The Silver Bay City Council voted 3-2 this week to remove Bent Paddle beer from the municipal liquor store in response to the brewery's stance on proposed copper mining in the region.
The vote went against a city Liquor Commission recommendation to allow customers to make a choice about whether to purchase the products, and allow the market to determine if there is a reason to remove Bent Paddle from shelves.
The City Council vote was spurred by a strongly worded email from a Silver Bay resident who objected to products made by Duluth-based Bent Paddle Brewing Co. being sold in the city's municipal liquor store because of the brewery's membership in the Downstream Business Coalition. The coalition is a group of 68 businesses who oppose proposed copper mining projects in Northeastern Minnesota - such as the PolyMet project near Hoyt Lakes. They say the potential environmental damage from mine waste could do greater harm to the region's economy than added mining jobs will help.
The coalition has faced criticism from some mining advocates, particularly on the Iron Range. Cliffs Natural Resources' Northshore Mining taconite plant is a major employer in Silver Bay, though it currently is idle because of a downturn in the iron mining and steel industries.
The email from Kevin Berglund, an 18-year resident of Silver Bay, asked the council to remove Bent Paddle products from the shelves of the liquor store and also not serve it at the Silver Bay Lounge or the Green Door in Beaver Bay.
"As has been done at many businesses on the (Iron) Range, I feel their product should be pulled from the shelves to make room for other microbrew providers that are not opposed to the survival of our communities," Berglund wrote. "Both businesses have not shown interest in removing this product but as the City Council you can do the right thing and make that decision for them."
Because the city of Beaver Bay owns the Green Door, Silver Bay officials have no authority to remove Bent Paddle or any other products sold there.
The issue was brought up at February's meeting of the Liquor Commission, but the commission recommended against removing Bent Paddle products after consulting with both the city attorney and a League of Minnesota Cities attorney. Among other issues, it was noted that a government can't treat similar businesses differently because of political stances those businesses may take.
The commission recommended the city leave it up to consumers to make a decision whether to purchase Bent Paddle products, saying that the liquor store manager makes decisions on what products are stocked based on sales; if a drop in sales warranted removal of Bent Paddle products, it would be done for economic, not political, reasons. The commission also noted that even though Bent Paddle has been removed from a number of liquor stores on the Iron Range, those are privately owned and not run by a local government.
After the Liquor Commission's recommendation, Berglund requested the issue be brought before the entire City Council, saying that because Silver Bay is a mining town, city officials should "stand up for steel."
Councilor Carlene Perfetto, a member of the Liquor Commission, reinforced the commission's stance during last Monday's City Council meeting, saying there was no need to "micromanage" liquor store manager Tom Byrne and that if no one is buying Bent Paddle, the products would disappear from shelves on their own and no action was necessary. Both Perfetto and Mayor Scott Johnson voted against the removal of Bent Paddle products.
Councillors Richard DeRosier, Dustin Goutermont and Shane Hoff went against the Liquor Commission recommendation and voted to remove Bent Paddle. The three talked about the economic impact a potential boycott of the Silver Bay Municipal Liquor Store by mine supporters could have on the store's revenue stream, which helps fund the city's parks and recreation projects.
"We don't agree with your viewpoint," DeRosier said of Bent Paddle. "It's not economically feasible because of the political stance that you're taking."
Laura Mullen, a Bent Paddle co-founder and the brewery's vice president of community and outreach, said Bent Paddle's No. 1 concern about copper mining is the purity of water downstream from any potential project, including PolyMet. She said the company chose Duluth as the location of its brewery because of the "clean, amazing water of Lake Superior."
"This is really just a clean water issue for us as it relates to the copper-nickel style of mining," Mullen said. "We are disappointed that they voted us out, especially a government institution. For us it's about clean water and we depend on it for our product and our brand."
Mullen said that Bent Paddle uses North American-made steel tanks in all their brewing processes and has no problem with traditional iron mining that is done throughout the Iron Range. Nickel can be used in making stainless steel, and both copper and nickel are used in other ways throughout the Bent Paddle brewery and taproom. Mullen said Bent Paddle has no problem paying a "fair price" for sustainably mined minerals.
Mullen said Johnson called the brewery on Tuesday to inform them of the City Council vote and encouraged her or other Bent Paddle representatives to attend a future meeting and make their viewpoint known to the council and Silver Bay residents.
"I think it's time to address this and some of the misconceptions that are circulating around the brand, which could hopefully help people with future decisions like this," Mullen said.
Products from Vikre Distillery, which is also based in Duluth and a member of the Downstream Business Coalition, remain on the Silver Bay Liquor Store's shelves. In addition, Silver Bay's greenhouse - in which the city is a partner - sells its products to members of the coalition, including Duluth Grill.
Bent Paddle products still are stocked at both the Green Door in Beaver Bay and at the Two Harbors Municipal Liquor Store.