Is This Heaven? No, It’s Decorah!

Decorah, Iowa, is a quaint college town, embedded in a pastoral setting. Rolling hills, sprawling farmland, and the occasional winding river accompany your meandering trek to this college town. Decorah is probably most notable for being the home to Luther College, a private liberal arts institution of learning. Of course, if you are a craft beer geek, Decorah is a mini-mecca of sorts. That is due to the fact that it is home to Toppling Goliath Brewing Company, one of the most popular craft breweries in the Midwest and beyond.

Decorah, Iowa is also the first stop on my Midwest beercation with two of my favorite beer friends, Aaron and Jeff Zierdt. Jeff Zierdt is the Co-Founder of Lupulin Brewing Company, and Aaron Zierdt is Lupulin’s Innovation Brewer. Aaron and Jeff take an annual father-son beercation for Jeff’s birthday every year. Over the years, I have gotten to know both Aaron and Jeff. They are amazingly kind people. Aaron and Jeff also share an incredible passion for all things craft beer. So, we have oodles of things in common. Our relationship started back in August of 2016 when I first ventured up to Lupulin to write an article on their brewery for the blog. Since then, we have brewed beer, traveled to Great American Beer Festival, and shared many a laugh together.

A few months ago, Aaron and Jeff asked when my spring break was. I told them the dates, and they said that aligned perfectly with their annual father-and-son beercation. They graciously invited me to accompany them on their trip. I could not have been more excited to say yes! After smiles all around and a discussion on possible destinations, the excitement about an impending beercation was palpable!

Who Needs A Travel Agent When You’ve Got Bourbon?

Initially, we had our radar set on Oregon. Unfortunately, thanks to the wacky world we live in, the airfare cost is prohibitively expensive. I stopped tracking Google Flights when the ticket price climbed north of $950.00. Like many things over the last few years, we had to pivot. So, after recording a podcast to preview Lupulin’s Big Beer Week, we began chatting about alternative locations. After looking for a few more places and finding similarly outrageous airfares, Jeff suggested Chicago. I said that I had never been to Chicago for beer and everyone’s faces kind of lit up. We had an anchor location for a trip that would eventually include the cities of Decorah, Madison, and Milwaukee-a true Midwestern beer geek odyessey!

The planning continues, and a route is agreed upon. We book our lodging after an evening of copious amounts of Lupulin beer, a shot of Fernet, and a hard pass on using the Zierdt family hot tub. Aaron, Jeff, and I gathered in their living room in the wee hours of the morning. Equipped with nothing but our unbridled wanderlust for the beer trail, and a healthy pour of Bourbon, Aaron begins scouring Airbnb for accommodations fit for three knuckleheads.

Aaron’s first search for Decorah yeilded what sounded like a sure-fire hit-“The Bueller” which is an 80s-themed Airbnb a hop, skip, and a jump away from Decorah’s bustling night life. I am not sure if it was the Bourbon or general excitement of planning a trip with friends, but we didn’t think twice about booking this for our first night. Little did we know, that this lodging would not only prove convenient, but also be one of the most unique Airbnb experiences any of us had ever had!

A Pit Stop at Pivo Brewery

The day of our beercation has arrived! After making it through teaching on a Friday at a middle school before a week off, I was ready for some excitement and liquid refreshment. Aaron and Jeff picked me up at my house, and I brought my suitcase out to the car. They pop the trunk and reveal quite a few flats of Lupulin cans that will be given to breweries along the way. Aaron and Jeff both assured me that the chances were quite high that we would come home with way more beer than they brought. We pack in my gear and proceed to hit the road.

Now, spring break in the Midwest is really like a grab bag of no fewer than 19 different types of weather. The sky was overcast and it was far from balmy. The wind is blowing and eventually, Mother Nature starts spitting out rain at us. Were it any other day, this weather might have made us sleepy. However, the promise of beer and fits of laughter spur us on down Highway 52.

Eventually, the sun wins the battle of will with the clouds and shows itself. Once we were into Iowa, the sun is shining and the wind continues blowing-a wonderful combo of a Midwestern spring. We pull into Pivo Brewery which is located in Calamar, Iowa. We emerge from the car, stretch our legs, and are immediately assaulted by the gale-force winds. Aaron grabs some cans from the car to leave for the Pivo Brewery staff and we enter the brewery.

Beer, Curds, and Classic Styles

Pivo Brewery boasts 40 beers on tap, with a focus on classic styles. I am cautiously optimistic about the number of beers Pivo is serving because Calamar isn’t necessarily a bustling metropolis. However, when I learn that they also have an event center attached, my worries old beer flowing from the tap lines dissipates a little.

Aaron, Jeff, and I sit down at a 4-person lowtop table. Our server stops over immediately and hands us the extensive beer menu. We are all thankful that they also have some small bites available. It is both ignorant and foolhardy to try to beercation without eating food the way. With that in mind, each of us order a flight and some food.

The taproom aesthetic is a combination of hunting lodge and beer hall. Bags of malt from all over the place festoon the walls. A gigantic buck acts as a silent sentry to make sure patrons are minding their Ps and Qs. Adorning the buck’s antlers are several medals that Pivo Brewery has won over the years. We are anxious to get into our beers and see what Pivo Brewery is all about.

How Many Is Too Many?

My flight consists of a British Best Bitter, a Dark Czech Lager, a Czech Pilsner, a German Pils, and a barrel-aged stout called Old Balltown. I also order up some cheese curds and seasoned pretzels to tide me over until we get to Toppling Goliath for food. Aaron and Jeff get a variety of other beers. Between the three of us, we definitely put a dent in at least a third of their taps. The beers are decent, but some suffer from a lack of proper carbonation. The cheese curds are as fresh as they can be and have the squeakiness to prove it.

We squeak our curds and sip our beers. The flavors are good and the conversation is even better. If I were hosting a party in this area, I would definitely have it here. The group decides that the clear winner of all the things we had is actually the Decorah Nordic Gruit, which isn’t technically a beer because it is made without hops. In lieu of hops, Pivo Brewery uses juniper, caraway, bog myrtle, black walnut and rosemary to provide balance and flavor to this concoction. The Decorah Nordic Gruit is bright, herbal, and refreshing. My guess is that this drink pairs really well with food given the myriad of flavors and aromas in the gruit.

We also agree that if the carbonation on some of the lagers was better, they would drink crisper. That being said, it is a good first stop. We continue chatting and sipping as the “beginning of the beercation” energy is palpable. We discuss different places to go in Madison and possible schedule options for where to drink when. Before we know it, out tasters are empty and the curds are a gone. We settle up and set a course for the next brewery stop, Toppling Goliath Brewing Company.

Toppling Goliath Brewing Company

Toppling Goliath Brewing Company in Decorah, Iowa, is one of the most popular breweries in the Midwest and maybe even the country. They started small and literally grew into their namesake. Toppling Goliath started in a much smaller location in 2009. The original location is just off the main drag in Decorah. It was cozy and very much felt like a small town brewery.

That One Time, At Toppling Goliath

I visited there several years back on a random Friday in April. Unbeknownst to me, that same day was the release of King Sue, a bigger version of their amazing Pseudo Sue. There was a crazy line for growler fills and we had a great time. This was back in 2012 when word didn’t travel nearly as fast on social media about trendy beer happenings, so our group was completely oblivious to how rare this beer was. We had pours of King Sue at the taproom, but did not get any growlers to go. We would later learn that people were paying $150 for a growler of King Sue on the secondary market!

Several years later, Toppling Goliath had reached the point where they needed to contract brew to keep up with demand and began brewing beer down in Florida. By this time, Toppling Goliath had established themselves as a brewery for hoppy beer fans and barrel-aged stout lovers. Their stouts like Assassin, Kentucky Brunch Brand Stout (KBBS), and Term Oil are some of the most sought-after stouts on the market. People enter lotteries to win a chance to purchase these sticker-shock inducing beers. To me, what gets lost in the shuffle of these insanely popular beers are a lot of the beers that they started off brewing. So many of their IPAs were so far ahead of their time when they came out. I remember drinking Golden Nugget for the first time and being floored at how perfect it was.

What A Difference A Decade Makes

Enough of the Toppling Goliath history lesson, let’s talk about their new and shiny destination brewery. In February of 2018, Toppling Goliath opened their huge location on the outskirts of town. Aaron, Jeff, and I arrive at Toppling Goliath just in time for the dinner rush. We are meeting a friend of Aaron’s that he met through a fan group for the MN United Soccer team. There is a wait, but that is fine with us because where there are taps flowing with beer, there is a way to pass the time.

Iowa’s Hoppy Place

The tap list reads like a hop-lovers 50 Shades of Gray. As a surprise to nobody, we all order an IPA. We don’t double up because there are about 8 different choices of either an IPA or a DIPA. I walk around and take in the immensity of the space. There is a huge mezzanine level that is closed off due to issues with a staffing shortage. However, the folks that are here are working their tails off.

Pils Pairs Well With Pescado

Eventually, we are seated and peruse the food menu. At this point, we have worked up ravenous appetites after some 16 ounce curls. They have a fish fry on the menu and being the good Midwestern chaps that we are, we all order that. I mean, what goes better with ice cold beer that crispy, flaky cod?? That’s right, nothing! The NCAA basketball games are on thanks to the plethora of televisions all around the space. March Madness is the best time of year for sports. We watch the games, sip our steins of TG Pils, and talk about soccer, beer, and everything in between.

As the steins of TG Pils continue to arrive at the table, we watch as St. Peter’s upsets Purdue. The atmosphere is electric, and it hits me how much I have missed opportunities like this to gather with friends over the last couple years. I am so grateful to be with great people, drink wonderful beer, and watch sports in a crowd, again. As we finish out food, we get the check and prepare to continue our evening at the next stop, Pulpit Rock Brewing. At this point, we are thankful that Jeff volunteered to be the driver tonight because the TG Pils, while low ABV, are also devilishly drinkable.

Pulpit Rock Brewing Company

Our last brewery stop of the night is Pulpit Rock Brewing Company. Pulpit Rock Brewing Company is a stark contrast to Toppling Goliath when it comes to size. However, a wonderful commonality that the two breweries share is that their beers are all well-made. If this were earlier in the day, I would attack the tap list with more gusto, however, I am just looking to do a few things that are on the lower ABV spectrum.

A little hopped out, I go for the lager (Neighborhood Beer) and then the bock (B.T.O. BOCKman Turner Overdrive). These beers showcase malt in a way that is pleasing to my palate. The fun thing about Pulpit Rock Brewing is that they have a main room with a stage for live music and a bar. If you are looking for a quieter setting that is conducive to conversation, you can step into what used to be the brewing area and there is seating and a horseshoe-shaped bar with more seating.

Quality Over Quantity in Decorah

We opt for this space since we are just wanting to drink and chat. The corrugated metal and timbers remind us that the focus here is definitely the beer. Despite the spartan decor, the setting is unique and has a cozy craft brewery feel. Ben, Aaron’s friend who lives in town, gives us the history of this place and how much having two incredible craft breweries really adds to living in Decorah. We all agree how unique a place Decorah is as it relates to craft beer.

It is one thing for a small town to have one craft brewery that has garnered regional and national attention for quality and consistency. I mean, Big Lake, Minnesota, knows all about that. However, it is quite remarkable for there to be two highly rated craft breweries that are able to thrive in a college town. I don’t know about you, but my palate wasn’t at the point where I could have come close to appreciating the flavors and nuances of the beers we consumed today. I think that craft beer can look at Decorah and feel good about the future of craft beer.

The Bueller, Your 1980s Home Away From Home

As the night wanes and our eyelids get heavy, it is time to head to our Airbnb. If you are familiar with Airbnb, you know that sometimes there are some unique instructions to get into the place you are staying that can be complicated. If you add in the factor of a group of yahoos who have been consuming beer since 5pm, sometimes those instructions become quite the challenge.

Sometimes the biggest hurdle to clear is finding the right place to park your car. The specter of this seemingly mundane task rears its ugly head later in the trip. However, for tonight, the parking spot is easy to locate. The gale-force winds have not let up, in fact, they are now howling like a banshee. We grab our suitcases, our backpacks, and a bottle of barleywine that we were gifted at Pivo Brewery and make our way down the hill into the backyard.

The ground is frozen which makes it easy to keep our footing on the grass. You gotta love springtime in Decorah! We arrive at our second challenge: the lockbox for the house key. We search a bit for it and eventually find it located on a railing on the deck. After a little bit of consternation and giggling, there is a click and the key is revealed. We unlock the door and open the door.

My reaction after taking in The Bueller for the first time.

I am not sure if we would have been nearly as excited about what we stepped into if we had not already been tippling the night away. We turned the lights on and were instantly transported back in time 25 years. The description of the Airbnb make it clear that this was an 80s-themed place. However, I am not sure either of us had expected the level of homage to the decades that our senses were met with when stepped into the room. The posters, knick-knacks, furniture, and kitchenware all harkened back to a simpler time.

I saw the Westclox-brand alarm clock that my parents had in their bedroom when I was a kid. There was a Rubik’s Cube as a centerpiece on the kitchen table. They had both the Castle Greyskull and Snake Mountain He-Man play sets on display!!! Clearly, there is magic here. A confluence of all that I loved from the 80s. There were VHS tapes, a Nintendo, and vintage glassware.

When Nostalgia Meets Nirvana

What more could a fellow need? If you guessed more beer, then you get to move on to the bonus round. Aaron being the enterprising young man that he is, realizes that to truly enjoy the time travel, we need to park our rears on the vintage couches and drink a barleywine. The barleywine was gifted to the group at Pivo Brewery. Aaron procures 3 glasses evoking memories of the late seventies and pours the brown liquid into them. This barleywine is quite hefty and perfect to warm us on this chilly Decorah evening. As the wind continues to howl like a coked-up werewolf, we sip our beers. We have lost Jeff to the collection of local yearbooks where he is meticulously coming over names that he recognizes.

As my rear end sinks further into the vintage furniture, I am enjoying myself immensely. I cannot believe that this is only night one of our trip! Decorah provides a lot of wonders for travelers seeking out craft beer. If you have not been before, I strongly recommend a night. I think that I even have a great place for you to stay.

The next morning we were up and at it early. I am greeted by another wonderful little Seinfeld Easter egg when I step out of the shower. It gives me a great chuckle. I pack up and the group is ready to head out. I have a cup of coffee in a Michael Dukakis 1988 campaign mug and am ready to hit the road. We grab more coffee and breakfast at the Magpie Cafe & Coffeehouse and set a course for Madison, Wisconsin. Decorah treated us well and it will be a place that I would gladly revisit. The company is top-notch and that makes me excited for all the other excitement that lies ahead. Prost!

Dan Beaubien has been involved with Beerploma since 2014 although his passion for craft beer dates back to 2006 when he started traveling for beer.  Dan mostly covers craft beer events, festivals, brewery openings/releases, and beer reviews. Dan has a soft spot in his heart for authentic British Style ales, IPAs, and all things barrel-aged.  If you have any questions or comments about this article feel free to email Dan at dan.beaubien@beerploma.com .