Plans call for a brewery and tasting room to open in spring of 2021 in Akiu, Japan
Editor’s Note: Contributor Mary Bergin is a longtime travel/food freelance writer who last December visited Sendai, Akiu and other parts of Japan’s Tohoku region with the Freelance Council of the Society of American Travel Writers.
Craft beer lovers don’t have a glut of choices in Japan, but a Wisconsin craft brewery aims to change that.
Case in point is Sendai Super Dry, a quiet newcomer to the chalkboard of specialty beers made at Great Dane Pub and Brewing Company.
The lager – brewed with Japanese rice, German hops and Wisconsin malt – will be the flagship beer when Great Dane Japan opens in spring of 2021. For now, the beer is only served at Great Dane’s original location in downtown Madison.
“We’re still tinkering, increasing the hop bitterness and aroma a little more,” Rob LoBreglio, Great Dane co-founder, said of the recipe.
He recently was in Japan for roughly the fifth time in a year to advance plans for a brewery with a tasting room in Akiu, 10 twisty miles uphill from Sendai.
Kenichi Okada, consul general for Japan in Chicago, plans to come to Madison on April 2 for an introduction to the Great Dane and the project.
Sendai is a lesser-known part of Japan and 90-minute bullet train ride north of Tokyo. Bus routes link Sendai with Akiu, a mountain area known for waterfalls, onsen (hot spring) resorts, agritourism, carved kokeshi (wooden dolls with no arms or legs) and other craft making.
Tourists come to the area to see cherry blossoms in spring and – as the locals say – “burning leaves” as colors change in autumn. Nearly three-fourths of Japan is mountainous, and near the intersection of Hirose and Shinkawa rivers are tours of Nikka Whisky, in business since 1969.
LoBreglio compared Sendai and Akiu to Madison and New Glarus because it’s one pretty drive from one to the other. Like Madison, Sendai is a northern capital city (of Miyagi prefecture), home to a major university (Japan’s third largest, Tohoku University) and has a youthful demographic.
The area is less expensive and not as crowded as Tokyo, but also in need of TLC. The 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent tsunami devastated much of the Miyagi prefecture, particularly the Pacific Ocean coastline. At least 20,000 died, 2,500 remain missing and 50,000 remain displaced.
Efforts to rehab the area and expand the reasons for tourists to visit involve government subsidies for new businesses. That likely will apply to the Great Dane, even though Akiu was not as severely affected by the earthquake’s havoc.
The disaster prompted architect Chikafusa Mohri to change his line of work. “I had to do something,” said the Seattle native, who moved to Japan at age 7. “Farmers and fishermen were struggling.”
Casualties included the owner of the area’s only winery, so Mohri decided to learn winemaking and caught the attention of Blaise Plant of the Sendai-Ottawa pop-rock band Monkey Majik. Open since 2015 is their Akiu Winery, next to where Great Dane Japan will be constructed.
“Now we have a wine boom,” said Mohri, who teaches winemaking to others. too. Now there are four wineries in the Sendai area, and Mohri believes the Great Dane will add a new reason to visit.
LoBreglio considers it an intriguing business move because the U.S. is saturated with craft breweries.
“In Japan there are more opportunities,” he said.
The project involves beer education because Japan’s beer drinkers are most accustomed to mass-produced Sapporo, Suntory, Asahi or Kirin lagers. LoBreglio says his new market’s craft beer industry is in its childhood. “Not infancy,” he says, “but toddler years.”
Japan’s small-batch options “jumped from generic, mass-produced beers to hoppy ones. Now it’s time to fill in the blanks.” That means introducing IPAs to barley wine and some Great Dane favorites – Crop Circle Wheat, German Pils – on tap.
The challenge of whetting the palate beyond pale pilsners in Japan is happening 25 years after the first Great Dane opened. Now there are Wausau and four Madison locations, and the brewpub group was judged best in the nation in 2012.
LoBreglio wouldn’t have guessed in 1994 that the business would expand beyond one location, much less go international. He says it’s happening much more because of personal relationships than international business strategy.
“I trained a Japanese friend to brew 25 years ago,” LoBreglio recalled, and he, Tetsuya Kiyosawa, will be brewmaster at Great Dane Japan.
Another Japan native, Madison restaurateur Shinji Muramoto, will guide development of the Great Dane brewpub in Sendai, and perhaps throughout Japan. That’s the dream.