When Duluth’s Bent Paddle Brewing Co. opened in 2013 they expected growth, just not at this level. “We’ve blown our seven-year business plan out of the water,” says Laura Mullen, one of the business’ four owners. Set to celebrate their second anniversary with a May 30 “Festiversary” party, the brewery is already testing the limits on what will fit into their brewhouse.
“We can’t stop,” Mullen says of the growth. “It’s crazy.” With their current building nearly maxed out on space, the focus has shifted toward adding storage and auxiliary locations to make room for more tanks in their building at 1912 W. Michigan St.
Duluth-Superior is their primary market, with the Twin Cities a secondary focus. They just entered the St. Cloud and Brainerd Lakes areas, and have a distribution deal to cover the state, but they intentionally limit growth until certain they can fulfill the needs of a new market. “We like to say that we will go as far as the beer will take us,” Mullen says. “That’s the core philosophy of the four co-founders. It sounds a little directionless but it’s not.” They currently serve over 600 accounts, and are eyeing northwest Wisconsin eventually.
The rate of growth may have annihilated the original business plan, but it hasn’t it changed the way Bent Paddle is organized; it’s made it tighter. After starting with four owners and one sales representative, the company now employs 20 staff members. Various tasks have been delegated to new hires, allowing each owner to focus on her and his original roles.
“Karen [Tonnis] and I packed cans for six months,” Laura remembers, before they bought their current machine. “That would be insane now. We used to do everything.” Now she focuses on event planning and charity work. “The more manager-style people we’ve brought in alleviates the pressure on us so we can actually look ahead and make strategic plans.” The days of the ownership group manually packing cans and brewing all the beer are behind them. “I can’t even believe that was two years ago,” she adds. “It feels like a lifetime.”
Among Mullen’s duties is coordinating Bent Paddle’s 2nd Annual Festiversary party, Saturday May 30 from 2pm–8pm. Bent Paddle is proud of their community, and event planning is important in making that connection. After 1,500 came for their first Festiversary, they are anticipating around 2,000 in 2015.
The outdoor party takes over the parking lot with live music, food trucks, and games. It’s a block party atmosphere aimed at entertainment for all ages, Laura says, homier than a beer festival. The $10 cover charge includes a beer for adults 21+ who plan to drink. There will be the regular Bent Paddle lineup, six to eight different casks, a tent featuring different versions of their Cold Press Black Ale made in partnership with Duluth Coffee Co., and music from Big Wave Dave and Communist Daughter.
“It’s a fun, laidback Duluth feel,” she explains. The city’s tight-knit beer culture is vibrant, but different than the Twin Cities, Mullen says. Besides the hotspots like Fitger’s Brewhouse, Lake Superior Brewing, and nearby Castle Danger Brewery, she notes the city itself has changed. “When I grew up here you didn’t move back. There weren’t jobs.” Today, the city is developing as an alternative to the larger Twin Cities. “It’s a cool place to raise a family,” she adds. “That’s definitely how we got here.” They take pride in their city and it remains their heart.
“At some point here, the super growth spike is going to plateau,” Mullen admits, and the business needs to be stable and ready. They will embrace their local scene and grow as the tide carries them, knowing that a focus on quality, organization, and their core business philosophy will bring them where they care to go.
Bent Paddle 2nd Annual Festiversary
Saturday, May 30, 2–8pm, $10 (includes commemorative pint glass and one beer)
Live music from Big Wave Dave and Communist Daughter
Beer selection includes Bent Paddle’s usual lineup, six to eight specialty casks, and several different versions of their Cold Press Black Ale made in partnership with Duluth Coffee Co.