Growing a Place for New Brew

By Beacon Staff

Most people have seen them, those tiny trees kept on desks or windowsills, pruned to perfection in aesthetically pleasing shapes. Bonsai trees are meant to be looked at and contemplated; placed in small containers, their growth is limited, much like goldfish size depends on the bowl.

Graham Hart had these attributes in mind when he was brainstorming names for the small brewery he hoped to open, and when the plan started becoming reality, Bonsai Brewing Project was a perfect fit for his operation.

His brewery, Hart said, is “super tiny,” a so-called nano-brewery, which is a relatively new term marking it in a category for operations smaller than a microbrewery. The U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau recently started recognizing nano-breweries, noting that they have popped up in response to craft beer popularity and the rise of home brewing.

Hart wanted to start small by design, producing about 200 barrels a year. Small-batch, high-quality beer is the goal, he said, and he plans to have a standard set of beers – a blond, an IPA, a brown, a stout and an ale – when he opens.

“It’s cheaper, that’s the biggest thing,” he said standing in the brewery’s location at the Mountain Mall in Whitefish. “By doing this, I’m able to fabricate some of my own equipment.”

That equipment includes the bar he’s building for the brewery, which will also include a taproom for fresh beer sales. He used redwood to line the outside of one of his tanks, and bought most of the equipment second-hand.

Having the capital to start even a small brewery is a challenge, Hart said, because his personal financial practices have centered on saving money to purchase what he wanted instead of buying on credit. This has left him with very little debt, he said, but almost no credit when it came to applying for a loan.

So Hart invested $35,000 of his own savings, then went to a modern crowd-sourcing method popular for startups: Kickstarter. The Kickstarter campaign asked for $15,000 in crowd-sourced funds, and had an Aug. 31 deadline. As of Aug. 29, Hart had received a little more than $8,000.

If the Kickstarter money doesn’t come through, he said, he’ll have to amend his business plan. He should have the permits in place to open by December, but he may not be able to have the taproom running by then. He may have to start off with distribution, then open the taproom, he said, which is the reverse of how breweries usually start off.

But Hart said he’s got some connections in the community when it comes to his beer. He’s been brewing for about six years, and used to throw block parties in his Whitefish neighborhood. At first he and his friend bought beer for the party, but then Hart served his blond beer, which he said was a big hit.

Brewer Graham Hart is working to bring his dream of opening a nanobrewery to fruition. – Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon

He may be new to business, but he’s certain of his brewing capabilities.

“Good beer can sell itself, in a way,” he said.

The mall location for Bonsai Brewing might seem a bit incongruous at first, but Hart explained that it made the most sense for someone just starting out. The ventilation hood and floor drains were already in place, there’s a parking lot, wi-fi, security and bathrooms.

“This has made it really easy for me to get through the licensing process,” Hart said.

Of course, he also acknowledged that he has had plenty of help along the way. His sister, Katie Hart, and girlfriend, Keela Smith, have put in plenty of hours alongside Hart, and they will likely be employees once the brewery is up to full function, he said.

And while starting out small and continually growing is the goal of many companies, Hart said he only hopes to grow to about 500 barrels a year. Brewing and selling are personal, he said, and he wants to maintain the close relationships he hopes to make with his clients.
“I love really love throwing events,” Hart said. “I would rather sponsor an event and have my beer there than focus only on production.”

Bonsai Brewing Project is located in the Mountain Mall in Whitefish near the food court. For more information, visit the brewery’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/bonsaibrew.