Bent Paddle Brewing Company: Bending Traditions in Duluth Since 2013

By Andrea Busche

Visit Bent Paddle Brewing Company and whether you find yourself in their office space, production area, warehouse or taproom, you’ll notice a lot of the male employees sporting beards. Mostly the medium-length, mustache-cascading-into-a-beard variety, but a few goatees, too.

These are hardy men; beard wearers out of necessity. There is no expectation that their whiskers make any kind of ironic hipster statement on their behalf.

Perhaps beards can be viewed as a form of social commentary, relating what gives the craft beer experience, particularly at Bent Paddle Brewing, so much authenticity here in Duluth. We’re just hard-working people, focused on making good quality beer.

A Little History

Bent Paddle Brewing Company was started by two married couples: Colin and Laura Mullen, and Karen and Bryon Tonnis. The business remains 50 percent female-owned, with several female employees. I bet these savvy ladies would grow beards in solidarity if they could.

The name Bent Paddle comes from the bent shaft canoe paddle Bryon used to mix his brewing mash while he was employed at Rock Bottom Brewery. It also pays homage to a shared passion for canoeing the couples share.

Bryon and Colin both bring an extensive history of brewing to the table. Karen has distribution and operations management experience and Laura used to run an event design company. The couples have a lot in common, including being married within nine days of each other and their children were born just three days apart.

Although Laura is the only born-and-raised Duluthian, Duluth was chosen for the site of the brewery because of the excellent water quality. Great beer demands great water, which Her Majesty, Lake Superior provides in spades. Bent Paddle Brewing launched publicly in May 2013 and it has been growing exponentially since then.

HQ

Bent Paddle has three sites in which it does business, all found in Duluth: a massive, multi-level, lofted office space housed in a former creamery on West Michigan Street in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, a distribution center/taproom and a warehouse. The office space (lovingly referred to as HQ) is separated from the distribution center/taproom by a parking lot, while the warehouse is off-site.

What started out with just five employees (the four owners, plus a sales ambassador) has grown to 36. The company also has what is called an Outfitter Team: independent contractors who represent the company out in the market at samplings and other events.

Bent Paddle offers plenty of opportunities for adventure. There are canoes and kayaks employees can check-out like a library book and there are fun outings such as occasional field trips to other breweries.

“Bent Paddle is a really exciting company to work for,” outfitter lead, Matt Barthelemy shares. “It’s fast-paced, interesting and we have a ton of adventures together.”

The Brewery

The brewing style as well as the company culture here at Bent Paddle are unique. They like to say they are “bending traditions.”

Here is their mission statement, which provides a little context:

“The mission of Bent Paddle Brewing Company is to brew craft beer with a concentration on sustainability for our business, employees, the environment and the greater community – all while ‘Bending the Traditions’ that we encounter, for a more unique and interesting craft beer experience.”

Bent Paddle is a 30-barrel production craft brewery. What started out as a reasonably small endeavor has grown into a 24-7 large-scale brewing operation. There are seven active brewers and one head brewer.

Barthelemy explains that Bent Paddle recently invested in a very high-tech centrifuge, which takes the place of filtration. This purchase not only saves a ton of time in the brewing process, but also creates a more aromatic beer. While pricey, the centrifuge will pay for itself within two years due to increased yield and efficiency.

“The Mullens and the Tonnises are long-term thinkers,” he shares. “They feel strongly about reinvesting in the business.”

Bent Paddle is also proud to share their success with the community. They have built a reputation as a generous company, regularly donating to a variety of causes in the area. They refer to this as their Paddle It Forward Program.

The Beer

No matter what your preference, Bent Paddle has a beer for you. They are proud to feature their hugely popular Flagship Beers (including Venture Pils, Bent Hop, 14 Degree ESB, and Black Ale), as well as specialty beers, seasonal selections and a rotating “Valve Jockey” beer, with a recipe crafted by one of the brewers (who sometimes refer to themselves as Valve Jockeys). Five percent of the sales of Valve Jockey are donated to a local charity of the brewer’s choice.

Bent Paddle’s ESB has won both silver and bronze medals at the Great American Beer Festival, which takes place every year in Denver. So, although it is brewed here in little ol’ Duluth, they are definitely competing with the big boys.

The Bent Paddle taproom is a place where you can always find a fresh pint, but their products can also be found in numerous local liquor stores, bars, and restaurants. Bent Paddle beer is sold across the state of Minnesota, the border cities of North Dakota, and Northwestern Wisconsin.

The Taproom

The taproom features a cool, industrial vibe. Think corrugated metal, beer art, thick planks of wood, and lots of exposed brick. The ladies and gents enjoying a pint today are dressed casually and laughter rings through the small space.

The taproom features live music, themed concerts, and other events. While they don’t sell food, you can purchase a pouch of popcorn, a locally-sourced meat stick, or order outside food to be delivered right to the taproom. In the summer, there are food trucks that park outside. The taproom also sells plenty of Bent Paddle merch, if you are so inclined.

A Sampling

On the day we visited, we were invited to sample the latest “infusion:” Ginger Snap Black! This beer was brewed in a small batch, and is infused with cinnamon, molasses, and nutmeg. It is thick and dark, and tastes like a ginger snap cookie.

We also sampled the Double Shot, Double Black, made with vanilla beans and coffee from The Duluth Coffee Company. This delicious beer is aged in a whiskey barrel for a year. With an alcohol content of 11.2%, you’ll want to take it easy with this hearty brew.

The Valve Jockey varietal on tap was the Oatmeal IPA. Lead brewer, Neil Caron, describes it as, “A smooth to drink, fun to smell, new school IPA. Huge hop aromatics, nice bitterness, combined with a silky, smooth mouth feel make this hop bomb approachable yet intriguing to the hoppiest of hopheads out there.”

The special infusions and Valve Jockey varietals don’t last long. Bent Paddle communicates rotations and other news with their followers via Twitter.

There’s No Place like Home

Duluth has earned itself a reputation as a haven for high-quality craft beers, through the hard work of breweries like Bent Paddle. It’s an extra bonus to the community when dozens of great jobs are created in the process.

When it comes to beer, whether you are a newb, a snob, or somewhere in the middle, Bent Paddle has something for everyone. And even if you don’t have a beard, you’ll fit in just fine.

If you are looking for something new to do, consider taking Bent Paddle’s popular brewery tour, followed by sampling a fresh, cold pint of beer that was brewed right next door! For more information, visit bentpaddlebrewing.com.

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