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Great Northern Brewing Co 1

Whitefish, Montana:
Great Northern Brewing Company

Saturday 17th October 2009

Bob Thompson

Walking from Whitefish’s classic railroad station across Depot Park to my hotel I couldn’t help but notice the tower of Great Northern Brewing. The glass-enclosed building is the tallest building in Whitefish, all three floors of it! It is at the top end of Central Avenue, this town’s main street. After checking in I returned for some sampling. Its logo features a cowboy on a bucking bronco. Can you spot the error in it, as shown below?

Great Northern Brewing Co 2However before that I’d like to mention the origins of this rather progressive brewery. It is the brain-child of Minott Wessinger and its construction began in 1994. Completed in 1995 it was a state-of-the-art plant for a brewery of its size.

The building was designed by Joe Escherick, a notable architect. Outside the glass-fronted edifice is very modern. Inside is tradition as the brewery is constructed on the “tower” principle.

This means the brewing process is conducted by the use of gravity. There is a major use of energy at the beginning of the process as hops and malt have to be hauled up the tower. Thereafter Mother Nature takes over as the liquid flows through the various stages in its gestation, ending finally in the fermentation tanks at ground level. Despite this historic approach the process is highly automated.

Great Northern Brewing Co 3Great Northern has a brewing capacity of 20 barrels (=20 bbls) which places it in a middle bracket of breweries, being beyond a micro-brewery but well under the capacity of a regional brewery. Its annual production can be as high as 10,000 barrels which equates to 310,000 gallons (US). As can be seen from these figures there are more outlets than its own pub that have to be supplied.

I had arrived in the town on a steam-hauled special train on its way to Portland, Oregon with a one day stop over. See photo of it below whilst it was being serviced. So, where exactly are we? Well, Whitefish has grew up around its railroad station. It is on the Great Northern Railroad’s intercontinental main line from Minneapolis-St Paul to Seattle.

The station first handled a train on 4th October 1904. It was located here to access the Glacier National Park which extends northwards to the Canadian border. Whitefish is also where assisting locomotives are added to freight trains travelling eastwards to help them get over the continental divide of the Marias Pass, and where they come off westwards.

Great Northern Brewing Co 4They built the present day station in 1927 to handle the increased number of visitors. It is constructed in a sort of mock-Tudor style similar to the Swiss chalet style used by the lodges in the Park itself. It now houses a quirky museum as well as the Amtrak ticket office and waiting room. The museum features outside exhibits of a loco and the “Bruck”, a bus / truck combination (photo below right) that took passengers and their luggage to and from the Lodges of the National Park. Both are in the original orange and black colours of the Great Northern.

Great Northern Brewing Co 5In 1929 the GNR introduced the “Empire Builder” train from Chicago to Seattle / Portland which greatly speeded up the service along the line. I won’t bore the reader with many more railroad facts but there are some important dates that bring the story up to date. In 1970 the Great Northern ceased to exist as it merged with transcontinental rival Northern Pacific Railroad and also the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy to form the Burlington Northern. The following year the passenger trains all passed to the national Amtrak company.

Eventually the Empire Builder remained the only passenger train running on the BN system. However it is Amtrak’s busiest long distance service and travels over 2,200 miles operating daily. BN merged with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad in 1996 to create the BNSF which has two major routes from Chicago to the West Coast.

Great Northern Brewing Co 6Back to brewing, I made a note of what I drank that evening but nearly all of the beers I had are no longer brewed so it would be pointless to mention them.

The aforementioned brewery building is worthy of note however. The bar and main room are on the first floor up and because of the modern design there is a wonderful view of the classic station and the Rocky Mountains behind. I thought it was a great pub.

Important Information:

The Draft House at the Great Northern Brewery, 2 Central Avenue, Whitefish, Montana 59937.
Web: www.greatnorthernbrewing.com Tel: 406 863 1000.

Hours: Monday-Sunday 11.00-23.00

Amtrak operates the Empire Builder daily from Chicago via Minneapolis-St Paul to Whitefish.
It continues to Seattle and also has a portion going to Portland, Oregon.
The journey time from Chicago to Whitefish is approximately 31 hours.