Bending Traditions (and Making Great Beer!) Since 2013
The Story of Bent Paddle Brewing Co. – Shared by Co-Owner Laura Mullen
Like many native Duluthians, Laura Mullen wanted to experience life elsewhere for a while before settling down. But, the siren song of Duluth – including the chilly climate and “perfect beer-brewing water,” among other enticements - ultimately brought her home.
Today, with a husband, child, her parents living nearby, and a busy career as the co-owner of a successful business, Bent Paddle Brewing Co., Mullen’s roots are planted deeply right here in Duluth – which is where she plans to stay.
After graduating from Marshall High School in 1997, Mullen completed her BA in Behavioral Science & Law from the University of Wisconsin – Madison in 2001. She then decided to move to Savannah, Georgia, with a friend.
Mullen worked as a professional event coordinator for the Savannah College of Art & Design from 2001 to 2004. But she knew Georgia was just a temporary stop on her journey.
“I didn’t love the heat,” Mullen said with a chuckle. “I’m one of those people who likes the climate here – I like the cold.”
After returning to Minnesota, Mullen worked for Minnesota Monthly magazine in Minneapolis. She later founded Laura Mullen Event Design in Minneapolis in late 2004. In total, Mullen has planned over 250 events – primarily boutique weddings, craft beer festivals, and art openings and galas - during her career, ranging from 8 to 15,000 attendees.
While organizing a small, non-profit beer festival - Arborfest for the Family Tree Clinic in St. Paul - Mullen met a variety of beer brewers from across the state. One of whom was her future husband, Colin Mullen, who is originally from St. Louis Park, Minnesota.
At the time, Colin – who got into home brewing during college after the experience of enjoying a Magic Hat #9 “blew his mind” - was brewing at Barley John’s Brew Pub in New Brighton, MN.
As the relationship blossomed, the Mullens became friendly with another couple in the beer industry – Karen and Bryon Tonnis. Bryon was also a professional brewer, while Karen worked for Sysco Asian Foods. All four possessed the entrepreneurial spirit needed to start a business.
The foursome put their heads together and decided to open a brewery in Duluth. “At that time, there were no production breweries of scale in Duluth, and we saw an opening,” Laura shared. “Also, I remember Bryon saying that Duluth water was perfect for brewing – it mimics the water tables of the Czech Republic – where Pilsner beer was born. And, it contains the same minerals.”
Interestingly, the Tonnises and Mullens were married just nine days apart. And, their children, Adella Mullen and Liam Tonnis, were born three days apart. “I saw other people starting a brewery and having a baby in the same year, and I thought it was crazy,” Mullen said. “But we did it. We moved to Duluth when Adella was one month old. My parents helped a lot with the baby and getting our business up and running.”
Bent Paddle Brewing Co. – which has grown to a 15,000-barrel production brewery - opened its doors in 2013. The mission of Bent Paddle is to brew craft beer with a concentration on sustainability for the business, the employees, the environment and the greater community – all while “Bending the Traditions” encountered, for a more unique and interesting craft beer experience.
Originally, the brewery and small taproom were housed under one roof - at 1912 West Michigan Street. But the operation quickly outgrew its available space, and another, adjacent building, at 1832 West Michigan Street, was secured for a larger taproom. The upstairs (measuring in at 7,500 square feet) serves as office space, while the lower 7,500 square feet serve as a taproom and shop selling Bent Paddle merchandise.
In addition to offering plenty of space for patrons to stretch out and enjoy a pint, there is space available at the taproom for private events. Another amenity is the fact that the brewery’s outdoor patio and green space, called The Lawn, are pet-friendly.
Currently, Bent Paddle employs 43 people, including the four owners. In addition to her role as co-owner, Laura Mullen is also the VP of Outreach and Marketing.
Bent Paddle currently offers five year-round (sometimes referred to as “flagship”) beers for distribution: Venture Pils, Bent Hop IPA, 14° Degree Amber, Black Ale, and Cold Press Black. Other regularly available distributed options include Kanu Session Pale Ale, Wilderness Tuxedo varieties (sour beers) and barrel-aged options.
Additionally, another 15-20 selections are created annually by Bent Paddle’s pilot brewer, Neil Caron, for the taproom, and sold by the glass, growler, or crowler.
Bent Paddle beers are sold in liquor stores, bars and restaurants across Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Bent Paddle beers have won dozens of awards since the brewery opened, however, the two most recent include the gold medal for Altbear (a German-Style Altbier), and a bronze medal for Bent Hop (in the International IPA Category) – both given through the World Beer Cup 2022.
After nine years in business, Bent Paddle’s top five beers are undergoing a rebrand of sorts. Each beer’s packaging will now depict a different iconic local Lake Superior beach view. Some cans showcase well-known North Shore vistas - like Split Rock Lighthouse or Duluth’s hillside viewed from Park Point - while others shine a light on lesser-known lakeshore spots like Ioan’s Beach. On each box, customers will find a set of geo coordinates to the exact beach location of the beers’ artwork.
In addition to operating a thriving brewery, Laura Mullen is actively engaged in the Duluth community. She serves as a local election judge, and currently serves on the Boards of Directors for Marshall School, Duluth’s 1200 Fund, the DECC, and Duluth Bell Bank.
The Mullens have one daughter, Adella, and several pets: a dog named Hilde; two Siamese cats, Clover and Riley, and a hedgehog named Piper. The family lives in Duluth’s Hunter’s Park neighborhood, and enjoys walking, biking, dancing, enjoying good food, and visiting the Brule River. Laura also enjoys supporting other local beverage producers, including Vikre Distillery.
After the herculean effort required to get the brewery up, running, and successful, witnessing the fruits of their labor is incredibly rewarding for Bent Paddle’s owners. Mullen and the rest of the leadership team receive a jolt of excitement every time they see someone purchasing Bent Paddle beer or wearing Bent Paddle merch.
“You get this little thrill every time you see people walking out of a liquor store with our beer, or ordering it at a restaurant,” Mullen noted. “It’s like we’re seeing that we’ve exported the water of Lake Superior into a product people love. It’s fun to watch.”
Despite giving life a go in a couple of other locations, Duluth is the only place that is truly home for Laura Mullen. “I’ve always said how much I love Duluth and I always wanted to move back,” she noted. “And, funny enough, Colin always said he wanted to meet a Duluth girl. I truly feel like we’re home in Duluth.”