To many locals in Decorah, Iowa, 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 northeast Iowa.
Started six years ago like so many of the nation’s 3,500 breweries — on a tiny system in a backroom by an ambitious home brewer — Toppling Goliath has become an unlikely craft-beer Goliath. Tales of its outsized stouts and India pale ales have drawn a steady steam of tourists to the little town hemmed in by cornfields.
Though Decorah, home to the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, is the epitome of “cute little Midwest college town” — Luther College was founded here in the 1860s — it is an unlikely brewing Mecca. Decorah sits 150 miles from the Twin Cities, the same distance from Madison, Wis., and 200 miles from Des Moines. To be here, and to drink the freshest version of a world-class beer lineup, effort must be made. And people make it.
“Of everyone in here,” taproom manager Todd Seigenthaler said while surveying a crowd of 25 one afternoon, “I see one local. And she’s from 20 miles away.”
“We drove a long way to be here,” said Nick Yemm, 29, of Peoria, Ill.
“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 it, 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.
On this day, Yemm was trying a different 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.
Tap room becomes a destination
Beer-scoring websites such as BeerAdvocate and RateBeer deserve much of the credit for turning Toppling Goliath into a destination. According to RateBeer users, 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 BeerAdvocate users, Toppling Goliath makes seven of the top 100 beers in the world. Toppling Goliath is distributed only in Iowa and Wisconsin, but expansion to Minnesota and other states is coming soon.
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.)
“I find it amazing how many people come to visit us,” Lewey said.
Home brewing spills into success
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.
Though Dorothy’s New World Lager continues to be Toppling Goliath’s “gateway” beer, 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.
“I got sick of traveling an hour to buy my beer in La Crosse [Wis.] or Rochester [Minn.],” Lewey said.
Toppling Goliath took off quickly after opening in 2009 and now brews most of its beer at a production facility a couple of miles from the taproom. A still larger facility is being built in Decorah, and Toppling Goliath has joined forces with a Florida-based Brew Hub to expand production and distribution. But the truest experience is stepping into the taproom.
I ordered a 4-ounce pour of everything Toppling Goliath had on tap; the tray of 10 beers made for a luminous, effervescent rainbow, ranging from pale yellow to pitch black. Half were pale ales or IPAs, 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.
Seigenthaler 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 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.”