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Bent Paddle ready to debut brews

Karen Tonnis and her husband, Bryon (left), and Colin Mullen and his wife, Laura, owners of Bent Paddle Brewing Co. at 1912 W. Michigan St. in Duluth, will introduce their beer, brewery and taproom to the public during a three-day grand opening celebration beginning Thursday. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)

Duluth's growing reputation as a craft beer hub is about to get another boost.

Bent Paddle Brewing Co., the city's latest microbrewery, will open for business Thursday in Lincoln Park. And with it comes the city's first bona fide taproom where its brews are sold on-site by the glass and growler in a tavern-like setting.

Experienced brewmasters Colin Mullen and Bryon Tonnis are behind the venture, along with their wives. The two 30-something couples from the Twin Cities chose Duluth to start their brewery because they felt there was more room for growth in Duluth and, they say, Lake Superior water is better for brewing.

After nearly three years of planning and preparation, six months of construction and a solid business plan, they are launching their business with their first two flagship beers: Bent Paddle Black, an oat-infused black ale, and Bent Hop, a golden India pale ale. Two more flagship beers, an extra special bitter called 14 degree ESB, and a craft lager called Venture Pils, will be added this summer. A changing lineup of seasonal offerings will follow.

"It's a surreal feeling being on the cusp of opening the doors," Tonnis said. "There's so much work that went into this. It just doesn't feel real sometimes. But it sure is."

After a ribbon-cutting ceremony today, their grand opening follows Thursday through Saturday featuring beer specials, tours and door prizes, as they introduce their beer to the public and unveil the Bent Tap, their 1,200-square-foot taproom.

Bent Paddle beer will be sold by the keg and six-packs of 12-ounce cans in area bars, liquor stores, restaurants and event facilities. The Rathskeller pub in the sub-basement of Tycoons Alehouse & Eatery was the first to put their beer on tap this week.

Bent Paddle is the latest in a growing number of microbreweries and brewpubs in the Twin Ports that are turning Duluth into a craft beer destination for beer lovers.

Don Hoag, a founder and co-owner of Lake Superior Brewing Co., a production brewery just eight blocks from Bent Paddle, hopes the new brewery will bring more attention to beers produced in Duluth.

"On a certain level we will be competitors," Hoag said. "There are a limited number of tap lines in bars and limited room on store shelves. But the vast majority of beer consumed in Duluth isn't brewed here."

He noted the competition from large, highly promoted craft breweries in places like Alaska and Colorado that are selling their beers in Duluth.

"Our challenge is to get more people in Duluth drinking beer made in Duluth," he said. "First, we have to make a good product, which we do. If we continue to brew good products in town, and people like them, we're all better off. So I see it as a good opportunity."

A team is born

With 21 years of professional brewing experience between them, Bryon Tonnis and Colin Mullen each had dreamed of starting their own breweries. Tonnis has a brewing degree and most recently was head brewer at Rock Bottom Brewery in Minneapolis. Mullen was head of brewing operations at Barley John's Brewpub near Minneapolis.

After they met at a craft beer bar in Minneapolis in 2010, the two men, with the encouragement of their wives, decided to team up to see their mutual dreams become a reality.

While Tonnis serves as director of brewery operations, they all bring skills to the table. His wife, Karen, has 15 years of experience in food distribution. Mullen's wife, Laura, has done community outreach and was a professional event planner, including coordinating craft beer festivals. Colin Mullen also is skilled in website work.

Their skills, their passion and their detailed, seven-year business plan won over nearly 20 investors, Republic Bank, the Small Business Administration and the Arrowhead Regional Development Commission to get the more than $1 million needed in startup financing.

The Bent Paddle name comes from the bent-shaft canoe paddle Tonnis used for years to mix his brewing mash. The name also reflects the owners' love of canoeing.

After moving their families to Duluth last year, the two couples converted the former rebar manufacturing plant at 1912 W. Michigan St. into a sophisticated, 30-barrel production craft brewery and taproom. Construction, headed by Johnson Wilson Constructors, began in October with outside and inside excavation to upgrade the water main and put in the plumbing, drains and electrical lines that would be needed. Interior walls went up last winter, followed by the finishing work and bringing in and setting up the brewery equipment.

Ambitious start

Bent Paddle owners aim to produce 1,800 to 2,000 barrels the first year, but they have the equipment to increase that to 4,500 barrels. At 10,600 square feet, the warehouse is big enough to accommodate two more rows of fermenters that could increase production to 20,000 barrels a year if the demand is there, the owners say.

That's ambitious.

It has taken Lake Superior Brewing Co., the largest of the two other production breweries in Duluth, 19 years to approach 2,000 barrels a year.

Lake Superior Brewing also is creating a taproom, but at 400 square feet, it will be one-third the size of Bent Paddle's taproom. Lake Superior Brewing's taproom will be open only for brewery tours and not as a source of revenue.

Until the Minnesota Legislature passed the Surly bill in 2011, production breweries couldn't sell pints or glasses of their beer on site. In Duluth, Lake Superior Brewing Co. was the first to get a license to do so, but Bent Paddle's will be the first to open.

Hoag noted that a lot of breweries are opening up with taprooms as a source of needed income, especially in the Twin Cities area.

"A taproom makes a new brewery a lot more viable," he said. "We're fundamentally different. We're based on partnerships with our retailers. So although we will have a taproom, it's really for people who take tours. Our business model doesn't depend on that. We're brewers, we're not in the bar business."

Beginning next week, Bent Paddle's taproom will be open Wednesdays through Saturdays. Its beers will sell for $3 to $5 a glass and refills of previously purchased 64-ounce growlers will be $10. Tours will be given only at noon on Saturdays. "Food Truck Thursdays" will have food vendors outside selling hot sandwiches and other items.

"Typically taprooms don't have food, but we're allowing people to order food or to bring food in," Laura Mullen said.

Earlier this week, with 82 kegs ready to go, the Bent Paddle owners were taking care of last-minute details as they prepared for their grand opening.

"It feels just incredible," she said. "We can't wait to get people in here to feel what it's like."