Bending Tradition: Bent Paddle Adds to the Craft Culture in Duluth

By Brian Kaufenberg 
Photos courtesy of Bent Paddle Brewing

Bent Paddle Labels

Starting a brewery is not for the faint of heart. The sheer amount of coordination involved with property acquisition, construction, brewery build-out, ingredient sourcing, accounting, marketing, licensing from the city, state and federal government, and not to mention actually brewing the beer, is a herculean task that can overwhelm even seasoned business veterans.

When faced with a task like this, it is wise to remind oneself of the old adage: Two heads are better than one. In late spring or early summer, the husband and wife duos of Bent Paddle Brewing Company in Duluth, Karen and Bryon Tonnis and Laura and Colin Mullen, will open the doors to their new brewery, confirming that if two heads are good, four are even better.

Laura, Colin, Karen and Bryon are fully equal partners, each with their own area of specialty that was crucial in getting them within just a few months of opening. “We’d be 6 months to a year out without them,” Bryon and Colin chuckled, imagining the difficult road that could have been without their wives.

Bent Paddle Brewing Company

From Left to Right: Karen Tonnis, Bryon Tonnis, Colin Mullen, Laura Mullen

The four are certainly not afraid of challenging another old adage, “Don’t go into business with family.” In fact, the couples already found success working with their significant others: prior to Bent Paddle, Laura and Colin co-owned an event planning company, and Bryon and Karen co-owned a photography business. Now, with a shared sense of responsibility, the couples are meshing their skills to further complement those of each individual.

The group met two and a half years ago at a charity event while Bryon was working for Rock Bottom Brewery in Minneapolis and Colin was working for Barley John’s Brew Pub. After getting acquainted, Laura, who was the Event Coordinator for the Minnesota Craft Brewer’s Guild, and Karen, who operated a photography business, discovered their husbands had the same goal: opening their own brewery.

After some encouragement from their wives, Colin and Bryon sat down and found out their dream brewery was not the only thing they shared in common. They both have ties to Duluth since Laura grew up there and Bryon and Karen went to school at University of Minnesota-Duluth; and, more coincidentally, the two couples were married just nine days apart. This past year both couples welcomed their first child to their respective families and their parallel lives continue—the two little ones were born just three days apart.

“Naming your dog is hard. Naming your brewery is much harder”

Whether it was coincidence or fate, Bryon and Colin left that first meeting knowing they would partner on opening a brewery, and today they are firing up the brewhouse inside the 10,600 square foot brewery with a round of test batches of their flagships brews: Bent Hop Golden IPA and Bent Paddle Black Ale, to be followed shortly by 14° ESB and Venture Pils this summer.

Deciding what to call their new company proved to be just as difficult as getting it started. “Naming your dog is hard. Naming your brewery is much harder,” quipped Bryon and Colin. After a long process of brainstorming and sifting through potential names, “Bent Paddle” came to Bryon Tonnis on the way back from a weeklong canoeing trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. The search for a name was over.

Bent Paddle Brewery

Bent Paddle’s Brewhouse

“Bent Paddle” is a perfect reflection of the outdoors lifestyle present in Duluth, the couples’ own love of canoeing and camping, as well as the back-story of Bryon, who brewed using the same bent canoe paddle for years. The name also encompasses the company’s philosophy to “bend the brewing tradition toward [their] taste and [their] lifestyle,” according to Colin Mullen, who added, “We want to make beer we enjoy to drink, which is a lot of different kinds of beer.”

Soon craft beer drinkers in Northern Minnesota will be able to enjoy the first offerings of Bent Paddle at the brewery’s taproom or in a number of restaurants and bars in the Duluth area. More information on Bent Paddle Brewing Company is available on their website,

About Brian Kaufenberg

Brian Kaufenberg is the editor-in-chief of The Growler Magazine.


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