Growing Pains: Toppling Goliath Confronts the Challenges of Expansion, Turnover, and Public Perception

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Decorah, Iowa’s, Toppling Goliath Brewing Company is working through the challenges many breweries encounter as they grow // Photo courtesy of Toppling Goliath

Like a milk-chugging eighth grader, Toppling Goliath is on the verge of a summer growth spurt.

Since opening in 2009, the small Decorah, Iowa, brewery has lit up the online trade boards with explosively hopped beers, such as its flagship pale ale PseudoSue and a bitter fiend’s dream Intergalactic Warrior. With Goliath’s demand far exceeding its David-sized production capacity, founder Clark Lewey planned to have Florida “partner” brewery Brew Hub make its flagship beers at its forthcoming St. Louis location in 2016.

But then Brew Hub upped the ante.

Brew Hub, sort of an all-access contract brewer, instead offered to start right away at its Florida facility. Its first fermenters of Toppling Goliath brews filled this spring. “I jumped on that opportunity,” Lewey said. “For one thing, it will help us finally get into Minnesota quicker.”

Amen.

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Toppling Goliath Founder Clark Lewey // Photo courtesy of Toppling Goliath

In turn, the deal will also help the buzzy little brewery become a more significant regional player. The added Brew Hub barrels plus additional in-house production will push the Iowa hop-mongers from 3,000 barrels per year to around 20,000 within the first year.

Despite the dramatic growth, Lewey says the process will still be closely watched over by him. “The great thing about the agreement is it’s totally hands-on for us and we will be very hands-on as we go through and make sure the product is everything that I’ve always dreamed of for our beer,” he said.

At least initially, Lewey and his brewers are flying to Florida to oversee the start of each batch. Under the arrangement, Toppling Goliath becomes a licensed Florida brewery renting Brew Hub’s space and equipment, Lewey said. While some of the newly brewed beer will stay in the Sunshine State, Lewey plans to push into Minnesota (hopefully by this fall) and Illinois.

But as Toppling Goliath enters this transformative period, it is without the hands that have long crafted its beers. On February 20 of this year, tension between Lewey and former brewmaster Mike Saboe “reached a breaking point,” Saboe said. Neither would speak on the record about what exactly happened that day—which ended up being the star brewer’s last with Toppling Goliath. However, Saboe would say that he didn’t like the idea of contract brewing and felt Lewey had publicly taken credit for beers he created.

“There are times when you get into an argument with a close friend or family member and both sides say some things they regret,” Saboe said.

The split, which Lewey said also resulted in another brewer departing, left him scrambling to rebuild his team at a pivotal time. “I basically went from one day having [a] full staff to having no staff,” Lewey recalled. “All the eggs were in Mike’s hands, so very quickly I had to get those new brewers trained and up to speed.”

Remarkably, the brewery only lost six days of production. But that didn’t prevent the same online beer community that aided Toppling Goliath’s ascent from chattering.

“At first there’s always this big worry because, what does a brewery do? They put a face out forward, so I usually put my head brewer’s face out forward,” Lewey said. “When he left everybody assumed ‘Oh, there won’t be any more good beer.’ Well, they didn’t realize the charter of the creation of these beers comes from the charter of the company. It’s the way we made beer before Mike joined us. He enhanced our vision with the way he liked to make our beers, and we’ll continue to make these beers since he’s gone.”

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The bottling line at Toppling Goliath // Photo courtesy of Toppling Goliath

With that hurdle cleared, the expansion march continues with new head brewer Tom Netolicky, formerly of Florida-based brewpub chain Hops Restaurant. In addition to the Brew Hub deal, Lewey also hopes to build a new Iowa facility twice the size of his current space by spring 2016. While Brew Hub is making 12-ounce cans and bottles of Dorothy’s New World Lager, PseudoSue, Rover Truck, and the pine tree-redolent Golden Nugget IPA, a smaller number of 22-ounce bombers will still be made in Iowa.

The partnership and future Iowa build will free Toppling Goliath to produce more of its raved-about double IPAs, revive discontinued beers, and beef up its barrel program, Lewey said. As a bonus, the Brew Hub agreement grants Lewey access to its lab, where he’s been testing his Iowa-brewed beers, learning to utilize hops more efficiently and making other fine-tunings.

As for Saboe, he’s still figuring out his next move and declined to discuss his future. But on the day we spoke he was in the Twin Cities, “checking out some potential opportunities.”

While neither of them was happy about the breakup and wounds still need healing, Lewey said he would still have a beer with his friend and former colleague.

“I love the kid just like a son,” he said. “So, ultimately in one way it was a disappointment for me and I had a lot of anger. […] But on another, I’m proud of him because if you’re doing something you don’t want to do, you shouldn’t do it. Wherever he goes he’ll find his success and then I hope he can find his happiness.”

 
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Michael Rietmulder About Michael Rietmulder

Michael Rietmulder is a reporter with City Pages and former beer, spirits and nightlife writer for the Star Tribune and Vita.mn. He lives in Minneapolis and drinks in a lot of places.