Spirits were high even as the beer ran low on a recent evening at the Great Northern Brewing Co., the Flathead Valley’s oldest craft beer establishment slated to close its doors in Whitefish’s downtown corridor next month.
The iconic brewery at 2 Central Ave. has punctuated the north end of Whitefish since opening along the Great Northern Railway line in 1995, but its fate hangs in limbo as the Black Star Draught House that serves as the taproom and bustling public house prepares to close its doors Feb. 17, while the building itself is under new ownership.
Glass mugs belonging to members of the institution’s vaunted “Stein Club” still hang from the brewery’s second-story rafters, as does a hodgepodge of other assorted memorabilia and curios gifted to the brewhouse through the years — skis, snowboards, pendants, and a massive bull elk mount.
But some stein club members are reclaiming their cherished vessels, unsure whether they’ll have a home next month as the three-story, gravity-flow brewing operation has ceased production and the taps will soon run dry.
Meanwhile, owner Jeanie Konopatzke said she remains in active discussions with several prospective buyers interested in taking over the brewery side of the business, which runs as a separate entity from the Black Star Draught House, the on-premise retailer that serves as the establishment’s taproom, peddling merchandise, food, signature beers, and a variety of regional wines.
“The building has been sold and I am looking for a buyer for the business,” Konopatzke said. “I have a number of prospective buyers but I haven’t made a deal with anybody, and until I do, I don’t know if they will stay in the building, relocate or change the name. There is so much uncertainty right now that I just don’t know.”
Rob Isackson, a real estate developer with California-based Village Investment Partners who has owned a home in Whitefish for two decades, confirmed that his firm acquired the Black Star building, as well as the adjacent properties that serve Markus Foods and other businesses running along the Baker Avenue block between Railway and First streets.
Isackson said his partnership purchased the Markus property last July from the owners who also operate the grocery store. Isackson said that building was leased back to Markus for two years, after which the plan is to maintain a grocery store “but to upgrade the store and the entire strip of shops in 2022.”
The future of the brewery is less concrete, he said, as plans are still being laid.
“We just recently acquired the Black Star building,” Isackson wrote in an email to the Beacon, explaining that the puzzle pieces are still falling into place as Konapatzke, the seller and operator of the brewery, looks for someone to take over the business or to sell the equipment.
“We are talking with several Montana craft breweries and local restaurateurs who are interested in operating in this prominent downtown Whitefish building,” Isackson wrote. “We hope to have more details in a few months after we sort things out.”
Still, even if the details remain scant, the community’s affection for the beloved brewery has been nothing short of effusive, with elegies surfacing on social media as longtime regulars recounted first dates with significant others and burgeoning friendships taking root.
“For me personally, this is one of those Whitefish changes that has hit harder than most,” a longtime downtown business owner posted on Instagram. “My wife and I had our first date there, our first beer after we got engaged, we met countless new friends there and had more than a few brews with my favorite people. In short, losing this place is like watching an old friend leave town.”
On Friday, stacks of U.S. Post Office boxes cluttered the brewery’s downstairs bar area, brimming with merchandise bearing the famed Great Northern Brewing Co. logo awaiting shipment to far-flung fans of both the beer and the community the brewery fostered through the years.
“The love continues,” the brewery posted on social media beside an image of the boxes. “Thank you all you long distant lovers of GNBC. Your swag is on its way.”
Great Northern Brewing Co.’s community contributions have been substantial through the years as its popular “Pints with Purpose” nights funneled $1 from every beer poured and purchased to a local nonprofit organization, with those figures totaling in the tens of thousands. The brewery also sponsored countless nonprofit events, including the Whitefish Trail Hootenanny, the Beer Barter and Great Northern Oktoberfest.
It also helped pioneer the way for a craft beer industry that has since gained firm purchase in the Treasure State, but which was still in its infancy a quarter-century ago when the Great Northern Brewing Co. opened its doors.
Matt Leow, executive director of the Montana Brewers Association, said he’s hopeful for a positive outcome for the Great Northern Brewing Co., which not only made lasting contributions to the state’s craft beer industry, but to him personally.
“I first moved to Whitefish from Kentucky in 1997 as a ski bum with no job and no place to stay and that was the first place I went. I started making connections at the brewery,” Leow, who now lives in Missoula, said. “That brewery is part of my story in moving to Montana and making it my home. I know a lot of other people in the community have their own story and it certainly is going to be missed, not just in the brewing community across the state but in the community of Whitefish.”
Serving flagship staples like its award-winning Wheatfish Wheat Lager, Going to the Sun IPA, Good Med Montana Red Ale, and Wild Huckleberry Lager, the Great Northern Brewing Co. continued to expand into new markets through the years, growing its distribution and production footprint to 7,000 barrels annually.
In 2019 alone, Great Northern Brewing Co. produced 28 different beer styles, and its “Locals Appreciation Night” on Jan. 22 set a new record for the brewery’s busiest day.
Known for its friendly and familiar staff, Great Northern Brewing Co. and the Black Star Draught House counted 21 employees among its ranks, many of whom had worked for the businesses for more than three years.
Customers will be able to purchase Great Northern beer at select bars on Whitefish Mountain Resort and in Whitefish as well as at all MacKenzie River Pizza Company locations through the remainder of the 2020 ski season, according to staff.
“We have enjoyed a successful 25-year run because of the continuous support from our employees, distributors, partners and the community,” Katie Williams, a longtime employee for the Great Northern Brewing Company, stated in an email. “We look forward to celebrating with all of our friends and partners for one last Whitefish Winter Carnival this year and thank everyone who has made our time here so memorable.”