On April 19th, 2016 I took a pilgrimage to Decorah, Iowa. There is something beautiful about the magnetic attraction that world class breweries have and how they draw you to places you normally would never go. In late January, I had the pleasure of meeting Mike Saboe, the brewmaster of Toppling Goliath, at the Rate Beer Best awards ceremony in Santa Rosa. We talked about the potential of a sour program, the next release of Vanilla Bean Assassin, and Mike graciously shared a few decent beers like KBBS (2013), KBBS (2014), SR-71, and Morning Delight. I knew a trip to Iowa was in line so I could kiss the ground of one of my favorite breweries, but more importantly learn more about the man behind the magic of Toppling Goliath. It was a busy brewing day for Mike and he was sandwiched with meetings, but I was lucky enough to squeeze in for forty-five minutes.
Ale Auteur: How did you get started brewing as a teenager? What ignited your interest to brew at such an early age?
Mike Saboe: Well, when I was seventeen I went to Germany as a part of a high school foreign exchange program. When I was over there that is when I first got to try different beers and I was kind of surprised what all a beer could actually be. That opened my eyes. Enough so, that I went back the following year to stay with a friend over there and try different beers and of course see the different sites in Germany. I like everything about Germany, anyway.
So then, by the time I got back to the U.S. again, I had heard a little bit about home brewing and that you could do it at home. I was not able to purchase the beers that I liked so it became more of a desire to figure out a way to brew them. I just thought the whole idea of being able to actually take something from its raw form as grain and turn it into a liquid beverage that you could share with anybody was a pretty fascinating thing. I was able to purchase the equipment and everything I needed and all of the ingredients. So, I really just dove into studying beer and what it was about. I just jumped right into doing it.
"I would have been twenty-two and that was the first time I worked in a commercial brewery. I graduated on a Saturday and I was working there that Monday."
- Mike Saboe
AA: What did your mom and dad think of it?
MS: At first, they thought I was a little crazy and they weren’t 100% for it, but they could see that I was passionate about it. I fell in love with it quickly. I was going to school and I was on the pharmacy path. I was not 100% sure what I wanted to do, but it perfectly overlapped what I needed for brewing school and for brewing in general. I just kept brewing every weekend and studying to get myself ready for brewing school. I knew that is what I wanted to do and pharmacy was not going to be the thing for me. By the time I was a senior applying for pharmacy schools I told my counselor I was not interested and that I was going to do the beer thing.
She thought I was crazy and foolish to not apply to anything as a back up, but I knew 100% that I was going to charge forward in that direction. I was able to get a job at a brewery as soon as I graduated. So I actually did not end up going to brewing school although I had all of the text books. That was one of the bigger decisions that I made and I was able to do was to get right into brewery work right away. I would have been twenty-two and that was the first time I worked in a commercial brewery. I graduated on a Saturday and I was working there that Monday. Talking to a lot of people that were going to brewing school they said if you could get in with a brewery right away that you should do that.
AA: What brewery was it?
MS: It was a brewery called Hub City. They are out of business now. They were owned by a real nice family. I really enjoyed my time there, but when the opportunity came here and Toppling Goliath was looking to grow I was essentially given free reign to do all of the beers that I was not able to do at the other place.
AA: Who would have known what could have happened to Hub City?
MS: I wanted to be able to do those things there and I really cared for that family, but they kind of had their own mission that they were on. When I had the opportunity to be able to bring forth beers that I had been working on here I had to jump at that opportunity.
AA: Did you have any beers in your belt at Hub City that you ended up brewing at TG?
MS: I would say the majority of them. The first place I made what later became Pseudo Sue, my citra hopped pale ale, was actually there, but I only made it at a five or ten gallon scale. It was actually from them that I purchased citra for the first commercial sized batch of Pseudo Sue here at Toppling Goliath. I had left there on good terms. The stouts I had been working on those since 2006.
"...there is definitely different deviations upon the stouts that I have worked on that I have not really had the time to introduce here or anything yet, but they are out there."
- Mike Saboe
AA: Where did you get access to the barrels?
MS: The thing is, I didn’t have was access to the barrels. It was more just the brewing of the stouts and different renditions.
AA: So you started playing with barrel aging when you got to TG?
MS: Yes. I did a little bit of barrel aging at Hub City. I do not know what happened to any of those barrels. I think they are long gone. The big foray into barrel aging actually happened at Toppling Goliath. Prior to that, it was basically working with different forms of oak infusion, barrel staves and things along those lines. I had never really produced enough to be able to fill a barrel. The thing I was always working for was designing a beer based around a barrel or in the case of Morning Delight how to put those different flavors together without the use of a barrel. I just continued to work on those beers in different directions and there is definitely different deviations upon the stouts that I have worked on that I have not really had the time to introduce here or anything yet, but they are out there.
AA: How do you think being in Iowa has played a role in your success?
MS: Iowa is where I am born and raised. When I was going to school I was really into beer and we started to form more or less unofficial groups for beer tastings. We usually got together a couple times a month on Sunday trying beers or maybe a Thursday night to try a few beers. There was a lot of beer trading going on and a lot of traveling in addition to actually brewing at home.
AA: What were some of the early breweries you traveled to?
MS: I was going to Surly, New Glarus, Three Floyd’s, um, I went out to Kuhnhenn's.
AA: How does it feel now that you are brewing beers that are more sought after and highly rated than the breweries you grew up admiring?
MS: It is quite an honor to be in the same sentence as some of those breweries. I would say I gathered a lot of inspiration from them and out on the West Coast I had some friends that had moved out there so I was abe to get growlers of Russian River beer and in southern California I was able to drink from Pizza Port Brewing Co. and Alpine of course. So all of those things kept fueling me to improve and expand upon things. The guys that were in the group with me we always really enjoyed trying those beers and trying to piece together how and what they did. I really enjoyed the challenges of brewing something similar and then having my own variation put upon it.
AA: Has TG intentionally stayed on a path toward predominatly brewing IPA’s and stouts or is it just what you like to brew?
MS: It is definitely what I like to brew. However, there are a lot of other beers that I do want to make at some point in the future. There are ones that I have really only ever worked on within a small scale so far. I just simply have not had the tank space to be able to do that. I am trying to be able to reach that day. Those beers are definitely an itch I want to be able to scratch. We just have to get through this expansion or figure out some other way I can have a little additional free time so I can play around with those. I think there will be some exciting exploratory beers in the future.
AA: Do you ever worry that the hype and success you have had early on will be unsustainable?
MS: Um, my worry would be, I do not even know if I should say it. It would be the loss of the integrity in some areas or as a business grows the challenge can quickly become how to translate the mission to everyone that is aboard the ship. That is always kind of my worry as far as the scaling factor. I am personally not worried otherwise. I live and breath beer so if it were up to me and me being in the trenches at all times then I do not see myself getting behind on things. Now getting locked into having a big commercial brewery that has certain production schedules to maintain that is kind of the hard part of growth. Sometimes you are not able to be as dynamic as you were at a smaller scale.
"I think the stouts are up there and I am happy with where they are, but I am not done." - Mike Saboe
AA: What were the first barrels that you played with?
MS: I think it was a Buffalo Trace.
AA: You just called up Clark and said you wanted to start barrel aging?
MS: Well one of the things that helped at the beginning between Clark and I was that the original logo for TG involved a barrel. That was apart of the logo. One of the beers that he was doing was Naughty 90, which was an oak aged beer. That one is aged with oak chips. So I figured it would not be too much of a leap for him to be willing to have me dive into barrel aging. It is a lot of money and everything to have tied up, but we have really enjoyed what we have done there.
AA: I, along with a lot of other people, think you are the best producer of stouts in the world. Do you agree?
MS: I am always trying to reach that ideal stout and produce something that I want to drink myself and I feel there are other breweries that are doing that producing very good stouts that I enjoy drinking as well. I will continue to grab inspiration from other breweries and other travels that I do. I think the stouts are up there and I am happy with where they are, but I am not done.
AA: So you are taking the humble road? Have you ever had another BA stout where you thought to yourself, “Damn, I wish I brewed that”?
MS: Well one of the things I like to do is for the past few Christmas’, I will have a bottle of Barrel Aged Abraxas while watching National Lampoons and Christmas Vacation with my family. So that is definitely one of those beers that is up there that I just really really enjoy. If I was going to say one, I would have to say that is up there.
"The first time we ever released Morning Delight and Kentucky Brunch they were draft only at the tap room and they actually lasted long enough to where we bottled a little bit for ourselves." - Mike Saboe
AA: I am with you. It is one of my favorites also. So now you need to get Cory to watch National Lampoon’s to one of your beers.
MS: I guess, yeah. Actually, I do not even know if I have told Cory that. It might make it a little easier to get a bottle.
AA: How did a small brewery from Decorah even get on the map in the first place? Could you remember one article, one beer, or one person that helped spread the word to where you blew up?
MS: Well it would have been probably early 2013 when things really started to grow in popularity exponentially. It goes back to the Iowa City days where you could sense there was a craft beer movement happening in Iowa with the amount of time and money people were spending traveling to other states buying Surly and Three Floyds and everything else. You could sense the demand and the excitement for craft beer was growing pretty quickly in Iowa and we were starting to produce some of those beers and word of mouth began to spread.
The first time we ever released Morning Delight and Kentucky Brunch they were draft only at the tap room and they actually lasted long enough to where we bottled a little bit for ourselves. We thought that they would have took off a little quicker. Some people were kind of on to it so the time we actually did bottles where we had Assassin and Morning Delight come out the same day we started to have a crowd of people. That was kind of our first crowd. We had probably two hundred or so people that came to the tap room. It was still enough of a relaxed atmosphere, but you could tell things were building and I think it was about a month and a half later that we did the first bottle release of Kentucky Brunch and that was when we had a hundred people there by seven in the morning.
AA: What is the main difference between the 2013 draft version of SR-71 and the 2015 bottled version?
MS: Oh, those are very different. The SR-71 is really just in reference to top secret experimentation. So the 2013 was not barrel aged, but it was still experimentation within aging a beer. The 2015 was aged in barrels for twenty-five or twenty-six months. There was a couple more secret details that I cannot talk about.
AA: Is it true it is the base of Assassin?
MS: Yeah, it is right in there. Yeah.
AA: What has been your favorite batch of Assassin? Red, yellow, or gold?
MS: I would probably say yellow and I think the trajectory of this next years is most on line with the yellow.
AA: Do you ever get to the point where you look in your cellar and think, “Oh shit, it is my last bottle of KBBS or Vanilla Bean Assassin”?
MS: Well, we are at that point right now with Vanilla Bean Assassin. Between Clark and I, we have one bottle and I do not know quite when we are going to open that, but probably not until the next round is ready in bottles. By the time we get down to the last one you really get itchy to have another one ready to go.
AA: So it is a good sign for your consumers when you are down to the last bottle?
AA: A lof of breweries are collaborating on a regular basis and I have only seen one Toppling Goliath collaboration with Treehouse. Is there a reason why we do not see more with Toppling Goliath?
MS: I don’t know. There has also been the Cycle collaboration and there is the potential for a few more coming up. I think it has mostly been scheduling related. There has not been any sort of desire to not. It is one of those things that I have said before that one of my concerns with collaborations is sometimes you get into a group thing and there can end up being to many cooks in the kitchen. It is nice to be able to work with people that you are on a similar page with and any deviations or experimentation that you are doing can be pieced together properly. There will be more collaborations. It is not from a desire to not do it. I enjoy the commraderie and enjoy visiting other breweries and drinking with them.
AA: I feel like other breweries would always be knocking on your door asking?
MS: So yeah, there will be some more coming up.
AA: How many bottles do you normally hoard for yourself with your rare releases?
MS: I usually hold back two cases. Although, not necessarily two cases of Kentucky Brunch. If it is Assassin two cases. If it is Kentucky Brunch it is usually one tweleve ounce case of twenty-four bottles.
AA: What is next in your IPA program?
MS: More with the blending of hops. I am still going to dive into some of the newer varities of the single hop arena. There will be some more blending and a couple of other things I am still thinking about. In general, the blending of hops and maybe getting into some other yeast strains to play around with.
AA: What is the first thing that comes to your mind when I say these words:
MS: Kentucky Brunch
AA: Pliny the Elder
MS: It is one of the IPA’s that got me going
AA: Beer Trading
MS: I like beer trading. I would not be where I am without it. I traded for beers and I think it is a good thing.
AA: Hill Farmstead
AA: Is there anything you have not been asked before that you wonder why no one ever asks you?
MS: With the Hill Farmstead thing, I would put Treehouse in the same sentence where the focus is making the high quality beer and it is not trying to be this huge business entity. The beer is number one at all times. That is something that I strive for myself.
AA: When can we expect the new facility?