PORTLAND — A first-of-its-kind shipping container left for Reykjavik, Iceland, June 3 with more than 70 Maine beers on tap.
Dubbed the Maine Beer Box, the 40-foot retrofitted container is due to arrive early next week on an Eimskip freighter, in time to join that country’s largest beer festival June 24 and an international audience for Maine brewers.
“What started as a crazy idea a few years ago has now come to fruition,” Sean Sullivan of the Maine Brewers’ Guild told a crowd gathered at a send-off June 2 at the International Marine Terminal on Commercial Street.
More than 50 industry members watched as Sullivan unveiled the 78 tap handles from 40 Maine brewers that had been installed on the exterior of the container.
The Beer Box is the collaboration of several Maine companies, first conceived by David Carlson of Marshall Wharf Brewing in Belfast. Carlson, who has invested much of his own time and money, said he teamed with Sullivan over a nearly three-year period to make the project a reality.
Sullivan declined to disclose the total cost of the project, but said the guild “spared no expenses” in designing a container that would last to make future journeys. In addition to support from guild membership dues, the project was funded by sponsors Verrill Dana, the Maine Technology Institute, SnapSpace, and the Maine Department of Economic Development.
Saco-based engineering firm Zajac outfitted the container with six custom-made stainless steel draft boxes and a web of red tubing, and SnapSpace Solutions in Brewer completed modifications on the container to enhance its strength and durability. Eimskip partnered with the brewers’ guild to make the journey possible, since the festival will be held at its home port.
“(The festival will be) the largest since the Vikings threw their dead bodies in Valhalla,” Larus Isfeld, managing director of Eimskip North America, joked.
When the kegs are kicked in Iceland, the Beer Box will return to Maine carrying beer from each of Iceland’s craft breweries – there are fewer than 10 – to pour at Portland’s Summer Session Beer Festival on July 29 at Thompson’s Point.
The exchange is more than a publicity stunt, Sullivan said.
For all the novelty, the Beer Box is a way for small Maine brewers – some of whom may only distribute most of their beer to neighborhood bars and retailers – to gain exposure to the possibility of international export.
Lawyers from Portland law firm Verrill Dana sponsored the project, and coached brewers through the regulatory process of shipping beer overseas.
Additionally, the summer’s activities will create ties for future business relationships between the U.S. and Iceland, Sullivan said, establishing a foothold for Maine beer in Europe.
“That alone was worth it,” Nate Wildes of Brunswick’s Flight Deck Brewing said. He added he was grateful for the opportunity to “dip our toe in the water for international export.”
Wildes and brewer Jared Entwistle are among a handful of brewers who will travel to Iceland to pour at the festival and make international connections.
When they arrive in Iceland, Wildes said he will talk to as many brewers as he can to gather ideas for their brewery, which opened in February.
He echoed Sullivan’s hopes that Maine’s craft beer industry will have the same success internationally that it has had within the state. A recent report by the brewer’s guild said the craft beer industry in Maine is growing at twice the national rate; last year, 82 breweries contributed more than $150 million to the state economy.
Of the 34 million people who visited Maine last year, 20 percent of them reported visiting a craft brewery, according to the Maine Office of Tourism.
“The Maine brand is undoubtedly tied to quality and craftsmanship,” Wildes said.
“You can ship a pallet of beer anywhere, but the thing that beer offers is a sense of place,” he said, calling the Beer Box a kind of “care package” that speaks to more than just beer, but Maine itself.
The Maine Beer Box started a nine-day voyage June 3 from Portland to Reykjavik, Iceland, where it will be part of the country’s largest beer festival.
Tom Madden, left, of Portland’s Lone Pine Brewing, Nate Wildes, of Brunswick’s Flight Deck Brewing, and Tina Bonney of Portland’s Foundation Brewing stand inside the Beer Box, a retrofitted shipping container headed for Iceland.