On February 6, the Montana beer market is getting a major shake up and a new big player. An old standard is coming back courtesy of a rare combo between a mega-brewery and a small craft brewery.
The Great Northern Brewing Company of Whitefish will be re-introducing the Black Star brand after a seven-year absence from the marketplace. The release is in partnership with none other than MillerCoors, America’s second largest beer-maker–or largest, if you consider Anheuser-Busch, recently purchased by InBev of Belgium, a foreign brewery.
“We’re really excited about this deal,” Great Northern manager Marcus Duffey told NewWest.Net, during a recent visit to his taproom, now called the Black Star Draught House. “We’re hoping that this will get us up to capacity.”
That means Great Northern will be cranking out 8,000 barrels per year, making it about the same size as Bayern Brewing and Kettlehouse Brewing in Missoula, but still far behind Big Sky Brewing, also of Missoula, the 50th largest brewery in the USA.
Duffey said MillerCoors is launching Black Star nationally, and the brewing giant has contracted with Great Northern as the exclusive brewer and distributor of draught beer for Montana. MillerCoors will also be selling bottles of Black Star in Montana– and in every other state.
Great Northern has a long-standing connection with Black Star. In 1994, Minott Wessinger, the great-great grandson of famous brewer Henry Weinhard, started the Great Northern Brewery to brew Black Star Double Hopped Golden Lager. Later, a change ownership and other issues, resulted in Black Star going off the market, but Wessinger and his marketing company, McKenzie River Corporation, kept the rights to the Black Star brand. Now Wessinger has inked a deal with MillerCoors to make Black Star a national brand, with his old company, Great Northern, getting the Montana contract.
And he’s leaving his mark on it. If you look carefully at the logo, you’ll see the exact name is “Minott’s Black Star Double-Hopped Golden Lager.”
Great Northern is also a contract brewer for Highlander Premium for the old Missoula Brewing Company, which traces way back to 1874 and the long-gone Garden City Brewery that became the Missoula Brewing Company in 1933. Then, in 1964, I-90 mowed it down.
When Highlander Beer came back in March 2008 is was a different beer, a richer, stronger ale more in line with other Scotch ales produced by craft breweries. But Black Star will be “almost identical,” Duffey said, to the original beer. “There is a slight difference in the hopping, but most people won’t notice.”
The only other contract brewer in the state is Madison River Brewing in Belgrade, which brews for Big Hole Brewing Company, owner of Headstrong Pale Ale, and two Utah breweries.
Footnote: I talked to Minott Wessinger this morning and he asked me to add this clarification to the above article.
Wessinger wanted to be sure readers knew that MillerCoors does not own the Black Star brand. “It’s my brand,” he said, and it will be produced under the supervision of his company, Mckenzie River Corporation.
“It has always been my dream to have Black Star as a national brand,” he explained, “MillerCoors is producing it for me in its Milwaukee plant.”
MillerCorrs is a contract brewer for a lot of companies, he said, and in this case, the mega-brewer will produce whatever capacity Great Northern Brewing in Whitefish can’t produce.
He also said it will be the same formula that was developed in Whitefish by Great Northern in the 1990s.