A Born Again Brewery – Flathead Beacon
Since the oldest craft beer establishment in the Flathead Valley closed its doors in February 2020, the only thing brewing inside the iconic building at 2 Central Avenue in downtown Whitefish are rumors.
At least, that was the impression on anyone standing outside.
Punctuating the northern terminus of the Whitefish town center corridor since it opened alongside the Great Northern Railway in 1995, the imposing three-storey, glass-fronted Blackstar Draft House has housed for a quarter of a century the brewing by gravity of the Great Northern Brewing Co. operation, producing 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 produced 8,000 barrels of craft beer a year, ultimately overshadowed its commercial and retail potential as a bar and restaurant.
So when the bustling tavern and bar closed, speculation was rampant. Fueled by nostalgia and an innate distrust of change, as well as a deafening silence surrounding the fate of the beloved building, residents of this seaside resort have raised the specter of a sinister enterprise supplanting their beloved corner brewery.
A high-end condominium? A boutique hotel? An interior design spot?
Only time will tell in what deranged form the bogeyman of progress might materialize.
And if the sudden absence of a basic brewery in downtown Whitefish has opened up fertile ground for hearsay to flourish, then the onset of the pandemic a month later has effectively mothballed everything. hope for the return of beer and burger normalcy to the downtown hangout.
It turns out that three saviors had been working behind the scenes all along, determined not just to restore a local institution, but to reimagine its full potential as a brewery, restaurant, and community hub.
“We joke that it was Montana’s worst-kept secret, but we really kept it secret to an intense degree. We were extremely low-key,” said 1996 Flathead High School graduate Jeremiah Johnson. and namesake of Jeremiah Johnson Brewing Co., which he founded in 2017 after taking the reins of Great Falls Brewery formerly known as The Front. “We kind of had to be in the circumstances. It’s been a crazy two and a half years and I could never have predicted the hurdles we had to overcome to get to this point, but we never wavered in what we wanted to offer this community.
And deliver they have.
Through a partnership with real estate mogul Rob Isackson, a part-time Whitefish resident who bought the brewery building and adjacent properties that serve Markus Foods and his gang of connected businesses, and famed restaurateur and hotel magnate Scott Gerber who is one half of the famous Gerber Group which owns and operates upscale restaurants and nightclubs in New York, Atlanta and Washington DC, the Blackstar brand has officially been reborn, the building has been refurbished and the brewery reconfigured to feature Jeremiah Johnson as the on-site Craft Beer supplier.
“Growing up here, it’s 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 by chance for sure. And if I had known two and a half years ago what I know now, with all the challenges we’ve had to face, I don’t know if I would have made the same decision. I certainly couldn’t have done all of this without having supreme faith in Scott and Rob, who are absolute professionals and know how to perform at this scale. I’m just really grateful that we’ve finally arrived.
According to Isackson, a queue of would-be brewers lined up to meet him in the winter of 2019-20 when news began to leak that he had acquired the Blackstar building, including Jeremiah and his wife, Katie. . After establishing a successful brand in Great Falls while opening a bar in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, Johnson emerged as the best candidate for a business partnership, which would soon be tested by the pitfalls of the pandemic, including soaring 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 catering isn’t easy, a place like this doesn’t turn up every day. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity and we wanted it to go well for Whitefish. It’s taken us longer to grow than we imagined, but hopefully what we’ve created here is a historic restaurant that will be well received by Whitefish and the greater Flathead Valley.
Gerber, who has 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, along with the community’s overwhelming need for a brewery, ultimately attracted him.
“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 bit shy. But 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 disgusted. Eventually I turned to Rob and said, “This town needs a great brewery and a great brewery. The building is spectacular. It will be a lot of work, but I I agree if you are. And that started this two and a half year journey.
Before their vision can be realized, however, the building would have to undergo a transformation.
When the brewery opened in 1995 under the auspices of Minott Wessinger, the great-great-grandson of renowned German-American brewmaster Henry Weinhard, its 15,000 square feet of downtown real estate was designed by architect Joe Esherick to accommodate high-volume beer production. , using a three-story brewhouse tower to house copper vats and kettle for a traditional gravity flow process. After seven years, Wessinger continued to pursue other ventures, while Great Northern Brewing Company continued to grow under the ownership and management of the Konopatzke family, although its Blackstar Draft House encouraged a dedicated cadre of regulars. from the dining room. The brewery’s expansion culminated in 2016 with the addition of a fourth 100-barrel, 23-foot-tall fermentation tank, which increased the brewery’s annual production capacity and expanded its distribution footprint to include five states across Intermountain West.
It also cluttered the dining room retail space, which included a cramped but reliable kitchen that produced sandwiches and nachos, catering to an often standing clientele.
When owner Jeanie Konopatzke decided to sell the building in 2020, Isackson and Gerber seized on its valuable business potential.
“It was originally built as a full manufacturing brewery,” Gerber said. “It’s interesting, I was in Mexico and met Minott who built the building, and he built it as a manufacturing space. At the time, 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 his prime commercial space We were lucky 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.
After Blackstar officially opens on July 16, members of the public can see for themselves what all the buzz is about. The newly remodeled space spans three floors, including multiple balconies and a rooftop terrace with a faucet tower and stunning views of Big Mountain. In an effort to stay true to the area’s natural beauty and the city’s railroad past, CREAM/Jun Aizaki Architecture’s creative design team used local wood and natural materials along with a palette of colors inspired by the historic train carriages that were part of the Great Northern Railway.
Two sparkling kitchens – one for prep, one for production – offer a menu of traditional yet fine bar fare, including pizzas, smash burgers, bowls, salads, appetizers and small plates. Designed for high-volume production, the bar and restaurant can easily accommodate customers who want to grab a beer and a burger.
And as a neighborhood and community-focused company, Blackstar is committed to continuing a valued tradition of supporting local community efforts, like the North Valley Food Bank and other local food pantries battling climate change. food insecurity in the Flathead Valley. Indeed, Great Northern Brewing Co.’s community contributions have been substantial over the years, as its popular “Pints with Purpose” nights funneled $1 from every beer donated and purchased to a local nonprofit, these figures totaling tens of thousands.
The brewery has also sponsored countless non-profit events, including the Whitefish Trail Hootenanny, which Blackstar and Jeremiah Johnson have pledged to support on August 19 at Depot Park, donating beer and building infrastructure for support fundraising.
“We are so grateful that Jeremiah Johnson has committed to giving back to the community to support the Whitefish Trail Hootenanny,” said Alan Davis, director of development at Whitefish Legacy Partners, the nonprofit arm that supports the trail network of the community. “As the biggest fundraiser of the year for Whitefish Legacy Partners, we were concerned about the implications of losing longtime sponsor and event partner Great Northern Brewing Company. But Jeremiah Johnson is stepping up to fill the void and we are thrilled with an awesome community event in support of our community trail network.
According to Gerber, this is the goal of the new venture, which he hopes will dispel any rumors.
“If we were looking at this purely as a business venture, we probably wouldn’t have chosen Whitefish, Montana,” Gerber said. “It’s kind of a one-off. Rob is a major real estate developer with properties all over California. Most of my homes are in New York, Atlanta, and DC. We’re not looking to make a living here. We’re looking to have a positive impact on a community we love.