Bonsai celebrates five years of brews and community

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Graham Hart and Keela Smith started Bonsai Brewing Project five years ago and are celebrating the fifth anniversary on Saturday. (Daniel McKay/Whitefish Pilot)

Bonsai Brewing Project’s humble start in a tight corner of the Mountain Mall is a far cry from where the business is at today, owners Graham Hart and Keela Smith say.

“It was like 1,000 square feet in the far back of the mall. The tables were built on wheels because I had to move them around and basically brew in the morning and then move everything back and get ready to open. It was hilarious,” Hart said. “It definitely went from a pretty big home-brew setup to an actual brewery.”

Bonsai, now located at its better-known home off Wisconsin Avenue, is celebrating its five-year anniversary on Saturday. The brewery will host a get together with a special beer release, commemorative glass wear and raffles on the hour.

In addition, the brewery is also getting noticed for its “laissez-fur” approach to dogs, as the Food Network named it Montana’s most dog-friendly restaurant for allowing pups in its outdoor beer garden.

“It was really neat,” Smith said of the recognition. “In Montana there are actually a pretty good [amount] of dog-friendly places, especially down on the east side and the south, so it’s cool to see that [we’re recognized]. I can see why, we’ve got a big space, we’re known for letting dogs here.”

Hart and Smith, now engaged, started the brewery in January 2014.

Looking back to the brewery’s early days, both Hart and Smith agreed that community played a big role in the business’ success.

“We both grew up here, so we had a good core group of friends and family, former coworkers, so we had a lot of people come in initially and know about us. And then it was all word of mouth. So the word was just kind of slowly spreading and slowly getting out there,” Smith said.

“That’s changed a little bit since we’ve been [in the current location]. Now we get a lot more tourists, especially in the peak seasons, but we still have that great community base of locals that keeps us going all year,” she added.

In the last five years, Hart said the brewery has also tripled production and grown its staff from two to 11 employees.

Since the start, Bonsai has featured its five staple beers — the Lil Blonde Honey, Initiation Pale Ale, Sheriff John Brown and the Unkindness Stout — along with seasonal rotators that show off the brewery’s creativity.

While customers have always leaned heavily on the Lil Blonde Honey, Smith said more and more patrons are starting to branch out into new beers.

“People come for our rotators. People know there’s always going to be something fun and new so they come and they want to look at the rotator,” she said.

“IPAs have always been our top request, but in the last few years I’ve definitely seen people asking for sours, asking for the unique adjunct ingredients,” Hart added. “So people are getting more creative and more adventurous I think when it comes to trying new beers.”

After a few years of improvements — adding food and purchasing properties adjacent to the brewery’s main building — Hart said the main goal moving forward is to work with what they’ve established in the first five years and focus on offering great beer and food to customers.

They’ll also continue working with The Remington to host live music in a space better-suited for shows than the brewery, and they have their annual Fourth of July and summer boat cruise parties to look forward too as well.

Sometimes the whole thing feels funny, Smith says, having grown from a couple with a home-brewing kit to a thriving nano-brewery in a destination town.

“It’s kind of funny, we’re five years in and we still joke, like ‘We don’t know when we’ll be a real business.’ We don’t have a website still. We’ve never actually had a grand opening party, so that’s kind of an ongoing joke also,” she said.

But all the way, it’s been the community members that have pushed Bonsai forward.

“We just put a room out for them, they’re the ones that make it fun,” Hart said. “They make it more than it is, so it’s nice to have such great people around and have it feel like a real hometown kind of a place.”

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