Pick Six: Toppling Goliath’s Mike Saboe Shares Some Bright Corners of Inspiration

As Mike Saboe was embracing craft beer and homebrewing in the early ’00s, he sought far and wide for inspiration. Looking back now, as brewmaster at Toppling Goliath, he recounts six beers that had an outsized influence on his approach to everything from hop-forward beers to burly barrel-aged stouts.

Jamie Bogner Feb 17, 2023 - 14 min read

Pick Six: Toppling Goliath’s Mike Saboe Shares Some Bright Corners of Inspiration Primary Image

Illustration: Jamie Bogner

At Toppling Goliath in Decorah, Iowa, brewmaster Mike Saboe led the development of acclaimed beers such as juicy pale ale Pseudo Sue and the coveted barrel-aged stout Kentucky Brunch.

Once an avid geek and trader, Saboe still keeps a collection of empty bottles of beers that inspired him. “Every time I look at those bottles, that re-invokes the memories of the original experience that I had with that beer,” he says. “It helps me recall some of the things that I’ve researched or learned about those beers, and it just kind of gets the creative juices flowing.

“There were some absolutely fantastic, inspirational beers that I got to try, and you could just taste and feel that there was something special about them. You could tell that there were lifetimes of effort and skill that went into those. You always hope that you can help further that for the next generations of brewers—just to be able to put out something that’s significant to this world and be able to share that.”

Midnight Sun M

(Anchorage, Alaska)
“Back in 2005 when they released this, they described it as a Belgian-style barleywine, and I was fortunate to be able to try it finally and for the first time, as part of my college graduation tasting. It was released in Anchorage, and it wasn’t an easy bottle to get hold of—they didn’t make a ton of it—and it seemed like there were only a handful of people who got up there and grabbed a few cases each.


“I wasn’t sure exactly what I was going to think of it, but we opened that first bottle, and it poured out extremely dark for what you’d expect from a barleywine—almost a black barleywine, which is a little less surprising nowadays but only because of the impact this beer has had since. Another thing that stood out to me was the absolutely massive gravity. It was full-bodied, and it had spent plenty of time in barrels, but the combination of flavors was just damn near perfect.

“It wasn’t just what the flavors were, it’s that they were so rounded from early to mid- to late palate. It never wanted you to desire something else out of it. It got me thinking then about stuff that I was doing with my homebrew, and it confirmed some of the directions I had started going. Of course, this was a barleywine, and the beers I was doing were primarily stouts. But it helped open my eyes to what you could do with barrel aging and what the actual potential limitations could be. It got me thinking about just how big a beer should be when it goes into barrels and that you need to be cognizant of what you’re doing upstream, to get those types of results.

“I’ve wanted to make an homage to M ever since, and next year we’ll finally release a huge barleywine that I’ve been working on since 2009 as a tribute.”

Fantôme Brise-BonBons

(Soy, Belgium)
“Fantôme is one of those breweries that always fascinates me with some of the things that they do. I’m always compelled to buy at least one bottle of any new release of Fantôme that I see. Every once in a while I’ll find an absolutely fantastic batch with almost magical qualities. One of those particularly magical batches was Brise-BonBons, which I bought at John’s Grocery in Iowa City. They were well known for having tons of imports and Belgian beer on the shelf, and we could get beers like Cantillon Lou Pepe Kriek and Framboise, and so forth, all the way back in 1999.


“It was a tremendous selection, but they received bottles of Brise-BonBons, and I did my thing and picked up a bottle. (I was a college student, so $15 a bottle wasn’t chump change.) I tried it, and I could only describe it as tasting like a beautiful sunny spring day. It was the first time that I’d really had a saison with that perfect lactic acidity to it, plus a little bit of expected spiciness from the saison yeast strain, but it wasn’t overdone—too many brewers today just use the French strain for fermentation, and it gets extra peppery while a touch flabby. The traditional aroma and flavor with a bit of floral hop note, plus that brilliant light acidity that livened the beer up, convinced me to go back to the store immediately and buy every bottle they had. I slowly shared those bottles over time with various people because I was infatuated with that batch of that beer. They’ve come close to that level a number of times since, but that was the beer that opened my eyes to what saison could be with mixed fermentation. It flipped that lightbulb on in my head.”

Pizza Port Poor Man’s IPA

(Carlsbad, California)
“I had a buddy who lived in Carlsbad back in the day, so I had a somewhat regular supply. It’s brewed with a classic combination of ‘C hops’ for the most part, but it always had a new-school feel. There might be some Simcoe and Amarillo in there, which would have been halfway new-school around that timeframe, but I clearly remember how it was full of vibrant hop aroma. It wasn’t overly bitter, and it wasn’t one of those crystal-heavy IPAs of that era. I’d started getting away from involving any amount of crystal malt in my homebrew IPA already at that point because I just didn’t care for the iced tea–type character and the quicker staling—and Poor Man’s double IPA was a light golden color. It was as vibrant as can be every time I found it.

“If they were pouring it at a festival like the Great American Beer Festival, I always made sure that I got myself multiple pours. I remember plenty of times when I took a growler of that to one of our Iowa weekend tastings back in the day, and we would just absolutely kill that growler in a hurry. It was a delicious beer and one of those things that made me think differently about IPA.”

De Dolle Stille Nacht Reserva

(Esen, West Flanders, Belgium) “This is another one of those beers that was very influential to me in terms of what a beer could be and how you can turn a problem into such an amazingly beautiful thing. The backstory to this is basically, De Dolle was buying their microbial culture from Rodenbach back in the day. And Rodenbach decided they were no longer going to be taking care of all the micro for De Dolle and selling them that culture, which is a mixed culture. In order to maintain that, you really need to have a lab, which is something that De Dolle definitely did not have.


“There was a particular batch where their re-pitched culture had skewed itself so much that it would hyper-attenuate. It was over-fermenting in the bottles to the point that some of those were starting to explode. So, [brewer Kris Herteleer] contacted some of his friends over in France, and he got his hands on some Bordeaux barrels. As the story goes, he literally took those bottles that were otherwise exploding, and he popped the tops, and he poured those into those freshly empty Bordeaux barrels, and let that beer hang out for another two-plus years. At that point, he started sampling the beer again, pulled it out, and it tasted absolutely phenomenal.

“That’s what became the Stille Nacht Reserva 2000. So, it’s interesting to see that beer be able to come back and turn into something that was just absolutely amazing. And this is a hard thing to be able to do. But it’s a fun thing to be able to do if you can—if you’re able to track down bottles of regular Stille Nacht that are from the mid-’90s or earlier because you’ll notice a distinct difference in them nowadays—there’s much less acidity involved, where that was a much larger component of Stille Nacht back in the day.”

Three Floyds Bourbon Vanilla Dark Lord

(Munster, Indiana) “Nowadays, they’ve renamed this Marshmallow Handjee. I just generally think they do a damn good job with this beer, but the timeframe I really think back to is back even before they started bottling it. So, this was draft-only batches that I would have had at Dark Lord Day. On its own, Dark Lord is a very robust beer, but it’s almost made for barrel-aging. That’s when it starts to hit its stride, when Dark Lord is fully barrel aged. They’d have some different beans in there—you’d see Mexican vanilla listed, and stuff like that. And, number one, the beer was just absolutely fantastic—it was marshmallowy, one of the first beers that that I thought did justice to having vanilla in the name.

“Earlier on, one of my big issues when I was trying beers, you’d try a vanilla porter or something, and I’d think that it should have a creamy vanilla character to it. A lot of the beers of that timeframe, they were relatively dry, perhaps astringent, and they might only slightly hint at vanilla. They were probably just using a vanilla extract. I found those to be somewhat depressing. It just didn’t feel right.


“So, flash forward to Bourbon Vanilla Dark Lord: It had the appropriate body, and it had the creamy vanilla character to it, and you knew they were doing something beyond even the vanilla beans that were available. … Madagascar is one I just don’t like to use. Even if you appropriately incorporate Madagascar vanilla beans into a beer, that character has a tendency to light up people’s minds to think “extract.” So that beer got me into trying all sorts of different beans, whether it’s Mexican, Vanuatu, Fiji, Congo, Ecuador—I mean, it’s probably 40 different origins at this point that I’ve tried. So, the Bourbon Vanilla Dark Lord just opened my mind to, ‘Okay, this is awesome that somebody’s actually doing justice to what I think vanilla in beer should taste like. And they’re paying some respect to the different beans that are available in this world.’”

Mcilhenney Muntz

(Alpine, California)
“This was originally Alpine Nelson, and it was one of those beers that really got me going earlier on—their Alpine version of a West Coast IPA. That beer had virtually no bitterness; it was just a juicy, hoppy beer. The direction I wanted to go with hoppy beers in the future was to essentially make the liquid translation of the hops that are being used. There’s so many times where on a weekend, I’d get a growler, or even those old-school bombers, of Alpine Nelson. You could easily crush through those beers. It was the type of hoppy beer that you could share with someone who wasn’t really a hoppy beer fan. Alpine Nelson was just something that was before its time.

“I recently got back out to San Diego about a month or so ago, and I was so stoked to be back in the original location. And you have the Mcilhenneys brewing beer, just the way they used to, and the beer is as good as it always has been. The entire lineup out there, I was just a kid in the candy store, so to speak, just being able to try some of those beers in their somewhat original representation. Of course, they have made a couple of changes to them, but not in a bad way. It’s been a very fun way. For instance, Alpine Nelson, it used to be Nelson Sauvin plus some Southern Cross and maybe something else. But nowadays, Muntz is still Nelson-heavy, but they’ve got a little Nectaron in there as well.

“It’s just one of those beers you could drink to your heart’s content and know that it’s going to be a very delicious, hoppy beer. It’s approachable for people who are new to that style, and it still hits home for people who are the hoppiest of hopheads.”

Jamie Bogner is the Cofounder and Editorial Director of Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine®. Email him at [email protected].