It’s 10am on a Friday and the aroma of brewing coffee is mingling with the sweet, hay-like smell of spent grain. Bryon Tonnis and Colin Mullen, co-founders and co-owners of Bent Paddle Brewing Company, in Duluth, Minnesota, stand by the coffee maker, mugs in hand, ready for a jolt of caffeine to shake off the dregs of a long work week.
The men are opposites in a lot of ways: Bryon clocks in around 6 feet 3 inches, has dark hair, and a relaxed personality; Colin is average height with blond hair and a mischievous, quick-witted spirit that keeps you on your toes. Together, though, they complement each other in such a way that at times it’s easy to forget they’re separate people. “We both had babysitters last night,” says Bryon, glancing again at the percolating coffee pot. “Until 10:30, too,” Colin adds, finishing the thought. “We took full advantage of it.”
It’s a chilly, overcast morning, but Bent Paddle’s cavernous brewery is surprisingly cozy. The former steel-rebar manufacturing plant on the edge of town houses both the taproom and brewery. The brewery side is colossal, with soaring ceilings, concrete floors, and white metal walls. Lined up like gleaming silver soldiers awaiting marching orders are four 30-barrel tanks, four 60-barrel tanks, four 90-barrel tanks, four 120-barrel fermenters, and four 120-barrel brites. Along the opposite wall rest dozens of oak barrels, stacked like bales of hay. And in the far back, filling every inch of space between floor and ceiling, are thousands of cans, stacked in color-coordinated blocks of yellow, green, brown, blue, and silver to form a shining mountain of beer—a beer lover’s paradise.
“Stacking those is like playing the most complicated game of Tetris ever,” Colin says, gesturing to the hundreds of carefully arranged pallets with his now-full coffee mug. “I make the guys stack them so the colors complement each other. Can you imagine having two yellows next to each other, or a row of all brown? It would totally throw off the whole vibe.”
It’s hard to tell if he’s joking or not: Colin’s humor is as dry as his beer is popular, which is saying something. Since opening in May 2013, Bent Paddle Brewing hasn’t just grown; it’s exploded. “Our ultimate goal was to be producing 5,000 barrels per year at this point,” Bryon says. “We’re projecting 16,000 to 18,000 this year.”
Colin and Bryon’s paths to becoming brewery owners took a few turns before ending up in Duluth. Colin grew up in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, and double majored in orchestral music performance and psychology at Gustavus Adolphus College. He started homebrewing as an undergrad, took a job at Midwest Homebrewing Supply after college, and in 2004 ended up at Barley John’s Brew Pub in New Brighton, Minnesota, where he learned how to brew professionally.
Bryon grew up in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and was—briefly—a geology major at the University of Minnesota–Duluth. He bounced between UMD and Lake Superior College for a while before realizing what he really wanted to do. “It was 2001, and I was back in school for a third time. I was sitting in a physics lecture, and all I could think about was the next beer I was going to brew,” he says. “I dropped out shortly after that.”
He started brewing professionally at Twin Ports Brewing Company—now Thirsty Pagan, in Superior, Wisconsin—and never looked back. In 2005, he moved to Portland, Oregon, for a year to participate in the Head Brewers Apprenticeship Program with Rock Bottom Brewery. Once he finished, he moved to Minneapolis to take on the role of head brewer at Rock Bottom’s downtown location.
Although they knew each other through the Twin Cities brewing scene, Colin and Bryon didn’t start talking about opening a brewery together until a charity event in December 2010. They were there with their wives, Laura Mullen and Karen Tonnis, and at some point while chatting the foursome realized their dreams for brewing were identical. Colin and Bryon started meeting regularly to drink beer and compare ideas. A few happy-hour outings later, those dreams turned into plans.
From 2011 to 2013, the two couples worked together to develop a business plan, raise money, select a brewery site, and iron out all the other details that come with starting a new business. Then, in May 2013, they pulled the trigger: Bent Paddle Brewing was born.
“We all quit our jobs, moved to Duluth, got pregnant, and launched the brewery,” Bryon says, shaking his head. “It was crazy.”
The gamble has paid off. Two years after opening, Bent Paddle has become a household name and one of Minnesota’s best craft breweries. Their core four beers—Venture Pils, 14° Extra Special Bitter (ESB), Bent Hop Golden IPA, and Black Ale—are staples across the state, both on tap as well as in cans. From small-town bars serving up $14 pitchers of Bent Hop to craft-beer bars offering specialty runs of Cold-Press Black Ale on nitro for a premium price, Bent Paddle’s brews appeal to beer drinkers across the board.
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