The craft brewing market in Duluth is about to get bigger with the start of a new production brewery in Lincoln Park that likely will include the city's first bona fide taproom.
Two Twin Cities brewers have teamed up, along with their wives, to establish Bent Paddle Brewing Co. in a large warehouse at 1912 W. Michigan St.
Bent Paddle owners Bryon Tonnis and Colin Mullen plan to start out with an operation producing 1,800 to 2,000 barrels the first year, but with the capacity eventually to grow to 4,500 barrels a year.
They'll start with two flagship beers, a golden IPA and a black ale. They'll add two more flagship beers in time, including a Pilsner as well as changing seasonal offerings.
Bent Paddle beer will be sold by the keg and six-packs of 12-ounce cans to bars, liquor stores and restaurants in the region. They'll offer tours of the brewery on weekends. A 1,200-square-foot taproom, similar to a tavern and open four days a week, will allow visitors to buy its brews by the glass and growler.
"It's not far off," Tonnis said of the production start that will culminate 2½ years of detailed preparations and the raising of more than $1 million from investors, in loans and their own money to cover the cost.
"It's been a heck of an adventure, but it's been great," he said. "It feels good to finally get things moving and to get things built and seeing the light at the end of the tunnel."
Bent Paddle Brewing is the latest in the growing number of micro-breweries and brewpubs in the Twin Ports area that are turning Duluth into a craft beer hub and a destination for beer enthusiasts.
Another microbrewery adding to Duluth's beer culture is welcome, said Rockie Kavajecz, co-owner of Canal Park Brewing Co., the city's latest brewpub, which opened in November.
"We think it's a good thing," he said. "It brings more to the table. They're going about it in the right way. We think they're going to do a good job. We know they're going to have quality beer."
While Kavajecz's brewpub only offers its own beer on tap, he said it will put one from Bent Paddle Brewing on tap as a guest beer.
City's first taproom
Bent Paddle Brewing Co. joins two other production breweries in Duluth: Lake Superior Brewing Co., also in Lincoln Park, and Dubrue in Central Hillside. Lake Superior currently produces close to 2,000 barrels a year. Dubrue also planned for an estimated production of 2,000 barrels a year when it opened in 2011.
The so-called Surly bill passed by the state Legislature in 2011 allows Minnesota breweries to sell pints of beer on-site. While Lake Superior Brewing Co. was first to get a city license last year to sell glasses of its beer at its brewery at 2711 W. Superior St., it doesn't yet have a separate taproom set up, said Dale Kleinschmidt, one of the brewery's five owners.
"We have had some sales," he said, "so technically they won't be the first."
However, Kleinschmidt said he plans to turn former office space into a taproom by spring. So time will tell which brewery -- Lake Superior Brewing Co. or Bent Paddle Brewing Co. --will be the first to have an actual taproom.
Although they'll be competing for shelf space, Kleinschmidt welcomes the new brewery.
"I don't think they're gunning for us," he said with a chuckle. "We're happy to see them."
Kleinschmidt is part of the close-knit community of brewers in Duluth who have extended a helping hand to Tonnis and Mullen.
"We were treated very well by existing brewers when we came on board (in the mid-1990s), and we feel obligated to help those coming after us," Kleinschmidt said.
Making dreams happen
For Bent Paddle Brewing owners Tonnis and Mullen -- who have 21 years of professional brewing experience between them -- starting their own brewery is a dream come true.
"It's a very common dream among brewers," said Tonnis, who has a brewing degree and most recently was head brewer at Rock Bottom Brewery in Minneapolis.
"When you get into brewing, you want to have your own label," added Mullen, who most recently headed brewing operations at Barley John's Brewpub near Minneapolis. Both have served on the board of directors for the Minnesota Craft Brewer's Guild.
When the two met at an event at a craft beer bar in Minneapolis in 2010, their wives encouraged them to team up.
"We chatted three or four times about our individual goals," Mullen said. "They more or less lined up. And with the talents of our wives, it seemed like a winning team."
So the planning began to start a micro-brewery. Tonnis' wife, Karen, brought 15 years' experience in food distribution operations to the table. Mullen's wife, Laura Salyards-Fryberger Mullen, was a professional event planner for 11 years and experienced in community outreach. Besides his brewing experience, Colin Mullen also was skilled in website work.
It was a good combination, with the two couples seemingly living parallel lives. Now in their mid-30s, both couples married in September 2008. They both moved from Minneapolis to Duluth last summer, and each couple had their first baby last April, just three days apart.
"It's actually really wonderful," Karen Tonnis said. "We have much in common, but there's enough difference, so it's really a strong group."
The four are equal partners, with each in charge of different aspects of the business. Their detailed seven-year business plan that allowed for expansion helped sell the project to nearly 20 investors, Republic Bank, the Small Business Administration and Arrowhead Regional Development Commission in order to finance the more than $1 million startup costs, they said.
With micro-breweries springing up fast in the Twin Cities, they chose to locate their brewery in Duluth where they felt there was more room for growth.
Besides, Lake Superior water is great for brewing.
"The water in Duluth is some of the best brewing water in the country," Tonnis said.
Three of them also had ties to Duluth. Laura, whose great-grandfather founded the Fryberger law firm, grew up in Duluth. Bryon and Karen Tonnis met while attending the University of Minnesota Duluth in the late 1990s, and he worked for Twin Ports Brewing Co. in Superior for five years, learning to brew beer.
They considered several locations for their brewery in the Duluth area and considered both new construction and existing buildings. They settled on 10,600 square feet in a warehouse once used to manufacture rebar in Lincoln Park. They liked its proximity to downtown and its accessibility from Interstate 35. And its thick concrete slab was strong enough for the large tanks that would be used to make beer. The rent also was affordable, allowing them to put more resources into their brewery operation.
"It was basically perfect for what we wanted to do with the brewery," Bryon Tonnis said. "Basically, it was a big empty box when we got there."
They also wanted to be part of a turnaround of the neighborhood they felt was just beginning with new businesses like Frost River Trading Co., which the new brewery stands behind.
"We want to be in the forefront of the rebirth of the area," he said.
Construction, headed by Johnson Wilson Constructors, began in October with excavation outside to upgrade the water main. Interior trenches followed to put in plumbing, drains and electrical lines. With the underground work done, the framing of the interior walls under 20-foot tall ceilings started going up last week.
Seeing the walls go up made the project's progress more real to them. And later this month, the big tanks and other brewery equipment are scheduled to arrive from Canada.
"It's a long way coming, and it feels good," Tonnis said.