Rob LoBreglio Great Dane (copy)

Rob LoBreglio, co-founder of Great Dane Pub & Brewing Company, is opening a new brewery and pub in Japan with Tetsuya Kiyosawa and Shinji Muramoto. He is shown here in a file photo from 2012. 

It’s been more than two decades since Rob LoBreglio, co-founder and brewmaster of the Great Dane Pub & Brewing Company, first started joking with his friend and former brewing apprentice Tetsuya Kiyosawa about opening a brewery in Kiyosawa’s native Japan. When the talk got serious years later, he pictured spending about half his time in Japan and half in Madison.

Now, as construction is set to begin next week in the picturesque Akiu area of the Japanese city of Sendai, LoBreglio has sold his house in Oregon and bought a place 400 yards from the future brewery, figuring he’ll be spending 95% of his time there for at least the next several years.

“I imagine I'm going to be centered in Akiu for the rest of my life,” LoBreglio said.

Akiu, which was once its own town, is located about 20 minutes outside the bustling center of Sendai, the capital of the Miyagi prefecture. Sendai, about two hours north of Tokyo by bullet train, suffered devastating damage in 2011 when a magnitude 9.0 earthquake hit off of Japan’s shore. 

Today, while the country’s population is shrinking, Sendai’s population is growing slightly. The city has three professional sports teams, seven universities and one of the youngest populations of a Japanese city.

“I started researching Sendai … and it just kind of started sounding like a larger version of Madison,” LoBreglio said.

LoBreglio will still be involved in the biggest projects at the Madison-area Great Danes, but Camille Knudson, currently the director of business operations, will take over as president, and co-founder Elliot Butler will stay on as the brewpub’s “general guiding spirit,” LoBreglio said. 

LoBreglio will be president of Great Dane Brewing K.K., the Japanese equivalent of an LLC. Kiyosawa will run the operation, and Japanese-born restaurateur Shinji Muramoto of Restaurant Muramoto will design the food menu. In September, they’re hoping to showcase the brewery to dignitaries attending the trade-focused Midwest Japan Trade Association Conference in Tokyo, including Gov. Tony Evers. 

As he prepares to move to Japan next week, LoBreglio spoke with the Cap Times about the long-awaited project and how the Madison beer scene has evolved in the nearly 30 years since he got his start. 

What's the current status of the forthcoming brewery? 

The site work is all done, so the utilities have been stubbed in. The field — formerly a rice field — has been transformed. It's ready for construction and the actual structure will start going up in about a week. We're hoping to maybe have a soft opening and have everything ready to go at the end of August, but the official grand opening would hopefully be mid-September, right after the (Midwest Japan Trade Association) Conference.

Do you speak Japanese? Are you planning to learn?

That’s always a funny topic. The short answer is no. I’m just paying attention and learning the basics. I'm going to have a somewhat mellow winter there, so I'm going to take the opportunity to study more, but really, the Japanese are very proud of their language and they don't want to hear it slaughtered. Just making a little bit of an effort goes a really long way, but then they're very happy to stop and either have a translator or use Google Translate, or they speak English.

Looking back on the nearly 30 years since the first Great Dane opened in 1994, how would you describe the changes you’ve seen in the Madison craft brewing scene?

Certainly the proliferation of microbreweries. When (the Great Dane) first opened (in 1994), I think the number of small brewpubs was just a few hundred in the country. I think it's over 11,000 now. And tastes have changed. It's funny: Our Old Glory American Pale Ale, when we first opened, was considered too hoppy for a lot of people. And I can tell you, it’s nothing compared to all of the IPAs that people are consuming now. And there are a lot more of the multi-tap places where you could have 10, 20, 30 beers on tap. 

Do you think that growth has been sustainable? Are we seeing a craft beer bust now?

The competition is really fierce out there. As a brew pub, we have to concentrate on just being the best restaurant operators we can be. That includes not only great food, but great beer. But for packaging breweries that are trying to survive by selling their product on the streets, it's really tough. If you go into any liquor store, you just see how many varieties are out there. It's a lot of competition. A lot of people still think that the brewing business is a new, hip, sexy thing to get into, but the fact is that the market is fully saturated.

That's not the prime reason that I'm going to Japan, but it’s certainly a big part of it. In Japan, a few years ago craft beer only represented about 1.5% of the market. Now it's between 3% and 4%. No one thinks that it's going to explode quite the way it did here in the U.S., but they think it should get at least to about 7% or 8%. That's double what they have now, and they honestly just don't have enough producers for all of that extra beer, so countrywide it seems like there's an opportunity. In Sendai, Sapporo closed their big brewery, making us the only real packaging craft brewery in the city. There's a great guy who owns Grain Town Brewery, but it's a nanobrewery. He brews like 10 gallons at a time in his house and bottles and sells it to a couple places, so with all due respect to him, we're going to be the only packaging craft brewery of any significant size. 

We are going to be the first foreign brewing concern to build a brick-and-mortar brewery in Japan. Right now, when you see any foreign craft beer in Japan, it's either imported or it's contract-brewed by another brewery. (Our brewery), as represented by Tetsu (Kiyosawa) and I, is the first true union of Japanese and American craft brewers, because right now, it's either foreigners like me who go over there and want to open a brewery, or Japanese guys trying to emulate what's going on in America, and they don't work together. The Japanese love a good story, and it's not going to be lost on them that this will be the sensei (me) and his pupil (Kiyosawa) coming together. 

How do you think that the Japan project will influence the Madison area? Will there be beers or food here that are inspired by this new addition?

Once we nail our flagship beer over there, we're certainly going to brew it at least as an occasional specialty here in Madison. But we want to have fun with this as well. The (time zones) pose some problems but, if coordinated properly, there could be an international kanpai, or cheers. If we wait until daylight saving time changes, we’ll be different by only 14 hours, so when it’s 11 in the morning here, it’ll be 1 in the morning there. 

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