A Brewery Born Again

After sitting empty for two-and-a-half years, the newly renovated and reimagined Blackstar building in downtown Whitefish signals the rebirth of a cherished local institution — and a homecoming for craft brewer Jeremiah Johnson

By Tristan Scott
Blackstar Draft House and Jeremiah Johnson Brewing Co. in downtown Whitefish on July 15, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Ever since the Flathead Valley’s oldest craft beer establishment closed its doors in February 2020, the only thing brewing inside the iconic building at 2 Central Avenue in downtown Whitefish has been rumors. 

At least, that was the impression on anyone standing outside of it.

Punctuating the northern terminus of Whitefish’s downtown corridor since opening along the Great Northern Railway in 1995, the prominent three-story, glass-facade Blackstar Draught House was home for a quarter-century to the Great Northern Brewing Co.’s gravity-flow brewing operation, turning out flagship local staples including its award-winning Wheatfish Wheat Lager, Going to the Sun IPA and Good Med Montana Red Ale. But the scale of the brewery’s distribution and production footprint, which yielded 8,000 barrels of craft brew annually, eventually dwarfed its commercial and retail potential as a bar and restaurant.

So, when the bustling public house and taproom shuttered, speculation was rampant. Fueled by nostalgia and an innate distrust of change, as well as a deafening silence surrounding the beloved building’s fate, residents of this resort town conjured a specter of sinister enterprise supplanting their cherished corner-block brewery. 

Final touches are put on the exterior of Blackstar Draft House and Jeremiah Johnson Brewing Co. in downtown Whitefish on July 15, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

A high-end condominium development? A boutique hotel? An interior design plaza?

Only time would tell in what deranged form the bogeyman of progress might materialize.

And if the abrupt absence of a mainstay brewery in Whitefish’s city center cleared a patch of fertile ground for hearsay to flourish, then the onset of the pandemic a month later effectively mothballed any hope for the return of beer-and-a-burger normalcy to the prominent downtown locale.

Until now.

As it turns out, three saviors were working behind the scenes all along, committed not only to restoring a local institution, but to reimagining its full potential as a brewpub, eatery and community nerve center.

“We joke that it was the worst-kept secret in Montana, but we really did keep it under wraps to an intense degree. We’ve been extremely tight-lipped,” said Jeremiah Johnson, a 1996 Flathead High School graduate and the namesake of Jeremiah Johnson Brewing Co., which he founded in 2017 after taking the reins of the Great Falls brewery formerly known as The Front. “We kind of had to be under the circumstances. It’s been a wild two-and-a-half years and I never could have predicted the hurdles we’d have to overcome to reach this point. But we never wavered in what we wanted to deliver to this community.”

And deliver they have.

Balcony of Blackstar Draft House and Jeremiah Johnson Brewing Co. in downtown Whitefish on July 15, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Through a partnership with real estate tycoon Rob Isackson, a part-time Whitefish resident who purchased the brewery building and the adjacent properties that serve Markus Foods and its strip of connected businesses, and acclaimed restaurateur and hospitality magnate Scott Gerber, who is one-half of the renowned Gerber Group that owns and operates upscale restaurants and night clubs in New York, Atlanta and Washington D.C., the Blackstar brand has officially been reborn, the building renovated and the brewery reconfigured to feature Jeremiah Johnson as its on-site purveyor of craft beer.

“Having grown up here, this has been a dream,” said Johnson, whose family owns Del’s Bar and Grill in Somers and has deep roots in the Flathead Valley. “It came together serendipitously for sure. And if I knew two-and-a-half years ago what I know now, with all the challenges we had to navigate, I’m not sure if I’d have made the same decision. I definitely couldn’t have done any of this without having supreme confidence in Scott and Rob, who are total professionals and know how to execute on this scale. I’m just really grateful that we’ve finally arrived.”

Jeremiah Johnson of Jeremiah Johnson Brewing Co. at their downtown Whitefish location on July 15, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

According to Isackson, a queue of prospective brewers lined up to meet with him in the winter of 2019-2020, when news began trickling out that he’d acquired the Blackstar building, including Jeremiah and his wife, Katie. Having established a successful brand in Great Falls while opening a taproom in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, Johnson emerged as the best fit for a business partnership, which would soon be tested by the pitfalls of the pandemic, including the skyrocketing costs of goods and building materials.

“We think this is one of the best corners on one of the best blocks in all of Montana,” Isackson said in a recent interview. “Even though the restaurant business isn’t easy, a location like this doesn’t just come along every day. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and we wanted to get this right for Whitefish. It has taken us longer to develop than we imagined, but we hope that what we’ve created here is a landmark restaurant that will be well-received by Whitefish and the greater Flathead Valley.”

Gerber, who’s owned a vacation home in Whitefish for two decades, was initially reluctant to mix his business interests with his favorite getaway. But Isackson’s vision for the building, as well as the community’s outsized need for a brewery, eventually drew him in.

“I always said I didn’t want to do anything in Whitefish because it’s my escape,” Gerber told the Beacon. “So, when Rob approached me, I was a little gun-shy. But then one night we were downtown and we kept hearing rumors about how the location was going to be converted into condos and the locals were really down on it. Finally, I turned to Rob and said, ‘this town needs to have a great brewery and a great brewpub. The building is spectacular. It will be a lot of work but I’m down with it if you are.’ And that started this two-and-a-half-year journey.”

Before their vision could be realized, however, the building would need to undergo a transformation.

Blackstar Draft House and Jeremiah Johnson Brewing Co. in downtown Whitefish on July 15, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

When the brewery opened in 1995 under the auspices of Minott Wessinger, the great-great grandson of famed German-American brew-master Henry Weinhard, its 15,000 square feet of downtown real estate was designed by architect Joe Esherick to accommodate high-volume beer production, utilizing a three-story brewhouse tower to house the vessels and copper kettle for a traditional gravity-flow process. After seven years, Wessinger moved on to pursue other ventures, while Great Northern Brewing Company continued to expand under the ownership and management of the Konopatzke family, even as its Blackstar Draught House fostered a dedicated cadre of taproom regulars. The brewhouse’s expansion culminated in 2016 with the addition of a fourth 100-barrel, 23-foot-high fermentation tank, which boosted the brewery’s annual production capacity and grew its distribution footprint to include five states across the Intermountain West.

It also crowded the taproom’s retail space, which included a cramped but reliable kitchen that churned out sandwiches and nachos, catering to an often standing-room only clientele.

When owner Jeanie Konopatzke decided to sell the building in 2020, Isackson and Gerber seized on its valuable retail potential.

“It was originally built as a full-on manufacturing brewery,” Gerber said. “It’s interesting, I was down in Mexico and I met Minott who built the building, and he built it as a manufacturing space. Back then, downtown Whitefish wasn’t what it is today. The old bar sat maybe 20 people. So when Rob bought the building, he bought it for its prime retail space. We were fortunate enough to meet Jeremiah Johnson, we knew the market because we’ve been coming here forever, and we decided to do something really cool for the community.”

Roof top bar under construction at Blackstar Draft House and Jeremiah Johnson Brewing Co. in downtown Whitefish on July 15, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Following Blackstar’s official opening on July 16, members of the public can see for themselves what all the buzz is about. The newly renovated space covers three floors, including several balconies and a rooftop terrace featuring a tap tower and unobscured views of Big Mountain. In an effort to stay true to the natural beauty of the region and the town’s railroading past, the creative design team of CRÈME/Jun Aizaki Architecture agency employed local wood and natural materials as well as a color palette inspired by the historic train cars that were part of the Great Northern Railway.

Two gleaming kitchens — one for prep, one for production — offer a menu featuring traditional but elevated bar fare, including pizzas, smash burgers, bowls, salads, appetizers and small plates. Designed for high-volume production, the bar and restaurant can easily accommodate walk-in patrons looking to grab a beer and a burger.

And as a neighborhood and community-centric business, Blackstar has pledged to continue a valued tradition of supporting local community efforts, like the North Valley Food Bank and other local pantries addressing food insecurity in the Flathead Valley. Indeed, Great Northern Brewing Co.’s community contributions were 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, which Blackstar and Jeremiah Johnson have committed to supporting on Aug. 19 at Depot Park, donating beer and the building’s infrastructure to support the fundraiser.

Beer taps at the Blackstar Draft House and Jeremiah Johnson Brewing Co. in downtown Whitefish on July 15, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

“We are so thankful that Jeremiah Johnson is committed to giving back to the community in support of the Whitefish Trail Hootenanny,” said Alan Davis, director of development at Whitefish Legacy Partners, the nonprofit arm that supports the community’s network of trails. “Being the biggest fundraiser of the year for Whitefish Legacy Partners, we have been worried about the implications of losing long-time sponsor and event partner Great Northern Brewing Company. But Jeremiah Johnson is stepping up to fill the void and we are excited for an awesome community event in support of our community trail system.”

According to Gerber, that’s the aim of the new enterprise, which he hopes will lay any rumors to rest.

“If we were looking at this purely as a business venture, we probably wouldn’t have picked Whitefish, Montana,” Gerber said. “This is kind of a one-off. Rob’s a major real estate developer with properties all over California. Most of my places are in New York, Atlanta and D.C. We’re not looking to make our livelihood here. We’re looking to make a positive impact on a community we love.”