Duluth's Bent Paddle brewery sees rapid success
DULUTH, Minn. – Bent Paddle Brewing Co. is only two years old, but it's already nearing capacity at its production brewery in Duluth's Lincoln Park.
It's a point the owners—Laura and Colin Mullen and Karen and Bryon Tonnis—didn't expect to reach for 10 years.
But last year—with its 7,850 barrels produced, up from 1,560 barrels their first year—it was already the ninth biggest producing brewery in Minnesota, according to rankings compiled by Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal.
And this year Bent Paddle is destined to move to No. 6 or 7 with a projected production of 16,000 to 18,000 barrels of its flagship and seasonal brews. Its sales that edged past $2 million last year should double this year as distribution expands in the state, according to Laura Mullen, who oversees the company's outreach and events.
"Everybody is growing, but we're growing faster," she said.
Within its first year, Bent Paddle's production quickly surpassed that of Lake Superior Brewing Co., a 21-year old production brewery nine blocks away in Lincoln Park, that has grown slowly over the years. Last year, it produced 2,100 barrels coming in as No. 20 on the Journal's list.
But there's no hard feelings.
"Good for them," said Dale Kleinschmidt, Lake Superior Brewing co-owner and head brewer. "I've had people come and say they'd like to start a brewery. But once they look at what it takes to get started, they find out it's frightfully expensive."
But Bryon Tonnis and Colin Mullen were different, he said. They had been brewers in brewpubs.
"The advantage was they were not starry-eyed homebrewers," Kleinschmidt said. "They started with a healthy chunk—$1.5 million. We started with $16,000. That's a big difference. They started in 10,000 square feet; we started in 200 square feet. And we've never been flush with investment capital."
When Bent Paddle Brewing Co. started up as production brewery in 2013, its equipment filled half of Bent Paddle's 10,600-square-foot production center at 1912 W. Michigan St. But as the brand took off and distribution grew, the startup equipment's production limit of 5,400 gallons was reached within six months, Laura Mullen told a Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce luncheon gathering last month.
So another row of brewing tanks and other brewing equipment was added. And soon another row, allowing for four times the original capacity.
"After three major equipment expansions, we're basically out of space," her husband, Colin, told the chamber group.
The recent addition of a 6,300-square-foot off-site warehouse in West Duluth, which houses a 1,300-square-foot cooler to store beer for state distribution, has freed up cramped quarters at the brewery for more beer production. And it bought the owners some time.
This fall, they will swap their 60-barrel fermenters with 120-barrel fermenters. But even with the added capacity, in a year or two Bent Paddle will likely reach the production limit for the site— 22,000 barrels a year. One barrel equals 31 gallons.
With business growth continuing to be the goal, the owners are working on their next expansion plan to increase brewing capacity. But they don't want to move, especially after investing heavily in the current space which they lease.
"We put a lot of infrastructure here," Laura Mullen said in a recent interview. "We could move but that would be ridiculous."