops in liquid form,” Clark says.
While many American brewers turn to the Cascade Mountain region of Washington state to get the hops for their beers, Toppling Goliath sources hops not just from the U.S. but from all over the globe. Toppling Goliath’s hops—which are far easier to transport across the world than grapes—come from as far as Australia, Czech Republic, Germany and New Zealand, as well as from the U.S.
“Here’s what’s fun about New Zealand and Australia and some of these other places—and this is a blast for us and for the brew team—we have two different times when we’re getting fresh hops because their harvest is the opposite of ours,” Clark said.
Sourcing fresh hops year round also allows the brewery to offer a wide range of products and seasonal brews and to showcase those different hops to the consumer, Clark said.
“Your hops from Australia have a completely different taste. The hops from Australia and New Zealand are really fun. They’re more delicate in nature and they have a lot of fun garden nuances that everyone doesn’t love, but you’ll get green garlic, chives. You’ll get some pepper, green pepper. You get something totally different out of it,” he said.
In contrast, Clark notes that many of the hops grown in the Pacific Northwest tend have a more citrusy oriented flavor profile that may contain orange, grapefruit, lemon or even pine flavors.
Clark believes one of the things that other craft brewers have really embraced about Toppling Goliath is that they’re willing to experiment with different flavors and nuances. Toppling Goliath also makes a lot of one-off, limited edition beers just for the sake of featuring certain hops they particularly enjoy. Those beers, which typically consists of single hop beers or beers that contain a small combination of different specialty hops, are featured in the brewery’s “Hop Patrol” series.
Toppling Goliath’s signature styles are world-class hoppy beers and barrel aged (oaked) stouts, Clark says. For instance, their Assassin is 13 percent stout aged for 15 months in 20-year Pappy Van Winkle whiskey barrels. Those barrels are in such high demand and are so difficult to get that the staff has to drive to the distillery in Kentucky to pick them up. Clark credits master brewer Mike with being able to get his hands on those barrels. “He nurtured that relationship for about three years,” Clark said.
Why hoppy brews and stouts? Because that’s what they enjoy drinking. Clark says they may get into sours at a later date, but for now they don’t want to cross-contaminate the brewery with a different kind of yeast that would be required to make a sour. If they build a separate facility at later date, he says they may get into making sours so each facility can have its own yeast farm inside.
Today, all of Toppling Goliath’s yeast is flown in next day air from California from White Labs. Clark says they tend to use different yeasts for their unique components so the beers will taste differently. “I don’t want a house yeast – we will never have a house yeast – we’ll always have different variants,” he said.
The serial entrepreneur
What Clark says he’s really good at is not necessarily making beer, but creating successful businesses. He loves the challenge of coming up with an idea, building a meticulous business plan and bringing it to fruition. “Anything that’s a hard challenge, I love,” he said. To start the company (which is self-funded), Clark sold a house he owned in Jackson Hole, Wyo.
“My game in life is, I love to build businesses. What I really like to do is build companies,” he said.
As such, Clark says that by the time he actually started the brewery, he’d been working on the idea and business plan for about 10 years (primarily in the form of the brewpub idea). When he started the company what he really wanted was to build a small nanobrewery to test his theory that there was indeed a need for craft beer in Northeast Iowa. The name Toppling Goliath is actually a reference to the fact that majority of the world’s beer is now controlled by two companies, Clark said.
“When I set the company up, I set it up to fail very quickly if it was going to do that, which luckily it didn’t,” Clark said. “That gave me the confidence to keep investing and building the company into what we’ve become today,” he said.
In starting Toppling Goliath, Clark says he set a goal for himself to make top-shelf beers and only align himself with top-shelf beer establishments, which is one of the reasons they decided to also build their own tasting room in Decorah. “That’s what we’re going to do, and we’re never going to compromise on that,” he said. As part of that philosophy, he also knew he would also have to have a higher price point because he wanted to use top quality ingredients. His theory and his pricing scheme have worked thus far—not only was there a thirst for better beer in the area, consumers have been more than willing to pay for those top-shelf beers. “It was very well received right away,” Clark said.
One of Clark’s primary quests with the brewery is continual process improvement, something that, hailing from manufacturing, he takes very seriously. But although they may tweak their processes along the way, one thing Clark refuses to compromise on is quality. Although he would like to grow the company to produce approximately 15,000 barrels annually, the biggest goal is to maintain the quality of the beer. He wants Toppling Goliath to remain a true, small batch beer house, “no blending, no filtering, no pasteurization,” he says.
Unfortunately for those of us outside of Iowa, Toppling Goliath’s distribution is limited for the time being. The company currently sells its beer primarily in Iowa and Wisconsin with distribution in Cedar Falls, Cedar Rapids, Des Moines, Iowa City and Waterloo, Iowa and Hudson, LaCrosse and Madison, Wisc. In addition, they have some limited distribution in Milwaukee and in the Quad Cities. Although Clark says they have gotten requests to sell the beer in all 50 states and internationally, they’re not ready to meet that level of demand. In fact, Clark says, meeting the demand they already have has proved challenging.
Which is a bummer for the rest of us. For now, at least…
What drew you to beer?
The social nature of beer and how the flavors of beers, specifically great ales, complement meals. It’s the social aspect and it’s that—you know what, a lot of people don’t realize this—a great beer is just as great a complement to a meal as a Gewurtztraminer or a Tuscan wine. And actually beer is a little better palate cleaner than wine. I love beer.
And going back to that original story, I couldn’t get the best grapes in the world here in Decorah, Iowa, but guess what? I can get the best grain, the best hops—everything else I do just like every other brewery on earth, right here in Decorah.
Why a brewery in Decorah?
Everybody wants to say they’re giving back. I build jobs and I think that gives back, but in my mind I never think I’m doing this do give back. Maybe that sounds wrong, but I just don’t think that even though I know it does. I like to build jobs, but if you want to know the truth, the real reason I’m in Decorah with a business is I have four wonderful grandsons right here. I spend a lot of time with them, that’s one of the main reasons I’m right here.
I’ll tell you a little bit about my business model, too. Logistically, Decorah’s perfect. Within a three-hour drive take a look at our markets—Minneapolis, Rochester, LaCrosse, Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Des Moines—right there is perfect. And guess what? Nobody’s making great fresh hoppy beer right here—you can go buy a Sierra Nevada in downtown Decorah now but guess what? It’s not as fresh as the beer Toppling Goliath made three days ago and it’s out in production. So I saw that little niche market that we could jump in and bingo! So that’s what I did.
Where does the inspiration for the different beers you’re making come from?
I would say our team’s unquenchable thirst for new perimeters in beer. There’s a lot of beers made with Cascade hops, as you pointed out. OK, how far can we push those Cascade hops to do maybe what no brewery has done yet? So, it’s that. My head brewer has a great saying—his mission in life is to transform hops into liquid version. That’s what we do—it’s his mission. He was going to be a pharmacist. Thank gosh I got ahold of him.
You’re going to make me sound a little bit foolish here. I did not seek any advice. I did not. I will tell you one thing that my stepdad always says and he’s right and it’s an obvious thing, but you have to maintain your quality standard. If you’re willing to compromise your quality standard, you’ve just compromised the integrity of the entire mission. I will not do that. I won’t do it. If the beer isn’t right, it’s going down the drain. That’s all there is to it. And that’s why you’ll enjoy my commitment and this company’s commitment for process improvement. You think you’re doing something right? You’d better take a few minutes and re-examine because there is always room for process improvement. You know what? Even a small little company with a dirt floor, there’s room for process improvement. You can embrace that or you can not embrace that, but if you don’t embrace it, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Even if you’re doing something fantastic, if you’re not improving it, somebody else will come along, copy what you’re doing and then, there you go. How are you going to differentiate yourself? Through process improvement.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced thus far?
Satisfying demand. It’s very, very stressful. Very stressful.
What’s the best thing about what you’re doing for a living?
I’m lucky. My grandma taught me this—I am one of those people that loves Friday because there’s only two days until Monday. I love my work. I absolutely love it. So the best thing about what I’m doing is working with teams of achievers for a common goal. I really enjoy that.
What’s your favorite beer that Toppling Goliath makes?
You’re really putting me on the spot there, but I can tell you it’s called Zeelander. It’s made with the Nelson Sauvin hop from New Zealand, and I just absolutely love it. It’s a very polarizing beer. Not everybody wants those garden nuances in their beer. When it’s really good, you’re getting grapefruit pith mixed with green peppers and garlic and chives—it’s just amazing.
I also love our Sosus, as well, which is a double IPA made with all Mosaic hops—and with that you get citrus nuances with some blueberry, stone fruit. That’s my favorite beers we make.
Oh there’s many great craft brewers. I would take my hat off to Surly Brewing Company, Four Hands Brewing, Half Acre in Chicago, Perennial Brewing—they would all be within about six hours of us. I don’t want to leave anybody out. I like the folks up at Steel Toe, they’re doing a great job, let’s face it.
If you had you choose your last beer what would it be?
It’d be the Sosus—a fresh pint out of the tank, by the way.
Favorite brewer/brew other than your own?
Oh, yeah—Vinnie [Cilurzo] from Russian River. He’s fantastic. Let’s face it—their sour beers are out of this world. Supplication. Consecration. Just out of this world. They are spot on. Tomme Arthur is right there with him as well. Tomme Arthur runs The Lost Abbey. And the Pizza Ports in Carlsbad [California] and you should go there, all those places, they’re wonderful! Tomme Arthur is making fantastic beer, I really like his beer. And he pushes the envelope.
Photos courtesy of Toppling Goliath unless otherwise noted.