The original Great Dane in downtown Madison opened in 1994.
When Rob LoBreglio fired up the kettles at the Great Dane Pub for the first time, the brewhouse had no glass, no exhaust system, and the paint on the walls was barely dry. "That was interesting," says the co-owner and brewmaster about launching the downtown Madison brewpub 20 years ago.
"We were brewing that entire first week we opened, filling the place with steam while painters were trying to paint with condensation on the walls," reminisces LoBreglio about his opening weekend two decades back. The Great Dane, now with five locations, is celebrating its twentieth birthday, which officially falls on Nov. 14, with its ambitious Anniversary Ale and a week of special deals.
Madison's first brewpub opened in 1994 in the former Fess Hotel building at the intersection of Doty and King streets. The building itself has its own history, dating back to its original construction in 1858.
LoBreglio and his business partner Eliot Butler, both originally from New York, met in college and started planning their joint venture in the early 1990s, just as the modern craft beer movement was beginning. Before landing in Madison, they toured several other cities around the U.S. looking for just the right location, one that didn't have an existing brewpub, residents who appreciated specialty beers, and preferably in a college town. Madison fit each of these requirements and when the Fess Hotel building became available, well as they say, the rest was history.
"I like what it has said about Madison, a town of 200,000 people can support a brewpub and have it make more beer than brewpubs in cities like San Francisco, Seattle and Portland," says LoBreglio.
The Great Dane's business took off quickly, and by 1996 its first major expansion was to take over an adjacent storefront space to make room for the current pool hall. The downtown brewpub also added additional fermenters and more tap lines that year, which in turn begat even more success.
Come 2002, the Great Dane opened its second location in Fitchburg, with more sister locations following in turn. The Great Dane at Hilldale opened in 2006, another in Wausau came in 2009, and the fourth Madison location arrived in 2010, located on the city's far east side. The Great Dane's name and reputation are also on the marquee for the Madison Mallards Duck Blind and a restaurant at the Dane County Regional Airport.
Along the way there have been numerous recognitions for the Great Dane's beers and its food. LoBreglio's first medal from the Great American Beer Festival (GABF), with many to follow, was awarded in 1996 for Peck's Pilsner, a beer named for Rosaline Peck, who opened Madison's first public house in 1837. By 2000, the downtown Great Dane was not only Wisconsin’s largest brewpub by volume, but its then-3,200 barrel per annum production pushed it into third place among the largest brewpubs in the country. In 2012, the Great Dane and LoBreglio were named Brewpub Group and Brewer of the year by the Brewers Association, and its Doppelbock won a gold medal at the GABF, edging out other bigger players like Samuel Adams in the same category.
"We've had success, and it's been a great ride," says LoBreglio. The brewpub has enjoyed steady growth across its two decades in business. When the Great Dane opened, its first full year of brewing, it produced around 1,300 barrels of beer. In 2014, the combined amount from all five Great Danes could top 7,500 barrels.
"Our type of brewpub is also a restaurant, and you have to stay on top of that," notes LoBreglio. "Both aspects are constantly changing and competition is always increasing."
One of the biggest changes for LoBreglio since the mid-1990s has been his own role in the brewpub. "Twenty years ago I was actually brewing; now I'm fixing broken toilets, dealing with construction issues, delivering hops and grains to the guys that actually brew," he says. "I used to be a cog in the machine, now I'm just the grease -- I go wherever something is squeaking," he adds with a chuckle.
Among the most striking elements of the Great Dane's success is its role in providing local jobs. In 1994, it opened with about 50 employees. Today, LoBreglio and Butler have over 500 employees scattered across the five Great Dane locations.
The Great Dane brewhouse is highly respected for not only what it produces, but the creative environment for those who work there. It's launched brewers who have gone on to venture out on their own, including Kevin Eichelberger, who in 2008 opened Red Eye Brewing in Wausau. The Great Dane's downtown brew house has also served as an incubator numerous times for Wisconsin Brewing Company brewmaster Kirby Nelson, who's been a longtime buddy of LoBreglio. "He always wants to improve, do things better; he's a classic, quintessential brewer," states Nelson.
When Nelson used to brew for Capital Brewery, he tapped into LoBreglio's expertise and the Great Dane's brewhouse to develop some of the Middleton's operation's best known beers like Autumnal Fire and Supper Club, which was released as a joint creation years before before taking on its current branding. In the months before opening Wisconsin Brewing Company, in 2013, Nelson again turned to the LoBreglio and the Great Dane for help in perfecting several of his recipes and then pre-releasing them in the Madison-area Danes.
"Rob is always trying new things," notes Nelson. "He's confident and humble, he'll do anything for a colleague."
LoBreglio has indeed created an environment where brewing creativity tends to flourish. Over the past 20 years the Great Dane brewpubs have released more than 7,000 batches of beer – just the Downtown location topped 4,000 batches in 2013 -- which translates to more than 200 different beers.
Discovery and experimentation are nurtured in the Great Dane's brewhouse. Over the years, those involved in brewing in it have taken group field trips to places like England, Belgium, Germany and the Czech Republic.
"You have to give brewers the opportunity to be inspired and excited," says LoBreglio, who goes along on those trips. Such excursions have helped the Great Dane stay on the forefront emerging American craft beer tastes, but they also keep the brewpubs grounded in making traditional styles.
"We really want to be known as the place where you can get come in and get classic beers like a German or Czech pilsner, a bock, Irish stout or Oktoberfest," says LoBreglio.
Those who crave extreme beers, especially ones at the limits of hoppiness, may get a taste of what they're seeking, but are hard to satisfy their insatiable craving for pine and citrus flavors, admits LoBreglio. In-your-face bitter beers are really not what defines the Great Dane, to the chagrin of local hop-heads.
"We don't shy away from them," notes LoBreglio. "We do fun stuff to mix it up, but I don't see a need to be known as one of those places that makes those crazy hoppy beers."
But brew house fun is to be had at the Great Dane, occasionally in the form of more experimental brewing techniques. Its brewers are known for working as a team, as they approach brewing like a math or engineering problem. Over the years, their efforts include the Great Dane's attempt to break the world record for the highest alcohol level in a beer with its Belgian Barleywine, and later this fall it’ll release a Belgian Tripel made with white wine.
Perhaps the best example of this untethered creativity is what the Great Dane is planning for its birthday: A beer made with 20 malts, 20 hops, 20 yeasts and 20 different waters. Named Anniversary Ale, it will be served at all Great Dane locations to mark the occasion.
These ambitious beers show that life is never static in the Great Dane brewhouse. They're also a reflection of how hands-off LoBreglio is when it comes to allowing his brewers to explore the limits of their creativity. However, he takes most of his pride in the Great Dane never staying too far from the classics. "Our hearts and souls are in delivering good quality traditional beers," he says.
The Great Dane will be marking its 20th anniversary with a week of celebrations, running from Monday, Nov. 11 through Sunday, Nov. 16. The brewpub will be offering special beer and food prices, including a burger-and-a-pint for $5 and many of its standard brews for $2 per pint (including Black Earth Porter, Crop Circle Wheat, Devil's Lake Red Lager, Emerald Isle Stout, Landmark Lite Lager, Old Glory American Pale Ale, Peck's Pilsner and Stone of Scone Scotch Ale). On Friday, Nov. 14, the brewpub will be offering an anniversary pub crawl on a double-decker bus that will take customers for a tour of and tastings at all four locations around Madison.
What lies ahead for the Great Dane? Current Wisconsin law hinders plans for future expansion. Regulations that limit the number of owner-operated locations and total barrelage may eventually hold back the brewpub, says LoBreglio. Those rules say that Wisconsin brewpubs can only operate six licenses in state. With only one remaining license, he is careful about where to go next, and over the last couple of years, the Dane has explored potential locations in Milwaukee. So as long as those limits are in place, LoBreglio says he not opposed to looking out of state for growth opportunities.
However, what is certain is the Great Dane’s push into packing more of its beers for local release. It started offering 22-ounce bomber bottles in the summer of 2012. By early 2015, the brewpub plans to start canning at least three of its beers: German Pilsner, Crop Circle Wheat and a hoppy beer that's still being developed. That will be conducted at the Hilldale location. Also on the drawing board for next year is an all-Wisconsin hopped beer and an expansion of barrel-aged and cask brews.
Looking back at the very first batch of beer that started it all in 1994, LoBreglio knows it really has been about the beer drinkers and understanding what they like. That inaugural brew was an English-style ESB (Extra Special Bitter). "It never came back because it was too mild at the time," he says. However, as craft beer tastes have shifted, he's not beyond re-introducing it. LoBreglio says that there's growing interest in more sessionable and drinkable beers, and this one just might reappear.
As for the future of the Great Dane, LoBreglio isn't about to rest on his laurels. "I've got no complaints," he says, laughing, "but there is no retirement coming up either."