How Toppling Goliath brews beer from start to finish

Go behind the scenes of the process, innovations at the Decorah brewery

Clark Lewey says the first and most important step in developing a new beer or brewing innovation at Toppling Goliath Brewing Co. is that “we know who we are and we know who we are not.”

Lewey started Toppling Goliath in 2009 with his wife, Barbara, because the beers he wanted to drink weren’t available in the northeast corner of Iowa.

“There was not a single [India pale ale] on tap in northeast Iowa at the time, and the distributors here just didn’t think that Iowans would want a beer like that,” Lewey said.

But they did. In the brewery’s 16 years in business, it has served northeast Iowa, attracted visitors from around the state and distributed its beers globally.

Lewey said Toppling Goliath, also known as TG, has built its reputation on “liquefying the flavors of fantastic hops,” which continues to be a focus of the brewery’s innovations.

Hops are the cone-shaped flowers of the humulus lupulus plant that can provide bitterness, aroma or flavor to beer. There are more than 250 cataloged varieties of hops, according to data from the National Institutes of Health. 

Innovating the beer is about keeping up with new varieties of hops being developed and investing in the right equipment to improve the quality of hoppy beers, Lewey said.

“We know we haven’t perfected what we can do, and we know we’re not making the best beer in the world. We are trying to make world-class beer that we consider the best of our talents,” he said.

Making high-quality beer is of interest to the business as well, especially as TG and the whole craft brewing industry are innovating to adapt to a new set of beverages like bourbon and THC/CBD-infused seltzers gaining popularity.

Nationally, annual beer production for small and independent brewers dropped 1% in 2023 to 23.4 million barrels, according to data from the national Brewers Association.

After Iowa’s more than 100 craft breweries hit $1 billion in economic impact in 2021, that figure dipped to $963 million in 2022, Brewers Association data shows.  

For TG, which employs 160 people, Lewey said controlling the distribution of its beer has always been vital to its survival in the 8,000-person city of Decorah, about a quarter of whom are college students. As a native Iowa brewery, TG can serve its products in a taproom and self-distribute, meaning it packages and delivers the product to partners, including grocers and other retailers. There are higher costs and risks associated with self-distributing, but also a larger portion of the profit. 

 In 2021, TG’s total production was the highest of any Iowa craft brewery at 42,500 barrels, but that was just a 2% increase from 2020. Lewey said he feels TG has hit a plateau, but he thinks the brewery can maintain its brand identity while expanding into some non-beer products that could help reinvigorate the business.

The grain used to make Toppling Goliath’s beers starts by being weighed and moved gently through pneumatic tubes. Most of the company’s beers use a base of malted barley along with additions of any specialty grains required. Lewey said the outer shell on barley contains a microbe that spoils beer so it’s important to keep dust and particulates from the grain contained to the grain room and away from the rest of the brewing process. Photo by John Retzlaff
After quality control is complete on a batch of wort, it is transferred to the fermenters, where yeast converts glucose in the wort to ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide gas to give beer its alcohol content and carbonation. TG has fermenters that hold 100, 200 and 400 barrels. Lewey said depending on the type of beer, it will spend anywhere between eight days to one month in the fermenter. Smaller one barrel fermenters that the brewery started with are now used to test new beers that are in the research and development phase. Photo by John Retzlaff
Through a four-step process, breweries extract the grain’s sugars and create a wort, a liquid that is the foundation for beer. Grain is first hydrated and crushed in a vessel called the mash tun and then moves to a lautering vessel for final extraction of the sugars. Next, the wort is boiled to kill bacteria, get rid of enzymes and concentrate the liquid. This stage is also where hops are added. TG’s boil kettle uses an external tube called a calandria that allows the wort to boil at a higher pressure. Lewey said the feature is unique and makes this step faster and more efficient. The last step is the whirlpool, which separates the liquid wort from solid particles. The circular motion of the whirlpool creates a cyclone that moves the solid particles to the center of the kettle and away from the drain port. This helps keep as many solid particles as possible in the kettle when the wort is drained for fermentation. Photo by John Retzlaff
Breweries treat the water used in their beer to produce a better tasting beer. TG runs its water through a reverse osmosis system to make it “completely neutral,” Lewey said, and then adds minerals such as calcium, chloride or magnesium back in to customize the water profile for the style of beer they are brewing. They will also vary the pH levels in the water, he said, paying close attention to the levels in hoppy beers, which are more sensitive to variations. TG’s other filtration systems include charcoal filtration and water softening. Photo by John Retzlaff
Some of TG’s beers don’t reach customers until years after they’re brewed. “Barrel-aged” beers are stored in freshly emptied bourbon or whiskey barrels, which increases the complexity of the beer as well as the alcohol content. In the area where the barrels are stacked, a label on one of them said it was filled in 2019. “Yeah, we’re not in a rush,” Lewey said. There’s a lot of opportunity for experimentation with barrelling, he said. They have varied the brand of spirit that was in the barrel, added extra ingredients, known as adjuncts, before or after aging such as chocolate, coffee or maple syrup. They have also tested double and triple barreling, transferring the already barrel-aged beer into another freshly dumped barrel. Lewey and the company’s brewmaster, Mike Saboe, started barrel-aging almost right away and released the first barrel-aged beer around 2013. TG’s barrel-aged lineup now includes Kentucky Brunch Brand Stout, Assassin, Term Oil and Naughty Temple. Photo by John Retzlaff
TG’s decanter centrifuge, a piece of equipment that helps hoppy beers taste juicer. Lewey said it’s common in the juice industry and TG is one of the first breweries starting to use it. He said it works like a French press, drawing all the liquids and oils out of the hops after they’ve been in the fermenter so the maximum amount of flavor stays in the beer rather than being discarded. Photo by John Retzlaff
As the brewing process wraps up on the other end of the building, the beer moves through a couple different pieces of equipment aimed at improving quality, including a centrifuge to separate solids and liquids, similar to the whirlpool earlier in the process. When it’s time for packaging, TG’s canning line will can between 240 and 300 cans of beer per minute. There are also bottling and kegging lines. Pallets of beer are then stacked in the cooler ready to ship all over the world. Photo by John Retzlaff
Three days a week, TG’s sensory team puts employees’ tastebuds to the test, seeing who can decipher differences in the quality of their beers. Lewey took his turn during the tour. He sampled four Pseudo Sue American pale ales and judged whether their visual appearance, aroma, taste and mouthfeel met standards, recording his responses in an app. At the end, an answer key showed the date of the batch each beer was from and how it was stored. Several of the beers were from batches made months before and one of the cans had been stored warm instead of cold, affecting the quality. The sensory team is also responsible for sampling the beer while it’s fermenting to ensure it’s on the right track. Photo by John Retzlaff