When Graham Hart originally opened the Bonsai Brewing Project in a modest, out-of-the-way space at the Whitefish Mountain Mall, he was fairly confident the quality of his beer would speak for itself. Still, the unassuming location left some doubt as to whether people would find the tucked-away new brewery.
Any uncertainty was laid to rest even before Hart opened the doors in January 2014. The community response was overwhelming as the brewing project raised $17,800 through crowd-sourced funding, and when the beer started flowing in earnest and the customers turned out in droves, Bonsai’s path to success was clearer than ever.
But then Hart found the sudden need to change locations when the Whitefish Mountain Mall announced that a new Shopko department store would displace his business and seven others.
Hart began searching for new digs and, as fate would have it, settled on a space that was actually his first choice when he decided to open the brewery, but couldn’t afford it at the time. A family friend purchased the property at 549 Wisconsin Ave. and agreed to lease it to Hart.
With a new bar, an outdoor patio and larger fermenters that allow Hart to brew more beer, Bonsai will officially reopen March 13 inside the former Rising Sun Bistro, situated at the corner of Denver Street and Wisconsin Avenue.
“I’m ecstatic to be back in business,” Hart said. “With this new location, we’ve essentially doubled our capacity for brewing.”
The brewery and taproom will operate under State Liquor Board requirements, which limits hours of operation to 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily, and requires them to only serve each customer a maximum of 48 ounces of beer per day, or three pints.
According to brewery manager Keela Smith, Bonsai will initially operate its taproom Tuesday through Sunday from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Hart explained that while he may sell a few kegs to local businesses, he has no current plans for bottling or broader distribution. The focus will be on selling craft beer in the taproom.
Located between Big Mountain and downtown Whitefish and just a few blocks from Whitefish Lake, the brewery will be a natural draw for the après-ski and mountain bike crowd, while its prominent presence at a nucleus of residential neighborhoods will attract dog-walkers and cyclists, stroller-pushers and joggers.
“We hope to get a lot of foot and bike traffic,” Hart said. “We are definitely anticipating that a lot of dog-walks are going to take about an hour longer than usual.”
Hart and Smith are excited to whip the brewery’s backyard and patio into shape, and plan on planting a garden in the fenced-in postage stamp of lawn, where they’ll grow hops and serve beer from kegerators installed in the brewery’s old bar.
“The patio in itself is pretty rare in Whitefish,” Hart said.
At Bonsai’s previous location, the taproom doubled as Hart’s brewing space, and he’s ecstatic that the capacious new location provides its own brewing area, and allowed him to replace the former four-barrel fermenting tanks with shiny new seven-barrel tanks.
As a craft brewer, Hart cut his chops making beer at home in a beginner brewer’s kit, which he bought for his dad as a Christmas gift. After one batch, his dad ran out of time for the hobby, and Hart began experimenting, gradually building the kit into an elaborate homebrew setup.
He worked as an assistant brewer for Tamarack, and in 2011 won a contest through the Sierra Nevada Beer Camp, where participants compete to be one of 10 people across the country to travel to Chico, California, for a week of brewing with Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. He brewed an Imperial Red Ale called Raiders of the Lost Hops, two kegs of which made it to the Craggy Range Bar.
Bonsai’s most popular beer is probably its Big Poppa Imperial IPA, and the brewery will offer 10 beers on tap with the option of expanding to 13 taps. They’ll also offer meat and cheese platters and are working to expand Bonsai’s popular line of merchandise.
Hart and Smith are also expanding the Roots Crew Pub Club, whose members enjoy discounts on pints, growlers and merchandise as well as birthday discounts and their own numbered pub glass.
Having been closed since Dec. 21, Hart and Smith are eager to reopen Bonsai’s doors at the new location.
“We’re super excited that it’s finally happening,” Hart said. “It’s been an interesting journey but I really think the possibilities are endless.”
For updates, visit Bonsai Brewing Project on Facebook.
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