One problem I’ve had out on the Microbrew Trail is finding the breweries–and not just the most remote brewery in the country, which happens to be in Montana, but most of them. Montana microbreweries tend to be tucked away in side-street warehouses or small towns you need Google Maps to find. But that’s hardly the case with Great Northern Brewing, which has one of the most pricey corner lots in all of Montana right on Central Avenue in downtown Whitefish.
And it has good roots, too.
Minott Wessinger, great-great-grandson of Henry Weinhard, founder of possibly the most famous brewery in the western United States, Blitz-Weinhard Brewing of Portland, Oregon, started Great Northern Brewing Company in 1994. Wessinger also built the mostly glass, three-story, heavily automated, “gravity flow” brewery building.
It’s the tallest building in Whitefish, head brewer Joe Barberis told me during my tour. That likely makes it the tallest, most visible brewery building in Montana. The third-floor serves up a sweeping view of Whitefish and a special look at Stumptown’s icon, the ski runs above town on the Whitefish Mountain Resort.
Why Whitefish? According to an old brochure, Wessinger picked the northwestern Montana resort town because of the “rugged and beautiful surroundings” and “excellent water,” and so the new brewery could “draw on the support of a strong local community and a beer-loving state.”
Wessinger built the brewery to produce Black Star Golden Lager, but in 2002, when Whitefish attorney Dennis Konopatzke bought the brewery and hired Barberis and general manager Marcus Duffey, he discontinued the Black Star brand name. But not those great-tasting brews, of course, which are still there with new names.
Stop in the convenient tasting room, with all its beers on tap, for a free six-ounce sample. It’s a “hot spot,” both for good beer and good conversation–and because it offers Wifi, which you don’t see often in taprooms.
You can get a free tour of the building, too; just ask the guy behind the bar, which on most days will be Matthew Bussard. It’s worth the time to see the big copper brew kettle, the lauter tun screens imported from Germany, a replica of the weather vane that once stood atop Henry Weinhard’s brewery out in Portland, and the old fashioned brew-house tower designed so that the beer could be brewed with the gravity-flow method.
On the second floor above the taproom, there is a larger, fancier, but currently underutilized, room. Great Northern occasionally rents out the second-story room and its choice view of the brewery operation and Big Mountain for special events, but otherwise it sits vacant.
By the time you get there, though, that might change, says general manager Marcus Duffey. A separate business with a beer and wine license is moving into the second story and will operate with regular bar hours, noon to midnight. The downstairs tasting room will still operate as it does now, but continue to close at 8 pm, as required by Montana law.
Great Northern (no business relationship, incidentally, with the Great Northern Bar & Grill across the street) uses a Glacier and western theme for its craft beers and considers its best-selling Wheatfish Hefe its signature beer, followed closely by Snow Ghost and Wild Huckleberry.
Besides its unique downtown location, Barberis considers its lager-style beers special, noting Montana has only one other lager brewery, Bayern Brewing in Missoula.
Recently, Great Northern became a contract brewer with a new deal to produce and sell the old Highlander brand from the defunct Missoula Brewing Company, which closed in 1964. “It won’t be the same old beer,” Barberis assured. “It will be a real, hand-crafted beer.” The new Highlander, a hearty, Scotch-style amber ale, went on tap for the first time in 44 years on May 3 at the Garden City BrewFest.
(Bringing back the famous old brands might become a trend. Next week, I’m writing about Harvest Moon Brewing of Belt bringing back Great Falls Select.)
No other expansion plans, Barberis says, except to introduce a few “specialty beers” and work hard to increase market share in the competitive western Montana market shared with four other Flathead-area microbreweries, plus three in Missoula.
To read the rest of the Microbrew Montana series, click here. To track Bill’s travels, see the map of Montana Microbreweries below.