Ten Years of Bonsai

As the Whitefish brewery gears up to celebrate a decade of pouring craft beers, its owners looked back on their local roots and the evolution of the Flathead Valley’s brewing industry

By Denali Sagner
A sour blonde and a stout from Bonsai Brewing Project in Whitefish on Dec. 20, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

On a foggy Wednesday afternoon, Bonsai Brewing Project is a warm respite from the snow-less gloom of early December. A collection of multi-colored Christmas lights and local art plaster the wooden interior, and a few couples tuck themselves away at corner tables to share nachos and craft beers. There’s a familiar hum to the brewery. The bartenders know the patrons. The patrons know one another. Once a startup known to only friends and family, the Whitefish brewery has become a local establishment in the ever-changing resort town.

“We’re a public house. We wanted people to come in and meet their neighbor that they were sitting at the bar with, be able to have a really awesome conversation with a stranger, or get to know the bartender,” Keela Smith, co-owner and co-founder of Bonsai, said about the brewery.

“Come in because we know you, we remember you, we want to get to know more about you.”

Smith opened Bonsai with her husband Graham Hart in January 2014, bringing Hart’s home-brewing hobby to a tiny commercial space in Whitefish. Ten years, hundreds of beers and two locations later, the brewing industry has changed remarkably, as has Whitefish, the town that built Bonsai and raised both Smith and Hart. When asked, separately, how it feels to be nearing a decade of operation, Smith and Hart offered the same answer: it feels like years have gone by, and simultaneously like no time has passed.

As Bonsai prepares to host a 10th anniversary celebration on Jan. 5, its owners reflected on the decade of Bonsai, the shifting brewery world and the community that made it possible.

Bonsai Brewing Project in Whitefish on Dec. 20, 2023. Bonsai is celebrating is tenth year in business. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Bonsai’s doors first opened on Jan. 2, 2014 in an unlikely location.

Tucked away in the Mountain Mall, the shopping strip now home to Super 1, Sportsman & Ski Haus and Home Consign & Design, the original Bonsai offered customers a snug seating area and five beers on tap. The entire operation — brewing and serving — fit into a space smaller than the brewery’s current indoor dining room.

Smith called it “a tiny, little space.”

Not a year after opening, Smith and Hart learned they would need to relocate after plans emerged to put a Shopko department store in the mall, displacing seven businesses.

In March 2015, the brewery reopened at its current location, a cozy, cabin-like building north of the viaduct with ample outdoor space and a larger area for brewing.

“We moved into this space after that first year and we’ve been here ever since. We love it. Thankfully, it’s amazing,” Smith said.

The soul of Bonsai lies in its local roots. Both Smith and Hart grew up in Whitefish and graduated from Whitefish High School. Their staff is made up of friends, family, teachers, parents and longtime locals who have been behind the bar since the beginning. Local support helped Smith and Hart get Bonsai off the ground in the early years. A decade ago, the couple raised $17,800 from the community through crowd-sourced funding, helping them launch the business with no debt.

“It was kind of a unique opportunity, with the time and space that we were in,” Smith said of the brewery’s humble beginnings and the community’s financial support.

Co-owners and founders Keela Smith and Graham Hart sit at the bar of Bonsai Brewing Project in Whitefish on Dec. 20, 2023. Bonsai is celebrating is tenth year in business. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Bonsai’s brewers have crafted 275 different beers over the past decade, the complete index of which can be viewed on their website. The “gruit loops” was a wheat ale brewed with orange peel, coriander, oregano flowers and no hops. The “northern comfort”? An IRA aged in whiskey barrels from the Bigfork-based Whistling Andy distillery. Some might remember the “thangcicle” — a habanero and ginger blond with mango and vanilla, on nitro.

“We have a pretty good range. We try to adapt to people’s needs really well,” Hart, Bonsai’s head brewer, said. “It’s fun to try and keep up with the trends and everything, which have been nuts for the last like five years.”

For both Smith and Hart, the past 10 years can be measured in their customers’ shifting palates. While IPA’s were once all the rage, patrons are now requesting alternative beers like sours and gluten-free brews. Bonsai this year even crafted a hop-free brew after pleas from beer drinkers who said the plant disagrees with their stomach.

“The palette’s changed, and I think people’s health has changed a lot,” Smith said. “Being able to play within the parameters of what the law says we can make, while still then having something for everyone, has been an interesting challenge.”

In addition to the ebbs and flows of the brewing operation, Bonsai’s inaugural decade has been defined by its seasonal menu, which stands out in a landscape that can often be saturated with burgers and fries. When Bonsai first opened, the brewery served basic meat and cheese snacks. Now, its fully fledged kitchen cooks up small plates and entrees for a wide range of tastes. Features on the menu include a veggie and pita bowl with homemade hummus; poke wraps with sushi-grade ahi tuna; pulled pork sandwiches; and a green soup with house smoked pork shoulder. All of the smoked meat on the menu is smoked in-house.

Bonsai’s menu came together with the help of Smith’s sister and husband, who started a kitchen program at the brewery grounded in seasonal ingredients and wide-ranging tastes. The vision for the menu landed somewhere between comfort food and health food, centering around dishes Smith and Hart could see themselves eating.

“Nothing against bar food, I love bar food,” Smith said. “But I also like a rice bowl or a poke bowl, having seared ahi on the menu or really good grilled chicken. It just came from things we were interested in.”

The community that helped get Bonsai off the ground has continued to sustain the local business and endow it with the “public house” feeling Smith and Hart set out to create 10 years ago. Wednesday is trivia night. On Thursdays, local DJs come in to spin vinyl. Smith jokes that she has regulars who have been around long enough, she would trust them to run an errand or fix something broken behind the bar. She lauded the support and camaraderie of the brewing community in the Flathead, expressing gratitude for the owners of other local breweries who are always able to lend a hand in a pinch.

“The more I learn, a lot of industries aren’t like that. It’s really great to see that,” she said.

Keela Smith pours a stout at Bonsai Brewing Project in Whitefish on Dec. 20, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Despite the growth that’s come in the past decade, Smith and Hart are still tied to the mom-and-pop roots that built Bonsai.

“We always joke around here that we’ll be ready to open pretty soon,” Hart said, pointing teasingly to the lack of an ice machine or dishwasher behind the bar, even after 10 years.

“We’ve been in business for longer than I spent planning on starting the business, which is pretty cool,” he added. “We spent five or six years saving up, planning on it, trying to figure out how to do it. It’s wild that it’s more than half of my brewing career.”

Bonsai will celebrate its 10th anniversary on Jan. 5. There will be plenty of beer, snacks and a walk down memory lane, which will include a giant chalkboard where patrons can vote on their favorite out of Bonsai’s 275 beers.

“Ten years is wild,” Smith said, looking around at the brewery she and Hart built. “It still seems like it’s not real.”

Steam rises out of drains in the Bonsai Brewing Project brewing room in Whitefish on Dec. 20, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon