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Great Northern beer returns to shelves after year-plus hiatus

Whitefish Pilot | October 10, 2021 1:00 AM

For 25 years the Great Northern Brewing Company curated and produced beer right out of the heart of Whitefish until its Central Avenue location closed in February 2020.

The iconic brewery was a favorite scene among locals and a staple in Whitefish as it was the oldest craft beer establishment in the Flathead Valley. The doors to the building, originally the Black Star Draught House, may still be closed but the Great Northern beer recently returned to store shelves.

The most popular Great Northern Brewing Company beers, Wild Huckleberry and the Going to the Sun IPA, are being produced again with several more of the favorites potentially in the works.

The owner of the brand, Whitefish’s Jeanie Konopatzke, is working with Uinta Brewing out of Salt Lake City, Utah, the company licensing it to produce the beer. The two companies began to work together soon after Great Northern closed its Whitefish pub and the partnership is a great fit on both sides, Konopatzke says.

“It was a really good relationship from the beginning and we both accommodated each other and just made it work,” she told the Pilot.

After selling the draught house, she says people approached her wanting to buy the Great Northern brand but she held off for a potentially better offer. There were also other companies talking with her about contract brewing or licensing, but Uinta Contract Manager and Sales Director Joe Mastrorocco had ideas that aligned with what Konopatzke was looking for.

Under the licensing agreement, Konopatzke has provided Uinta with all the recipes and will also be involved with any new innovations for the brand. Uinta brews, packages and works with wholesalers for distribution of the Great Northern beers. Uinta also rebranded and freshened the packaging and labels, however the beer remains the same taste and quality as when it was brewed in Whitefish, they note.

Contract brewing and licensing is quite common in the brewing industry, according to Uinta Brewing President Jeremy Ragonese, and he assures that Great Northern Brewing is still a Montana centered company. As part of the rebranding, its slogan is now “Born in Whitefish” which both Konopatzke and Uinta believe represents the transition well.

“The brand itself still lives there,” Ragonese said. “The heart of the brand is still very much Montana which we want to represent and of course the ownership remains with Jeanie. The big difference now is we’re a different kitchen, the beer is produced out of here (Utah).”

Relaunching the Great Northern beers has been over a year-long process as the two companies began talking about the potential of working together soon after liquidation of the Whitefish brewery began. However Uinta Brewing, who is over 25 years in the business, already knew of Great Northern long before through regional events and being in similar markets.

“[Great Northern Brewing] has such a great history and loyal following up in Montana, and we are a regional craft brewer much like them,” Ragonese said. “We thought it was a wonderful opportunity to keep that brand fresh and alive in the consumers that we both serve.”

“There’s a lot of similarities in terms of our brand positioning and the values that we bring, we’re both very outdoor lifestyle oriented and businesses that support the local community,” he added.

The Great Northern beers were back on the shelves as of late summer, though the two breweries had hoped to relaunch the brand sooner but were delayed due to logistics and the pandemic. The two beers out now are the Wild Huckleberry Lager and the Going to the Sun IPA, but Ragonese says they are looking at producing more popular favorites like the Good Medicine Red Ale, Wheatfish and several others.

Konopatzke is pleased to see the response from the community and excitement as Great Northern Brewing Company beers make it into the hands of its loyal customers once again. Although she says people miss the gathering spot at the brewery, the response to the release of the beer has been well received.

“It has been very gratifying — when we were closing down the business there were so many people who reached out and were sad to see us go,” she said. “I’ve gotten so much great feedback since we started putting the beer back on the market so I know there’s a fan base out there that’s being reached and it’s exciting for me to see it come back.”

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