Black Star back on tap

Whitefish's Great Northern Brewing Company is celebrating a frothy revival. After a seven-year hiatus, Black Star Double Hopped Lager will again flow from Flathead Valley taps.

"People miss the beer," says Great Northern Manager Marcus Duffey.

Minott Wessinger, Henry Weinhard's great-great grandson, built Great Northern in 1994 specifically to brew Black Star. But after crafting the hoppy brew, Wessinger, who owns the beverage manufacturer McKenzie River Corp., says he found himself juggling too many projects. So the beer baron opted to put Black Star on the back burner until he could free up more time.

"I just never wanted to give it anything but the best," he says.

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In 2002, Wessinger sold the business to Whitefish attorney Dennis Konopatzke. Great Northern hummed along, producing 12 brews, including Buckin' Horse Pilsner, Hellroaring Amber Lager and its popular hefeweizen, Wheatfish.

In 2006, Wessinger's McKenzie River sold its Sparks and Steel reserve brands to MillerCoors for $215 million. The deal helped clear Wessinger's dance card and, after deeming the timing ripe, he approached Konopatzki and broached the subject of bringing back Black Star.

The partnership could very well be a boon for the Whitefish business, as Great Northern will be the exclusive brewer and distributor of Black Star in Montana. With that in mind, Duffey's got his eyes on tapping out the brewery's 8,000-barrel capacity. Great Northern currently produces about 2,750 barrels of brew per year.

If Great Northern hits capacity, Wessinger says he's arranged to brew additional Black Star at a MillerCoors plant in Milwaukee. For now, the first step is stirring demand in Montana. And to do that, Great Northern must put the beer in peoples' hands.

"Our goal is to first and foremost dominate the Flathead Valley," Duffey says.

Great Northern will roll out Black Star during a party at the brewery on Feb. 6. The event is open to the public and coincides with both the Whitefish Winter Carnival and the brewery's 15-year anniversary.

"We've brewed the first batch," Duffey says. "It's in our tank now."

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