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Great Northern Brewing Company

From Newwest.net, 11-23-08 of published article, Microbrew Montana: Bayern Brewing: The Only German Brewery in the Rockies, Bill Schneider. This article is presented in agreement with Newwest.net. All rights reserved, Copyright (© 2008)

GNB_Building
Great Northern Brewing Company

One problem I've had out on the Microbrew Trail visiting Montana's breweries is finding them.

They tend to be tucked away on side streets and in warehouse districts or in small towns you need a map to find. But that's hardly the case with Great Northern Brewing, which might have the easiest-to-find location of them all. It's the tallest building in town located on a pricey corner lot right on Central Avenue in historic 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. You can get some great beer on the second floor, but the third-floor serves up a sweeping view of Whitefish and a special look at the Stumptown's icon, the ski runs of 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 stopped making Black Star beer and turned the focus to making craft beers. In 2005, he hired Joe Barberis as head brewer and then in 2008, brought on Marcus Duffey as general manager.

Check it out yourself next time you're in Whitefish. Stop in the tasting room where you'll find all Great Northern brews on tap and where you can get a free six-ounce sample. Unlike any other Montana brewery, Great Northern owns a beer-and-wine license, so the taproom, which now bears the name, Black Star Draught House, stays open until it closes, depending on the crowd, of course, but often past midnight. You can also get peanuts in the shell and buy a sandwich or a glass of wine.

Besides being a "hot spot," of both for good beer and good conversation (and also because it offers Wifi, which you don't see often in taprooms), the second-floor taproom has a great view of Big Mountain and the brewery production facilities, plus a private meeting room for special events.

At the Black Star Draught House, you can become a member of the Stein Club. To get initiated into the club, you have to down 50, 20-ounze steins. Then you get your own numbered stein hung on the ski ranks above the bar and get all future steins at a reduced price. So far, the Stein Club has about 75 members. 

Great Northern Brewing has also teamed up with a local chef, Tim Good of the Cuisine Machine, to put on seasonal Beer Dinners, five-course meals paired with five of the brewer's beers. The meals are served on the brew floor. 

You can get a free tour of the building, too. It's well worth your 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.

Great Northern (a separate business, incidentally, from the Great Northern Bar & Grill across the street) uses a Glacier and western themes for its craft beers and considers its best-selling Black Star Golden Lager its signature beer, followed closely by signature beers such as Wheatfish Wheat Lager, Snow Ghost Winter Lager and Wild Huckleberry Wheat Lager.

Great Northern also produces and sells the old Highlander brand under a contract with the defunct Missoula Brewing Company, which closed in 1964. In May 2008, the new Highlander--a hearty, Scotch-style amber ale--went on tap for the first time in 44 years. "But it isn't the same old beer," Barberis said. "It's a real, hand-crafted beer."

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Barberis also considers Great Northern's lager-style beers special, noting Montana has only one other lager brewery, Bayern Brewing in Missoula. But unlike many other breweries, you won't have any problem finding the Great Northern Brewery.