Bent Paddle Brewing Co. a 50% Women Owned Wonder!

Karen and Laura Bent Paddle Brewing Co. Co-founders holding beer cans in fall
Photo by JaneCane Photography / www.janecanephotography.com

“Whether you are making beer, selling beer, delivering beer, pouring beer or simply enjoying beer, this experience wouldn’t be here without women.” says Co-Founder Karen Tonnis. In the most recent demographics study, the Brewers Association found that just 23% of breweries have a female in an ownership role. The fact that Bent Paddle Brewing Co. out of Duluth, Minnesota is 50% female owned and operated is very unique in the traditionally male dominated beer industry. “We are so proud of what we bring to Bent Paddle and the craft beer industry locally as women in business leadership roles. We want to present what successful yet ethical female powered leadership can look like to the next generation of girls and women in everything we make and do.” says Laura Mullen. 

In 2013, Karen, Laura, and their husbands Bryon Tonnis and Colin Mullen founded Bent Paddle Brewing Co. thus, adding Bent Paddle to the small list of women owned breweries in the state of Minnesota. It’s been over a decade since Bent Paddle first opened. In those years there have been new taprooms, introductions into the “canna” realm, Festiversaries, and more! The women of Bent Paddle also seem to lead parallel personal lives, having gotten married 9 days apart in 2008 and having their children 3 days apart in 2012. Their working relationship has grown into a deep friendship over the ups and downs of business ownership throughout last decade.

Photo by JaneCane Photography / www.janecanephotography.com

To get a little more insight into these mavens of beer we asked them about some of their own experiences. Karen talked much about how diversity in brewing provides different perspectives offering innovation, growth and development in the industry noting that “We all have a voice, skills and knowledge to expand on, traditions to honor and stories to share.” 

Why aren’t there more women in brewing? Tonnis explains: “People all over the world have been enjoying the craft of beer for thousands of years and the first brewers were . . . drum roll, women. Women brewed for the home, community and religious ceremonies. Due to the unsanitary conditions of water; beer was a source of hydration and calories, and an additional way to preserve grains before refrigeration. This was a way of life until the industrial revolution and commercialism of brewing became the new world order. Women were looked upon to raise children and tend to the home and they didn’t have the same legal rights nor capital to brew on their own. This led to brewing becoming the male dominated industry that still rings true today. The 1980’s were a turning point in the U.S. with a few notable female brewers emerging (Stoudt, New Belgium). We find the men of our craft brewing community are incredibly inclusive and supportive and we feel respected as leaders in the industry. While the number of women working in the industry remains low, it is on the rise and we couldn’t be happier about that!”

The duo has a knack for taking the time to listen to those around them and ensure all feel welcome and comfortable in the spaces they inhabit. They have a history of being driven and dedicated to their craft. Karen shows her experience and grit through her 13 years of working at Sysco Asian Foods in various aspects of the company, and Laura through starting and running her own event planning company for a decade prior to Bent Paddle Brewing Co. Both women pride themselves on being actively engaged in their community. Laura and Karen provide women with the opportunity to see women in leadership and to learn from their experiences and expertise in mentorship capacities. Both are truly an inspiration for those looking to grow into a leadership position and are knowledgeable about what it takes for women to join the beer industry.  

Meet Karen

Karen brings years of Operations, Human Resources and Logistics Management experience to the Bent Paddle team from her 13 year career at Sysco Asian Foods. Karen is Director of Human Resources and Operations for Bent Paddle. She manages all things employee resources, recruiting, benefits, communication, and leadership organization. She also manages various company wide operational functions like licensing, insurance, annual planning and budgeting. Karen and Laura also manage the charitable arm of Bent Paddle, the Paddle It Forward Program. Giving back to the community was a core value from the get-go. Karen loves traveling and new adventures, especially with her husband Bryon and their son Liam. They stay active in all seasons biking, skiing, hiking, paddling and camping.  

Meet Laura

Prior to opening the brewery in 2013 Laura started a career in event design in the events department of the Savannah College of Art & Design in Savannah, GA. After moving to Minneapolis in 2004 to be closer to family and colder weather she started her first company, Laura Mullen Event Design, at the age of 25, where she also acted as Guild Coordinator for her largest client, the Minnesota Craft Brewer’s Guild. Laura has a long history of volunteerism and board leadership primarily in the areas of environmental stewardship, reproductive healthcare, the arts and local business organizations.  Laura was notably the first female president of the Minnesota Craft Brewer’s Guild board of directors in 2015 and she was also selected by Governor Walz to serve as the Craft Beer Representative on the Explore Minnesota Tourism Council in 2024.  Laura was awarded the Duluth News Tribune 20 Under 40 Award for being a local mover and shaker to watch in 2017. Laura is the Director of Marketing at Outreach for Bent Paddle.  She oversees the company’s various marketing initiatives, from creative to execution, press, crisis, and community partnerships. 

Laura and Colin enjoy spending time with friends and family, especially their daughter Adella born in 2012 in addition to their menagerie of pets.  She enjoys Minnesota craft beer history as well as speculating about its future, the camaraderie of the local craft brewing industry, and especially adores the 14° Degree Amber.  She is especially proud that she and Karen make Bent Paddle Brewing Co. 50% female owned!

Check out page 38 of the March 2024 issue of The Woman Today to learn even more about Karen and Laura’s story: https://issuu.com/duluthnewstribune/docs/twt_march_24_final 

And check out this option piece where Laura breaks down some of the intensity of small business ownership as a women alongside other talented female colleagues: https://www.vikredistillery.com/blog/real-talk-about-small-business

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