Home Cover Interview: One-On-One with Toppling Goliath Brewing Company Brewmaster Mike Saboe

Interview: One-On-One with Toppling Goliath Brewing Company Brewmaster Mike Saboe

The man behind several of the country's most sought-after beers explains the process of creating next-level efforts, meeting the demands of the ever-changing consumer and more.

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Photo Courtesy of Toppling Goliath Brewing Company

Over the last several months, Toppling Goliath Brewing company has substantially increased its distribution footprint, making the Iowa-based company much more accessible to a portion of the country.  In doing so, a sizable amount of drinkers are now discovering what was once one of the Midwest’s best kept secrets, despite being named the world’s second best brewery in 2015.

With highly coveted efforts such as King Sue, the company’s year-round double IPA, and Mornin’ Delight, a limited edition stout brewed with maple syrup and coffee, getting your hands on Toppling Goliath’s beers can be tricky – and sometimes require a raffle to obtain.  It’s even become a destination spot for drinkers, which is relatively uncommon in Iowa and much of the Midwest, but brewmaster Mike Saboe embraces the small town roots and how Toppling Goliath continues to grow.  Saboe, who joined founder Clark Lewey’s company in 2010, was born and raised in northeast Iowa and is the brainchild of some of Toppling Goliath’s most notable stouts, many of which are now holy grail beers.

We recently asked Saboe about brainstorming some of these next-level brews, meeting the demands of the ever-changing beer consumer, the Iowa beer scene and more.

Dirtfork: What’s the brainstorming process like how do you and your team dream up the next beer before even doing any actual physical labor?

Mike Saboe: We like to put ourselves in situations that can induce creativity but we never force it. Brainstorming itself is always organic for us. Situations can range from a few of us getting together and trying a few beers to a long-distance trip where we take a day or a few hours in a day to just enjoy our environment. Getting into the right state of mind is what allows us to pull inspiration from our wide range of experiences and thread these thoughts together in a meaningful way. 

Dirtfork: Producing such large quantities of beer can prove challenging. Do you use a pilot system to ensure the beer meets certain flavor specifications before it’s heavily brewed?

Saboe: We use a pilot system for conceptualizing flavor profiles. The more experimental the approach, the smaller the initial pilot batch is to start. Once a proof of concept is established, we then move on to scaling trials. Scaling trials are always unique – recipe scaling is not linear, nor is determining and defining large-scale processes in a replicable way. 

Dirtfork: Is it challenging to meet high expectations (based on of your year-round efforts) when creating limited release beers for consumers constantly moving on to the next beer trend?

Saboe: More than anything else, I would call it energizing. Our team is full of craft beer fans – they really love beer. Personally, I think that’s the most powerful thing. When love of beer is everyone’s motivator, creating new beers if forever exciting. 

Dirtfork: Iowa isn’t necessarily great for hops, so how do you ensure the best, and appropriate, hops for your beers? What goes in to purchasing and selecting the appropriate hop?

Saboe: The majority of our hops are sourced from the Pacific Northwest for two primary reasons: we contract our hop futures for years in advance and they’re the only place growing some of our most used varieties. The selection process is one that we participate in every fall. We travel out to Oregon and Washington to try a multitude of different lots of each variety we have contracted. We’re looking for particular lots that have the appropriate oil “fingerprint,” which is determined by analytical analysis, as well as the right aromatic properties, which is determined by human sensory analysis. We dedicate one to two weeks per year for the actual selection process, however, the pre- and post-selection usually tacks on a month to the front-end of selection and another reflection phase takes place one to two months after receiving the pelletized hops.

Dirtfork: Toppling Goliath is expanding its distribution at a substantial clip, becoming more accessible to drinkers outside of Iowa. How important has it been in continuing to evolve your brand?

Saboe: The continued evolution of our brand itself is something that still follows a more fundamental approach in brewing what’s exciting and relevant. The expansion of distribution fits in by offering more opportunity to improve our logistics as they relate to the styles of beer we’re producing. The majority of what we produce for distribution is hop-forward, cold-storage and freshness remains paramount.

Photo By Ed Miller

Dirtfork: What does it mean for you to know Toppling Goliath has become a destination brewery and continues to impact the beer community? 

Saboe: It’s certainly an honor to be looked upon favorably and to be considered to have been impactful to the beer community. There were many years early on where we were just a small brewery pursuing our passion without any fanfare – we continue to expand upon that with a large, and growing, team that appreciates the ability to pursue their passions. In taking a moment to reflect on things, it’s enjoyable to think of the breweries that inspired us, which I obviously couldn’t name them all – the list would be too long but I’d throw a nod to: Hair of the Dog [Brewing Company], Pizza Port [Brewing Company], De Dolle [Brouwers], Midnight Sun [Brewing Company], and Three Floyds [Brewing Company].

Dirtfork: Being renowned for IPAs and stouts, can that make it difficult to push out more “boring” and less-trendy beer like a lager or a pilsner?

Saboe: Not at all. German pilsners and Bavarian hefeweissbier are the two styles that opened my eyes to what beer could be. Those styles aren’t necessarily looked upon as being very flashy or exciting to the general craft beer populace but for us, it’s all about the execution of the beer at hand as opposed to the level of excitement one style might drum up versus another. The thought of brewing a pilsner that emulates the experience offered by say, Rothaus pils, is extremely motivating for all of us. The bigger trick is having the available tank capacity to offer it with regularity. We’re continually investing in additional tanks and our future small-batch brewery, which is slowly but surely opening up the opportunity to bring forth these additional passion projects.

Dirtfork: One of your recent beer releases garnered almost 4,000 beer enthusiastsroughly half the population size of Toppling Goliath’s hometown, Decorah. Is this something you could’ve envisioned 10 years ago? 

Saboe: We’ve always believed in the beers we’ve shared with the craft beer community but our first-ever release of Kentucky Brunch Brand Stout as draft only in 2012, we only had eight people show up for the release – Clark [Lewey] and I were two of them. We continued to believe in the beer itself and in what we were doing – thankfully people enjoyed what we’ve done and that’s allowed our releases to evolve into what they have.

Dirtfork: The economic impact of Toppling Goliath locally is substantial and it helps bring attention to Iowa. Is maintaining The Hawkeye State’s imprint on your brand important?

Saboe: Many of us are born and raised in Iowa, so it’s definitely a cool thing to be able to do what we’re doing in small-town Iowa. That said, our Midwest roots certainly play a role in influencing some of our decisions, but I can’t say that we take an overtly state-specific approach to the marketing of our brand.

Dirtfork: What can beer drinkers expect from Toppling Goliath in the near future are there any next-level beers that are in the pipeline, other than this year’s iteration of KBBS?

Saboe: When we complete our small-batch facility, we’ll be dusting off some styles of beer that we’ve worked on for many years but haven’t had the chance to share. Oh, and Vanilla Bean Assassin.