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Bent Paddle Brewing Co. owners stand in front of stacks of one of their original cans, Bent Hop (left) and the new Paddle Break Blonde (right). Colin Mullen (from left), Laura Mullen, Bryon Tonnis and Karen Tonnis are basking in the success of the business, which is six years ahead in its growth plan, after just more than a year of brewing. (Steve Kuchera /

Meet the Bent Paddle team

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Meet the Bent Paddle team
Duluth Minnesota 424 W. First St. 55802

Bent Paddle: The ownership team is Brewer Bryon Tonnis, director of brewery operations; brewer Colin Mullen, president and director of brewery communications; Karen Tonnis, vice president of operations; Laura Mullen, vice president of outreach and events Laura Mullen was talking about the look of the Bent Paddle Brewing Co. brand from the taproom located just off the brewery space in Lincoln Park.


She had been talking about the one prevailing idea when it came to the look of the cans and marketing materials for the start-up: “Wood meets metal.”

She turned in her chair and looked longingly through a garage door to the stainless steel tanks just 20 yards away.

“Look how beautiful that brewery is,” she said.

It’s a pride that obviously has been contagious among the other three owners of the brewery and the beer drinkers who have taken to Bent Paddle beers.

Mullen sat with fellow owner Karen Tonnis to talk about the process that led to the design of its four flagship beer cans and the emerging Trail Series versions. The two women are married to the other owners of the brewery, longtime brewers Colin Mullen and Bryon Tonnis.

“They brought it home for us,” Tonnis said of working with Duluth marketing agency Swim Creative.

The Bent team had about 50 designs in mind and were “stuck forever” on deciding which ones to pick before the brewery opened last year.

Swim helped mediate the ideas flying among the owners, Mullen said.

“Outdoorsy but not northwoodsy,” Tonnis said. Classic but “cutting edge” with a real “sense of where the beer comes from.”

They talked about who a typical customer might be, what kind of car they might drive, what’s on their iPod, what kind of shoes they wear, Mullen said.

They also wanted to project their expertise in beer making. The Swim team asked, “Why was this business created?” The answer: “To share good beer. … We love brewing it, we love drinking it and, most importantly, we love watching other people drink it.”

Eventually, the four owners joined the Swim designers for what Tonnis called a “lock-in day.” They would meet and not leave the room until they decided on the look. “It was annoying, but in a good way,” Mullen said.

The colors and copy came to life. Tonnis remembers the excitement when it all came together. “It was ‘Yes. Yes.’ ”

With the designs in hand, the rest of the marketing for the beers flowed.

“The scheme became real,” Mullen said.

“It helped us kick off a full branding portfolio,” Tonnis said. Table tents, posters, shirts and other merchandise followed. “It’s so put together.”

So much so, they said, that casual observers sometimes think the Bent Paddle brand has been around longer than just a year and a few months.

The distinctive design was put into merchandise and materials for display at stores and bars. Soon after opening, people started saying, “You’re everywhere,” Tonnis said.

The flagship designs came with serious deliberation because they will be around for a long time. Now, as seasonal beers are being introduced, like the Trail Series, the design of the cans can be more “playful,” Mullen said.

The yellow Paddle Break Blonde has attracted rave reviews from the craft brew industry for its bold, throwback design. A Daypack Pale Ale comes out this month.

The series designs, featuring a lakes map and figures portaging and hiking, bring out all the things the Bent Paddle owners love about the Northland, Mullen said.

“I think people like knowing where something came from,” she said.

Tonnis said the company is lapping up all the love it’s received from Duluth and the region. They are years ahead in their business growth plan and are expected this year to brew nearly three times the volume they predicted in that plan.

“We’re most surprised by the volume of beer Duluth goes through,” Tonnis said.

The two women said the business growth is controlled and all four are finding a life balance. Each couple has a 2-year-old child and “family” is part of the Bent Paddle culture, Tonnis said.

“My life is fun,” she said. “It’s social.”

“The beer world is friendly,” Mullen said.

Part of that camaraderie is reflected in the can designs, they said, which have helped cement the relationship with customers.

“There was a kismet to all this,” Mullen said.

Mike Creger
(218) 723-5218