From left: Takumi Katsuyama, brewer; Rob LoBreglio, brewery consultant; Chris Murphy, brewery electrician; and Koichi Hayashi, owner at Matsumoto Brewery.

Japanese brewery expands business, taking notes from American craft beer brewer

By Victoria Vlisides

American craft beer imports are on the rise in Japan, and a small Japanese craft beer brewery is taking advantage of shifting beer tastes by teaming up with an American brewmaster to expand their business.

Matsumoto Brewery Co Ltd, located a few hours west of Tokyo in the mountainous prefecture of Nagano, is a local favorite, with their beers being served at more than 30 locations in the prefecture. Yet something was missing from the equation: Actually brewing their own beer in their own facility. To change that, they built their own brewery this spring instead of making their four original beers offsite on a contracted facility.

Matsumoto brewery has just a few beers on tap now but will expand that. Photo:

The brewery, owned by Koichi Hayashi, who runs a few other bars in the area, also opened up a new tap room in Nagano’s Honmachi area in late April at the Shinmai Media Garden, a new shopping complex, in addition to their other tap room in Matsumoto. With a little help and lot of serendipity, the brewery was able to team up with Rob LoBreglio, a successful American craft beer master from Wisconsin, who is acting as a consultant.

“I am curious to work with them on really exploring where the Japanese taste buds are going,” LoBreglio said. “What I am going to push them to do is to try growing out as many styles as possible.”

LoBreglio is the brewmaster and co-owner of The Great Dane Pub and Brewing Company. The Great Dane originated in the capital city of Madison, Wis, and is the 9th largest brewpub group in the U.S., according to statistics by the U.S.-based Brewers Association.

But for Matsumoto Brewery, which was already established in 2016, why start their own brewery now?

“In every brewery’s development — specifically contract breweries — there comes a time you want the authenticity that comes with having your own brewery,” LoBreglio commented.

And according to Steve Parr, the export development program manager of the Brewers Association, conditions are ripe for Japan-U.S. craft beer collaborations.

“American craft brewer exports grew 2.6 percent [in volume to Japan] despite the largest beer manufacturers in Japan reporting a downward trend in sales,” Parr said in an email.

Rob LoBreglio (sitting second from left), who is helping the brewery launch their own facility, celebrates in Matsumoto with Matsumoto Brewery staff. Photo:

LoBreglio traveled to Japan in June to help set up the brewing process. The new brewing facility is a 15-barrel brewery, which is small-to-mid sized in the craft beer world.

The New York native had a few different connections with Japan before this. His brother lives here and his longtime friend Tetsuya Kiyosawa, who is also a consultant on the project, is the one who linked him up with Matsumoto Brewery. Kiyosawa, whose hometown is Matsumoto, met LoBreglio in Madison during university where he was studying English, but it is also the place “he fell in love with craft brew,” LoBreglio said.

Doing a bit of consultant work here and there since the 90s, LoBreglio has helped Matsumoto with brewery construction, equipment selection, marketing and training their brewer who traveled to Wisconsin for about two weeks this winter for practice with the equipment and to get a taste of the state’s beer culture.

“The real focus of him being here was to show him the exact type of brewing location in Matsumoto, which is the same as one of our locations [in Madison],” LoBreglio said.

From here, they plan to begin brewing their own beer, according to staff at the Honmachi-ten location. According to their website, Matsumoto Brewery hopes to make more unique beers from the materials found in the local Matsumoto area. They’ll also incorporate a Wisconsin favorite and original recipe for the The Great Dane’s most popular beer throughout the years, the “Stone of Scone Scotch Ale.”

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"Craft Beer"--is that the same as "Artisan Beer"? Perhaps it's brewed with the stuff that makes the grass grow tall in Texas!

-6 ( +0 / -6 )

instead of making their four original beers offsite on a contracted facility

So they were trading on the Matsumoto name without necessarily making the beer there. They were also calling themselves a "ブルワリー" without actually making any beer themselves. This happens quite a bit with sake, which may be manufactured miles from the name on the bottle. In Japan, "Town something" does not have to be something made in that town.

Craft beer and ji-zake come with a premium, so buyer beware if you are paying it to drink what you think is a local brew.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Learning to brew beer from the Americans... words fail me.

-4 ( +3 / -7 )

Bungle, have you ever had any American craft beer or is your opinion based on Bud, Miller etc? For that matter do you call Asahi or Kirin good beers? Or do you prefer Baird, Minoh etc?

6 ( +6 / -0 )

So they were trading on the Matsumoto name without necessarily making the beer there. They were also calling themselves a "ブルワリー" without actually making any beer themselves. This happens quite a bit with sake

It also happens quite a bit with beer. You'll be familiar with Pete's Wicked Ale (Pete's Brewing Company) and Sam Adams (Boston Brewing Company), who certainly did it in the past if not now. Many other companies have done the same.

As far as I'm concerned it doesn't result in worse beer. Or better. It's just one way of doing it. I prefer companies to be up front about it though.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I think there are many craft brewers in Nagano.Great water from the Alpine snow melts. Shinano Brewery with its dragon ale. Azumino beers.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Learning to brew beer from the Americans... words fail me.

Because America is having a craft-beer revolution, even Europeans are getting into it

Thirty years back, the idea of a U.S. brewery opening in Europe would’ve been met with mockery. But these days, American-made craft beer is no laughing matter. “There’s huge respect for what American brewing has achieved,” says Will Hawkes, the current British Beer Writer of the Year. “People want that American hop flavor and they want breweries that are not afraid to experiment.”

It used to be that American craft brewers took cues from Belgium, Britain, and Germany. Now the industry has come full circle, and breweries worldwide are looking to the U.S. beer scene for inspiration.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

The above 330 ml beer sells for 540 yen a bottle. Sorry, I refuse, in principle, to drink beer at that price. What we really need, Matsumoto, is good beer at an affordable price. Yoho Brewing seems to manage that...why can't you?

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Joe, I hear you. I love Minoh W-IPA but other than your occasional splurge or kind-hearted soul who offers me a sixer for o-chuugen, I opt for Yoho. Recently Nagahama's decent IPA is popping up for less than 300 yen. What's really insane about 540 yen/bottle is that I can usually find CA brews like Stone or Ballast Pt. for less at Seijo Ishii.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I really love the super hoppy American style IPAs. I'm really pleased to see they've caught on in England whenever I go back.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

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