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Duluth brewery Bent Paddle is bravely sacrificing sales to do what's right

Colin and Laura Mullen and Karen and Bryon Tonnis of Bent Paddle Brewing just want you to drink delicious beers free of sulfuric acid.

Colin and Laura Mullen and Karen and Bryon Tonnis of Bent Paddle Brewing just want you to drink delicious beers free of sulfuric acid.

Laura Mullen was born and raised in Duluth. After 15 years of working in the craft brewing scene in Minneapolis, she moved back north with her husband, Colin Mullen, to launch Bent Paddle Brewing in 2013, along with friends Bryon and Karen Tonnis. 

From the beginning, the foursome wanted to ensure that any success that came their way got paid forward. Thus far, they've made $100,000 in donations to environmental nonprofits. The idea was that if Bent Paddle were to continue brewing delicious brewskies with crisp Lake Superior water, it had to protect natural resources.

Business flourished. Each couple had a child, born just days apart. Life was sweet. 

Then Polymet, a proposed copper-nickel mine near the Boundary Waters, reared its head. The Mullens and the Tonnises watched as local miners and environmentalists clashed over the twin potential of new jobs and lasting ecological destruction. Along with dozens of other small businesses known as the Downstream Business Coalition, they signed on to an open letter to Gov. Mark Dayton asking him to reject Polymet. 

Miners were soon boycotting their beers. In Silver Bay, the city council voted to ban Bent Paddle from its shelves.

In return, the brewery's supporters vowed to boycott Silver Bay — not just the municipal liquor store, but the entire town, where tourism is critical to the economy. After all, some 80 businesses are members of the Downstream Business Association, including Fitger's and Vikre Distillery, and Silver Bay didn't take revenge on those businesses.  

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"We're like, 'Sure, you do what you have to do to take a stand, like we did, and you can choose not to carry our product,'" says Laura. That's when lawyers started to approach them, believing the brewery had a First Amendment case against the city. 

But the people behind Bent Paddle are decent Americans, which means they don't settle beefs by hurling expensive piles of paperwork at others.  

In 2014, Vermont brewery Long Trail sued Bent Paddle for using a hiking logo that looked similar to a trademarked logo Long Trail used. Instead of hiring a battery of lawyers, Bent Paddle stopped using the logo, instead making a friendly deal out of court to donate money to each other's favorite hiking nonprofits.

"It would be against our overall mission to bring a suit," Laura says. "At the end of the day, we feel this would not help the community. We don't want to hurt Silver Bay any more than it's been hurt. There are a lot of good people in the tourism industry who did not ask for this. We just don’t think that’s good for us or Silver Bay or a good use of our time or anything like that."

After the city council voted to prohibit Bent Paddle earlier this month, dissenting Mayor Scott Johnson invited the brewers up to speak their piece.

Laura read a statement to Silver Bay's detractors and supporters. She didn't oppose mining, she said, just the copper-nickel sort Polymet proposed. It's never been done in Minnesota. The sulfide-rich deposits, mixed with air and water, create sulfuric acid. 

"Everyone was saying we're anti-mining, and we're in no way anti-mining," Laura says. "We use mined materials in the brewery every day. So we went up to Silver Bay, and it was so nice to sit there and be able to say that."

Yet the city council wouldn't budge. Meanwhile, environmentalists and free speech advocates have vowed to boycott the town until the decision is reversed. That's left the mayor in a bind. 

"Time will tell if somebody wants to change their mind," says Johnson. "I know I’ve got some local businesspeople who are very concerned.... Please continue to patronize our local businesses who had no part in this decision."

The brewers agree. "We wish no one was being boycotted, and consumers could just choose," Laura says. "We’re hopeful that maybe they’ll change their mind. I’d really like a graceful ending to this for everyone, including Silver Bay."

In the meantime, Twin Cities beer drinkers can weigh in on the situation. Bent Paddle is sold throughout the metro.