Bryon Tonnis and Colin Mullen of Bent Paddle Brewing Co.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

At a time when “micro” is becoming the expected modifier for “brew,” the Duluth-based brewers of Bent Paddle Brewing Company are ready to buck the trend — in terms of scale and ambition, at least.

When their 30-barrel brewhouse, tap room, and canning line get rolling in early- to mid-2013, this insurgent operation will immediately become a force to be reckoned with on the North Shore, and the brewery’s product should soon arrive in the Twin Cities as well.

Asked why his new brewery will be launching at a scale equivalent to the stalwart operation at Surly, co-owner Bryon Tonnis (above, right) has a single-word reply: “Math.” He says, “It’s the economics of beer. It’s an economy of scale. We’ve seen so many small brewers come in, they hit it out of the park, they’re doing really well, but within a year their system is maxed out and they can’t really go anywhere from there. And they struggle and struggle for years to build a system this size. We decided to do a lot of the work on the front end and spend a year and half fundraising.”

That fundraising — a mix of private investment, bank loans, and SBA loans — makes Bent Paddle an enterprise with more than $1 million behind it (Tonnis and Mullen declined to be more specific about the company’s fiscal footprint). The brewery will operate in a 10,600 square foot warehouse-like space on West Michigan Street in Duluth, including a 1,200 square foot taproom and a 1,000 square foot canning and kegging area.

Tonnis and his co-brewer, Colin Mullen (above, left), have their local brewing credentials in order — Tonnis as head brewer of Rock Bottom in Minneapolis and a brewer at Twin Ports / Thirsty Pagan in Superior, WI, Mullen as a brewer at the locally iconic Barley John’s brewpub in New Brighton, MN. And their commitment to the enterprise is a family affair: their wives, Karen Tonnis and Laura Mullen (the outgoing coordinator of the Minnesota Craft Brewer’s Guild) are co-owners and will also be full-time employees of the company.

And the beer? Despite the brewery’s Surly-like size and canned product, Tonnis says that the mainstays of Bent Paddle’s output will be balanced and drinkable, not extreme. “We want to bend some traditional styles a little bit — we don’t want to go into specifics of what we’re going to do just yet,” he says. “We want to do an incredible Pilsner — we want to bend the tradition, and tweak it …”

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

“We’re not trying to break tradition or rewrite tradition,” adds Mullen. “We’re big fans of subtlety. The extreme stuff is fascinating, but it kind of hits you over the head. I still really like hoppy IPAs, but I like milds, I like Pilsners. The water in Duluth is perfect for Pilsners.”

Water is close to the brewery in more ways than one — Duluth’s proximity to the Boundary Waters is a key selling point for the Tonnis familly. “My wife and I are avid canoers, and we go to the Boundary Waters at least once or twice a year,” says Tonnis. “We have bent paddles. For the last nine or 10 years, I’ve been using a bent paddle for mashing in in the morning, in the brewery. My two greatest passions, brewing and canoeing, just kinda came together.”

Despite the recent explosion in new breweries in the Upper Midwest, Mullen says that Bent Paddle should have plenty of room to maneuver in the marketplace: “Minnesota’s brewery saturation is still pretty low compared to other states out there,” he says. “Even compared to Wisconsin or Michigan. Certainly Oregon, Colorado, and Washington. It’s an exciting time to be in the beer industry in Minnesota.”

“There’s also a fantastic new media structure around craft beer right now, reporting on craft beer and making it more available to the general public — we’re doing this interview right here. There’s lots of support going on beside the brewers, and that didn’t exist 10 years ago… even five years ago.”

Tonnis adds that there’s a lot of room on taps and liquor store shelves for local beermakers to compete with national brewers. “You go to a liquor store, and you see 30, 40, 50 brands of craft beer on the shelves, but the Minnesota side is pretty small,” he says. “And people really like drinking local beer and supporting local businesses. So we should be able to work our way into the scene.”

As for the future, Mullen says: “We’ll go as far as our sales and beer will take us.”

Bent Paddle Brewing Company, 1912 W Michigan St, Duluth, MN 55806; 218.279.2722

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James Norton

James Norton is editor and co-founder of the Heavy Table. He is also the co-author of Lake Superior Flavors, the co-author of a book about Wisconsin’s master cheesemakers, and a regular on-air contributor to Minnesota Public Radio.

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4 Comments

  1. Duluth Beer Snob01/02/2013Reply

    I’m excited about your progress and am looking forward to some new great subtle beers!

    I just gave you a plug on my blog: duluthbeersnob.tumblr.com

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