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The can that could: Bent Paddle makes a splash with beer and packaging

The can design for Bent Paddle Blonde was created by Swim Creative. (Steve Kuchera /

The rise of the Bent Paddle Brewing Co. is no accident. Three years of planning led to the product found today flying off regional liquor store shelves and pouring by the kegs at bars and restaurants. A word often used by the brewery owners is “intention.” They laid out a mission and went to it.

Now, just more than a year after the first cans started coming off lines at the Lincoln Park brewery, the owners find themselves in the seventh year of their business growth plan. They expected to be brewing about 2,500 barrels of beer this year but probably will end up making 6,000 after an expansion last fall. There is a waiting list of 200 retailers who want to sell the beer. And the biggest market looms, the Twin Cities. Right now, they are in selective bars, taprooms and stores in the area. On Friday, Bent announced a partnership with Artisan Beer Company in St. Paul, and soon they will begin sating the demand in the state’s population center.

One aspect of the phenomenal rise is the look of the cans that hold the Bent Paddle brands. It’s a design that is carried out throughout the marketing operation, which includes detailed instructions on how each design element is used in promoting Bent Paddle.

“Cohesive branding is missing in a lot of craft brewing,” co-owner Laura Mullen said. She’s the vice president of outreach and events for the brewer, using her previous work experience in design and marketing.

The final product, the design of the cans that hold the four flagship brands and emerging seasonal brews, has put Bent Paddle on a new level. Sparkling reviews about the look have flooded through social media in craft beer circles as well as word of mouth, Mullen said.

“It sets us apart,” said co-owner Karen Tonnis, the vice president of operations. “It shows that we’re serious, thoughtful and intentional.”

Bent Paddle called on Duluth business marketing agency Swim Creative for help with the branding. David Sadowski, a Swim partner and the director of brand strategies, said doing a can design was “like Christmas” at the agency. “It’s always fun to do beer.”

The News Tribune sat down with the Swim team and the owners at Bent Paddle to talk about the process that led to the distinctive cans. It included locking them all into a room for a day in early 2013 until agreement came on the designs.

Meet the Bent Paddle crew.

Meet the Swim Creative team.

Take a look at those cans Study a Bent Paddle can carefully to find Easter eggs from the brewery owners, with touches from the designers at Swim Creative.

  • The Bent Paddle Brewing Co. logo, designed by co-owner Colin Mullen, is tilted at a 14-degree angle. That’s the bend in the namesake paddle for the optimum stroke from a canoe. It’s also symbolic for the “bend” the brewers try to put into their beer styles.
  • Each can features an outline of the suggested glass to use for each beer.
  • Daypack Pale Ale, part of a new Trail Series of specialty beers, features a woman hiking. The Paddle Break Blonde that came out this spring has a person portaging. The pony-tailed character on the newest can is the pride of co-owners Laura Mullen and Karen Tonnis. They are quick to point out that women are behind the company as well as men. Same goes for who drinks Bent beers, they said.
  • The shape of the logo badge on the latest cans, and the colors, are inspired by the original signs marking the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, signs at state parks and the yellow maps that guide canoers through the BWCAW. The map in the background of the Trail Series cans is real, with some creative alterations.
  • The Bent Paddle owners seek a “sense of place” for their beers, thus the prominence of Duluth on the cans as well as the shape of Minnesota with a star marking the brewery’s spot in the world. They also include this line: “10% of the world’s fresh water is found in Lake Superior. 100% of our beer is made from that water.”
  • Don’t tell anyone, but those tops on the six-packs made of matching recycled plastic can be brought into the taproom and redeemed for beer. Really.