Clark Lewey

Toppling Goliath Brewing co-founder Clark Lewey

Toppling Goliath Brewing

Toppling Goliath Brewing founder and owner Clark Lewey spoke about a number of topics in an interview with the State Journal, including the Iowa brewery's venture with Brew Hub, the potential for further expansion and the importance of the Wisconsin market.

I spoke with Lewey by phone from his family's lake house in eastern Wisconsin, near Lake Winnebago, on June 7. Here are excerpts from that interview:

Brew Hub

Lewey referred to Toppling Goliath's arrangement with Brew Hub, the Florida-based craft contract brewer, as an "exciting partnership." Technically it is an alternating proprietorship, a setup in which Toppling Goliath takes over ownership of Brew Hub's facility and equipment while production of Toppling Goliath beer is taking place. That means Toppling Goliath is a Florida-licensed brewery, which is reflected on labels of beer produced there. 

Lewey said he started watching the Brew Hub model when it was first announced and started paying closer attention after Cigar City Brewing, the well respected Tampa brewery, signed on. Lewey said he has friends at Cigar City and that vetted Brew Hub through their experience; they had been brewing there for several months by the time Toppling Goliath signed on around Easter. The goal is to shift production from Florida to Missouri as soon as 

Brew Hub, Lewey said, offers a chance to meet demand for Toppling Goliath beer in existing markets, as well as opportunities for more diverse packaging. As of June 10, Toppling Goliath has produced 400 barrels of PseudoSue pale ale in four-packs, 400 barrels of Dorothy's New World Lager in six-packs -- both new packaging formats for the previously bomber- and draft-only brewery -- as well as 200 barrels each of Golden Nugget IPA and Rover Truck stout. For Brew Hub brews, a team from Toppling Goliath makes the trip from Decorah, Iowa, to Lakeland, Florida, where they're assisted by Brew Hub staff.

"Those guys can make beer every bit as good as us if not better," Lewey said.

Lewey said the brewing process at Brew Hub is being dialed and improved -- just as it constantly is at his Iowa facility -- but it's early in that fine-tuning. Lewey said he believes the Toppling Goliath beer coming out of Brew Hub is very good but can get better. Use of Brew Hub's extensive lab will help that refinement, Lewey said, and it already has led to insights about Toppling Goliath's beer that has been applied at the Iowa brewery. 

Even with a 30,000-barrel brewery of Toppling Goliath's own expected to come online next spring, using Brew Hub could be a long-term solution to meet demand, Lewey said.

"If we can get along well together, I think it can be a long-term plan for me," he said. "I’ve had distributors reach out for our beer in all 50 states and nine countries now."

As a result of the Brew Hub arrangement, a "very limited" amount of Toppling Goliath beer is sold in Florida, out of the Brew Hub tap room.

New facilities

Toppling Goliath is breaking ground on a new brewery -- its second in less than three years -- in Decorah this fall. Lewey hopes it'll be online by spring 2016, and when it does it'll more than double Toppling Goliath's capacity to about 15,000 barrels a year. 

He said continued more new facilities is a strong possibility as long as the demand for Toppling Goliath's beer remains strong, but what Lewey called Iowa's restrictive laws will have him turn out of state if that happens. 

"This will be the last brewery I build in Iowa," Lewey said. "I really don’t enjoy the laws in Iowa for breweries."

Moving production of Toppling Goliath's top sellers such as PseudoSue, Golden Nugget and Dorothy's to contract facilities like Brew Hub will allow the team in Iowa to continue to innovate and develop new beers.

"If they can take four of our flagship brands, and keep them consistent, I can brew around the country," Lewey said. "We can replace the mundane with creativity. Everyone on our team, we just ache to create."

"I’d like to have a different imperial IPA for every month. I’d like to fill up barrels. I’d like to keep creation in our facility."

The Wisconsin market

Before settling on Brew Hub, Toppling Goliath did explore other options, including some closer to home, Lewey said, noting a number of Wisconsin breweries that make beer for other labels.

"I think it’d be pretty fun to make some beer here in Wisconsin," Lewey said, noting Iowa laws preclude him from opening a Toppling Goliath brewery outside Iowa. "There are some pretty nice facilities in Wisconsin."

Wisconsin has been an important market to the brewery since it began sales here roughly four years ago, Lewey said, though that's been a tough sell to people in other parts of Iowa clamoring for more Toppling Goliath beer -- or even any at all. But geographically, it makes more sense.

"Council Bluffs is so far away," Lewey said. "Madison is just 2½ hours."

And Wisconsin -- and Madison in particular -- has been a key proving ground for Toppling Goliath's now world-class reputation. Lewey said Toppling Goliath's sales in Madison and another college town, Iowa City, were early litmus tests for the viability of his brewery. 

"If we could survive there, I would invest in this company to grow," Lewey said, adding that he's humbled that Toppling Goliath has not just survived but thrived alongside high-quality in-state breweries and many of the best breweries from both coasts. 

"You can get the best beer in the world in Wisconsin," Lewey said. "There’s so many great beers out there, and to even excel in it is really amazing. We’re lucky to be on the shelves with all these great Wisconsin breweries."

Talks with Wisconsin distributors

Toppling Goliath still self-distributes in Wisconsin, which entails sending a truck full of beer to outlets in Madison, La Crosse, Hudson and, more recently, Milwaukee and Green Bay. Lewey said he has been meeting with potential distribution partners in Wisconsin but has yet to ink a deal.

"There’s definitely a couple that stand out," he said. "I’ve always been patient to make the right decision. I have to make sure i get the right distributor. I think right now I do a good job representing our brand here."

He enjoys the face-to-face aspect and relationship-building that selling and shipping beer requires, but acknowledges the challenges, especially as the core business of actually making the beer grows.

"It’s two completely separate businesses and it’s very hard," he said. "I really have to make a decision this year or I’ll have to build up a fleet."

Dorothy's New World Lager

PseudoSue is arguably Toppling Goliath's most celebrated beer, but Dorothy’s remains one of its top sellers, a second flagship. The California common was one of Lewey's homebrewing creations, and was a key catalyst for the formation of the brewery. Lewey said his homebrews tended toward bigger, hoppier beers that he didn't think there'd be a big enough market for in northwestern Iowa, so an easier-drinking beer with still enough depth of flavor and body emboldened him to take the step to take his hobby pro. 

The beer is named after Lewey grandmother, who died not long before Toppling Goliath became a brewery. "She had introduced me and my brothers to beer at a very early age," Lewey said. 

The California common -- a lager that ferments at ale temperatures -- has a special connection to Iowa, Lewey noted. He credited famous Iowan Fritz Maytag with saving the style with his pioneering 1965 investment in San Francisco's Anchor Brewing, the maker of the style's gold standard, Anchor Steam Beer.

The brewery's name

It would make sense to assume that the name Toppling Goliath refers to the David-vs.-Goliath struggle of small brewers to knock off the big guys. But Lewey said the name predates the 2009 founding of the brewery by years.

He founded a small-business consulting and services company called TG Inc. in 2002 to help small businesses with grant applications, business plans and other red tape-type tasks. The Toppling Goliath name fit the approach of the little guy dealing with big bureaucracy. But Lewey said it never really got off the ground and he "ditched the business but kept the name." When he started the brewery, he said, he saved thousands of dollars by using that incorporation with a DBA ("doing business as") amendment instead starting the corporate paperwork over.

"It was never a shot at those macros, and actually I applaud those companies," Lewey said. "Any craft brewer can do themselves a favor by going and visiting some of those facilities and implementing some of the quality control they have."

Lewey called on big brewers like Pabst and Miller -- as well as several small brewers -- as clients during the more than two decades he spent with his family's company, Iowa Rotocast Plastics. Lewey said it's the 16th-largest rotational molder in North America, making coolers and similar products for the beverage industry. 

Lewey said he left that business when he founded Toppling Goliath -- his wife, Barbara, is a co-owner -- but the experience and perspective it gave him with the industry's distribution and "go-to-market" systems proved invaluable. 

Head brewer's return 

One soap opera-like drama that unfolded shortly after my June 7 interview with Lewey was the return of Toppling Goliath's longtime head brewer, Mike Saboe, after a roughly three-month hiatus. Saboe's departure in late winter caused rampant buzz and speculation on online beer forums.

In the interview, Lewey said he moved quickly to replace Saboe, bringing in a new head brewer in Tom Netolicky and a new lead brewer, Chris Flenker. He said the new brewing team was learning the Toppling Goliath system and beers and he was proud of and confident in them. 

"I guess the proof is in the beers, Lewey said. "The new team ... I can’t expect them to be perfect, and I don’t."

Lewey declined to say specifically what led to Saboe's departure, though he did describe himself as "kind of hot-headed." Their relationship remained positive, Lewey said.

"We still have beers together and we’ve kept our friendship," he said. "He was like a son to me. I want him to be happy and successful in life."

I guess so, because three days after the interview Lewey emailed to say Saboe was rejoining Toppling Goliath as head brewer. 

"After much thought I have decided to let Mike Saboe return to my team," he wrote, saying fences had been mended between Saboe, himself and Barbara Lewey. "We have been in talks for some time."  

Saboe declined to comment on his hiatus from Toppling Goliath.

From Iowa to the elite

One of the remarkable aspects of Toppling Goliath is how it came quickly and seemingly out of nowhere -- apologies to Decorah -- to brew some of the world's top-rated beer. PseudoSue is the ninth-best beer of any style in the world by a metric that factors in volume. In more absolute measures, Toppling Goliath has six beers in Beer Advocate's top 100, including the No. 2 overall Kentucky Brunch Brand Stout. 

"I think we were Iowa’s first ISO," referencing the online beer trading shorthand for "In search of." "I’m pretty proud about that."

Lewey said Toppling Goliath beers have been formed from extensive travel and sampling of the American beer landscape and taking components of their favorites. In 2009 he knew his new brewery could make good beer, but to say things have gone well is an understatement.

"I had pretty high expectations, but it is a little surreal, considering the limited amount of beer that we’ve been able to produce and our limited distribution," Lewey said. 

Got a beer you'd like the Beer Baron to pop the cap on? Contact Chris Drosner at cdrosner@madison.com or follow him on Twitter @WSJbeerbaron.

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Chris Drosner writes the Beer Baron column for the Wisconsin State Journal.