In recent weeks, Duluth’s Bent Paddle Brewing Company has been at the center of a controversy stemming from the brewery’s membership in the Downstream Business Coalition, a group made up of nearly 70 businesses who oppose proposed copper mining projects in Northeastern Minnesota, including PolyMet’s NorthMet project near Hoyt Lakes.
In early March, the Silver Bay City Council voted 3-2 to remove Bent Paddle beer from its municipal liquor store due to the brewery’s membership in the coalition, and other private bars and liquor stores on the Iron Range have taken similar action.
On Monday night, Bent Paddle co-owners Laura Mullen, Colin Mullen, and Bryon Tonnis gave the following statement in front of the Silver Bay City Council in response to the city’s move to ban their product. Following the meeting, according to Laura Mullen, the council did not indicate whether it would consider reversing its decision, nor tell them when the issue would be back up for discussion.
Members of the Silver Bay City Council, thank you for having us here tonight. My name is Laura Mullen and I am joined by my business partners Colin Mullen & Bryon Tonnis. Our fourth business partner, Karen Tonnis, is home sick but is in full support of our statement.
We are here tonight to add at the very least a layer of nuance to the highly controversial and emotional debate that led you to your decision last week to ban our product from your municipal liquor store.
While we were prepared to lose valuable relationships in the mining communities as a result of our stance opposing the Polymet Copper Nickel Mine project, we were surprised that a city government opted to tangle into this debate instead of allowing consumers to decide if Bent Paddle beer should remain on the shelves and we are here to address you in person as a result. We are not here to explore Constitutional law or convince you that we are right in our opinion and parade forth a bunch of facts and ideologies. We are simply here to introduce ourselves as members of this region’s community and share with you our viewpoint and reasoning in our decision to oppose copper nickel mining in our region.
In the fall of 2015, we were invited to be part of a group of now over 70 local business owners from across Northeastern Minnesota called the Downstream Business Coalition to express our joint concern over the proposed copper-nickel mining projects in the region. In particular this coalition, after reviewing the EIS (Environment Impact Statement) and meeting with stakeholders from many sides, including PolyMet, called upon Governor Dayton to reject the proposed PolyMet mine project in a joint statement.
Our principal concern and reason for joining the Downstream Business Coalition is all about water. Water is one of four ingredients in beer and it is our watershed and water source that makes Bent Paddle’s product unique to the region, unique to the beers we craft, and is in-part a reason for our success since we founded the company in 2013.
Water is our most precious resource, and those aren’t just pretty words — ask the residents of Flint, Michigan or drought-stricken California. These are places that put their faith into big multi-national companies and trusted governmental oversight to protect them. Closer to home, we as taxpayers are right now paying millions for cleanup on the contaminated brownfields along our St. Louis River. Where are those big businesses now?
While it is easier for businesses like ours not to weigh in on divisive topics like this, we felt it our duty to add a voice of commerce to the debate that had been percolating. Even if the proposed project or projects were to go through, we wanted to be a part of the discussion that strengthened protections for our watershed, the BWCA, which is so central to our state’s uniqueness and our brand, and Lake Superior.
From our vantage point, we are neighbors that have a difference in opinion about our neighborhood. There are known risks to this project and at the end of the day this whole debate is separated by risk tolerance. For you and your community it is certainly worth the risk this style of mining lays out to add good paying jobs. People need jobs to feel safe and secure for their families. We understand this and truly feel for you and your communities, but for us, the potential risk to our water source gives us reason to be concerned and speak up to be the best stewards of our employees, our brand, and our community as a whole.
Points like these, along with the fact that this style of mine has never been done anywhere without negatively effecting water quality, can be unpopular ones to make. And don’t we know it! Of the 70+ coalition members, Bent Paddle has become the lightning rod for a backlash, primarily from our neighbors on the Iron Range. Many liquor stores, bars and restaurants have been nothing short of bullied into dropping our beer.
This anger toward Bent Paddle in particular seems, in part, due to some misconceptions. We’d like to lay out the facts here.
We are pro-mining – We support traditional ferrous mining and see its positive impact every day. Beyond creating livelihoods, mining in the Range provided the steel that won World War II, the wealth that led to the North Shore Drive, and without mining, Minnesota would not be Minnesota.
100% of our stainless steel production tanks are North American made with steel from the Great Lakes region – We are not ignorant to the fact that we use mined minerals daily in our brewing process, but we will continue to pay more for the best mining practices possible. We purposefully avoided purchasing cheaper Chinese-manufactured brewing vessels mainly in part to support our region. This has been a source of great pride for our young company.
We are proud of our state’s and region’s attention to protection – We do have general trust in our state and its regulations and we see that there is an enormous amount of consideration and planning that goes into protecting our region, and we are thankful that we have such regulations in our region compared to the rest of the world. However, we do not have to look far into both recent and historical headlines to understand that there can be failures in our system.
We are pro-union and liveable wages – We have hired over 2,200 hours and paid over $1 million to date for union labor from local contractors including AW Kuettel, Hunt Electric, and Johnson Wilson Constructors among others. They have performed all of our initial buildout and expansion construction over the last three years. Hiring union labor was highly important to our founding principles and easy not to do as a young startup just trying to get off the ground.
We care about our neighbors, our neighborhood, and our employees – We strive to be proactive members of our community and region. To date we have donated back over $100,000 to over 200 local non-profits and charitable causes. Being a positive member of our community is highly important to us and we have worked on ways to say “Yes” to needs rather than limit our giving.
Our brewery is located in a neighborhood that has historically been unattractive to business development. We have joined and been active in several organizations to revitalize the neighborhood we operate in and are trying to find ways and reasons for other businesses to open and provide jobs for neighborhood residents. At the end of the day we feel it is better to be proactive and stand up for what you believe to be right.
We have grown from five to 31 mainly full-time employees in less than three years with many new hires on the horizon. We take great pride in taking care of our staff by paying them well, offering high-quality benefits, and by doing everything in our power to protect the raw materials of our business, including the water so we can keep brewing and employing them for years and years to come.
When this controversy first began, our first action was to get into our car and drive to every store and bar struggling under pressure to drop our product on the Range. We drove. We listened. We explained. While these accounts don’t represent huge sales volumes, it’s the relationships that truly matter to us. We want to take this time to thank those business owners who did not succumb to the pressure of a few and who believe in the free market by keeping our Northland-made beer on their shelves and menus. We also want to do everything in our power to help the Range and this region with the job insecurity that has been so prevalent in the traditional mining communities of our state. Please know that Bent Paddle will be right beside you as we demand action from our Northeast Minnesota policymakers and seek real, long-lasting, sustainable economic diversification for our region so we can all continue to live, work, and play here without fear of what tomorrow will lend.
None of this has been easy. Beer is often celebratory, bringing people together. We take a lot of pride in being a part of this region so it has been incredibly difficult to think of this issue dividing us.
But, as hard as this is, we’re proud of our stance. In our backyard sits 10% of the world’s fresh water—fresh, clean water is becoming a more valuable asset globally each day, and to think we are all the stewards of 10% of it is a large undertaking that we believe our Northeast Minnesota community should be protecting wholeheartedly—in our case even if it means upsetting friends and losing sales.
Thank you for your time and for listening. We would love it if you reversed your decision tonight and let your consumers, both local and visiting or passing through, decide whether or not to purchase our beer directly. Thank you again.