Bent Paddle Brewing marks 10 transformative years

In 2013, the brewery opened "Duluth's first bona fide taproom" of the 21st century craft beer boom. Bent Paddle has become emblematic of what Duluth means to Minnesotans today.

Bent Paddle Brewing facilities
Bent Paddle Brewing owners Laura Mullen, from left, Colin Mullen, Bryon Tonnis and Karen Tonnis sit in the taproom on May 10.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

DULUTH — Bent Paddle Brewing Co. isn't as big as you might think.

"We're like half the size of Castle Danger (Brewery, in Two Harbors)," said Karen Tonnis.

"And 10% of the size of Summit (Brewing Co., in St. Paul)," added Laura Mullen. "People think of us as big, I think, because of the visibility of the taproom and the vibe of Duluth, but we're still a very small business."

Bent Paddle Brewing facilities
Bent Paddle Brewing beertender Kori Boatman of Duluth pours a pint of beer.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Tonnis and Mullen were sitting at a hightop in the brewery's Lincoln Park taproom Wednesday, May 10, joined by their co-owners (and husbands) Bryon Tonnis and Colin Mullen. The four founders were reflecting on the fact that their company was marking its 10th anniversary.

Laura Mullen's eyes moistened as she described the feeling of seeing more than a decade of hard work pay off. "We watch people at a liquor store or a bar or a restaurant ordering (Bent Paddle products), and they don't have any idea who we are," Mullen said. "There's a little piece of pride in that every time."


In May 2013, Bent Paddle cut the ribbon on its production facility at 1912 W. Michigan St. At the time, it was what the News Tribune described as "the city's first bona fide taproom," featuring flagship beers Bent Hop and Bent Paddle Black.

The so-called Surly Bill, permitting breweries to sell beer on-site, passed the Minnesota Legislature in 2011. While Lake Superior Brewing — then also located in Lincoln Park — was the first Duluth brewery to take advantage of the law, Bent Paddle was the first to create a dedicated taproom for on-site sipping.

Four white people pose near counter with beer pints and growlers displayed before them. All four, two men and two women, wear Bent Paddle Brewing shirts.
Karen Tonnis and her husband, Bryon, left, and Colin Mullen and his wife, Laura, owners of Bent Paddle Brewing Co. in Lincoln Park, pose for a photo shortly before the 2013 opening of their brewery and taproom.
Bob King / File / Duluth News Tribune

"We were in the middle of fundraising, getting ready for the build-out, when the law went through," remembered Bryon Tonnis. "So we just took a little bit of money and threw it into the taproom."

Five years later, the brewery expanded and opened its current taproom at 1832 W. Michigan St., where it also operates a pilot brewery. In 2020, the brewery successfully asked the city to approve an expansion that closed off a block of 19th Avenue West and added outdoor green space connecting the brewery campus.

My proudest moment was being able to buy our beer at Red Rocks, one of my favorite concert venues. That was like being on stage.
Colin Mullen, co-founder, Bent Baddle Brewing Co.

The company's main production brewery is still in its original location, which also now houses Bent Paddle's Cann-A-Lounge — described by the company at the time of its February opening as "Duluth's first THC/CBD cannabis beverage lounge and market."

"It's an innovative space, to see what people like," said Laura Mullen. "Another entrepreneurial pivot we did recently was getting into contract manufacturing, too. We could do it for beer, but we're currently doing it for a few cannabis vendors like Cheech and Chong."

'Exporting the concept of Duluth'

Bent Paddle's new look.
Laura Mullen, right, places an empty 12-pack beer box on fellow Bent Paddle Brewing Co. co-founder Karen Tonnis’ shoulder during an unveiling of the company’s new designs for its products April 7, 2022.
Steve Kuchera / File / Duluth News Tribune

While Bent Paddle may be partnering with Vancouver's most famous stoners, there's no question what city the brewery represents.

"Our original vision was to export the concept of Duluth," said Colin Mullen. "When you're at the liquor store, (we) want people to look at our brand and say, 'I had a great time in Duluth.'"


The company's packaging, which features iconic Lake Superior shorelines, makes clear that Bent Paddle's beer is brewed with water from Lake Superior. "As a brewer, the big draw was the water here," said Bryon Tonnis. "I've brewed a lot of places around the country, and this is by far the best water I've ever brewed with."

The founders also saw an opportunity, in an exploding craft beer market, to take advantage of Duluth's position as a gateway to the Northland. "People pass through, they're forced to, on their way to outdoor adventures," said Colin Mullen.

"We want to provide this awesome, memorable experience for people when they're drinking our products," said Karen Tonnis. "Then every time they purchase it elsewhere, they're reminded of those feelings."

The owners said they picked their location within Duluth for the building, which "had a good foundation, it was highway visible, close to downtown, close to Canal Park," said Karen Tonnis.

"It took some real vision and courage to locate their business in a part of town that didn't have a lot of momentum or foot traffic in the area," said Don Ness, who was mayor of Duluth when the brewery was founded. "They, along with a few other business leaders, had that vision and brought it to life."

Bent Paddle became a central partner in what was dubbed the Lincoln Park Craft District. Frost River Trading Co. and Duluth Grill also spearheaded the effort, starting in 2014, to make Lincoln Park a magnet for craft-centered businesses.

Bent Paddle Brewing facilities
Brewer Neil Caron monitors the transferring of wort to the brew kettle at Bent Paddle Brewing.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

It worked so well, the neighborhood is now touted as one of Duluth's leading attractions. Among Lincoln Park's draws today are two newer breweries (Ursa Minor, opened in 2018, and Warrior Brewing, 2022) and two craft cideries (Duluth Cider and Wild State, dating to 2018 and 2019, respectively).

"It's absolutely remarkable that there's been two massive challenges facing that business district," said Ness, citing the COVID-19 pandemic and the Twin Ports Interchange reconstruction. "They have had this tremendous success and are thriving despite that."


With Bent Paddle's business booming, the brewery and its product became emblematic of Duluth's emerging image as a city focused on craft, sustainability and outdoor experiences rather than industrial might and mass extraction.

As the brewery turns 10, the text on Visit Duluth's homepage could come right off a Bent Paddle six-pack: "From the world-famous lift bridge to charming neighborhoods filled with local breweries and restaurants, Duluth is a true original along the pristine shores of Lake Superior."

Engaging the community

Members of Bigfoot Yancey perform Wednesday at the Bent Paddle Brewery Taproom in Duluth. Clint Austin /
Members of Bigfoot Yancey perform on March 6, 2019, at Bent Paddle Brewery's taproom.
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune

"All we ever said was, we want clean water," said Karen Tonnis.

She was responding to a question about a 2016 incident in which the Silver Bay City Council removed Bent Paddle's products from the city's municipal liquor store due to the brewery's membership in the Downstream Business Coalition: a group of dozens of businesses opposing proposed copper mining projects in the region.

The council voted 3-2 in response to the brewery's stance on proposed copper mining in the region.

Bent Paddle's visibility may have led to the pointed nature of the backlash against its environmental stance. Even as the Silver Bay ban escalated into a city council feud that delayed the purchase of a fire truck, products from Vikre Distillery (another coalition member) remained on Silver Bay shelves.

"That's entrepreneurship for you," said Laura Mullen. "Every year, there's a new crisis."

Bent Paddle Brewing facilities
Tap handles displaying the variety of beer at the Bent Paddle taproom.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

With extensive experience at other brewing operations, the Bent Paddle founders knew community engagement would need to be part of their business plan.

"Breweries are fun and they're interesting and they seem like an easy ask from nonprofits," said Laura Mullen, referring to charities in search of donations or event space. "Right away we knew we were going to start to get those asks, so we created a program before we opened to handle them."


Bent Paddle now partners with other Lincoln Park businesses to coordinate in-kind charitable donations, and has recently started doing volunteer events. "We give back to about 500 nonprofits every year in our state," said Karen Tonnis.

"Last year, we started the 'Round Up' program," she added, "which is an additional 24 nonprofits that get to pop up in our taproom, have fundraising (activities), and then customers can help pay it forward by rounding up at the register. It's been super successful."

A guided hike May 16 will be followed by a fundraising opportunity at Bent Paddle Brewing Co. through the end of the month.

"They really do focus on the community," said Bob Galligan, director of government and industry relations at the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild. "Bent Paddle has always kind of stepped up, really tried to make a connection, not just with the people and the breweries in Duluth but beyond that."

The Bent Paddle owners' involvement with the guild has included board service and past employment. In the latter capacity, they founded All Pints North, the Bayfront beer festival that draws aficionados from across the state and beyond. The brewery was tapped to provide the official commemorative beer for the national Craft Brewer's Conference when it was held in Minneapolis last year.

The 10th Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild festival sold about 4,500 tickets and had more than 100 Minnesota breweries and brew pubs in attendance.

The brewery's relatively wide distribution, said Galligan, "allowed people not from Duluth to connect with their company and their mission of sustainability but also their quality products, to the point when people do visit Duluth for tourism reasons, that was one of the destination taprooms that people in the state would actually seek out."

The next 10 years

Bent Paddle Brewing facilities
Bent Paddle Brewing owners Laura Mullen, from left, Colin Mullen, Bryon Tonnis and Karen Tonnis sit in the taproom.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

"A lot of our membership is looking at how to remain innovative in this space," said Galligan. "Bent Paddle has never shied away from any of that. They've always kind of been on the forefront. Every time I go to their taproom, they have a new offering."

"I'm so excited for what the next 10 years is going to bring," said Ness, speaking about both Bent Paddle specifically and the Lincoln Park Craft District more generally.

Mentioning the upcoming reconstruction of West Superior Street, Ness continued, "Once they get through the inconvenience of the construction side of things, I think it's going to be a neighborhood that ... can be pointed at as a success that other small cities can replicate, in business districts that are too often left for dead."


The brewery is planning a 10th anniversary event featuring live music, which has long been part of the mix in Bent Paddle's taproom. Saturday's Festiversary party will feature an all-Duluth live music lineup, and Mayor Emily Larson will join in a "community toast to 10 years."

Although the owners are happy to be home in Duluth, one of Colin Mullen's proudest Bent Paddle moments happened way up in the Rocky Mountains. Trampled By Turtles was booked at Red Rocks, and a pallet of Bent Paddle beer inspired by the band went along.

"My proudest moment was being able to buy our beer at Red Rocks, one of my favorite concert venues," said Colin Mullen. "That was like being on stage."

Bent Paddle Brewing facilities
Cans for the session pale ale, Kanū, fill a pallet.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Bent Paddle currently has a staff of 47, up from just five at the outset. "We reached a point when we saw the employees actually buying houses in the neighborhood," said Bryon Tonnis. "That was when we realized that you know, our employees are anchoring the neighborhood as well. It's not just the business."

"Originally, we didn't know. We were like, 'We'll take this as far as the beer will take us,'" said Laura Mullen. "Back then, the mindset was like, 'Get to Chicago! Get to all over!' Now we've changed our tune on that. We think creating a larger presence in a local place is more important."

Bent Paddle Brewing facilities
Brewer Neil Caron pulls a sample off a mash tun.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
Bent Paddle Brewing facilities
The Cann-A-Lounge at Bent Paddle Brewing featuring THC- and CBD-infused products.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
Bent Paddle Brewing facilities
Fresh filled cans of Bent Hop travel down a conveyor to be boxed.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
Bent Paddle Brewing facilities
The Cann-A-Lounge at Bent Paddle Brewing.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
Bent Paddle Brewing facilities
The owners of Bent Paddle Brewing Bryon Tonnis, from left, Karen Tonnis, Laura Mullen and Colin Mullen stand in the taproom.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
Bent Paddle Brewing facilities
A pint of hazy IPA seen at the Bent Paddle Brewing taproom.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

This story was updated at 7:43 a.m. May 17 to correct the spelling of Bryon Tonnis' name in three photo captions, and Karen Tonnis' name in two photo captions. It was originally posted at 6 a.m. May 17. The News Tribune regrets the errors.

Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; he's also a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the Minnesota Film Critics Alliance. You can reach him at or 218-279-5536.
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