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Maine brewers turn a shipping container into a global beer exchange

More than 120 half-barrels of beer set sail on an international beer mission.
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Rendering illustration by Sam Wood

Rendering illustration by Sam Wood

So, what if you loaded up a shipping container with more than 120 half-barrels of beer and just … sent it around the world? That’s more or less the idea behind Maine Beer Box, a recently announced project between the Maine Brewers’ Guild and Eimskip, an Icelandic shipping company.

“Sean [Sullivan] really enjoyed standing on his deck and watching what’s basically industrial pornography, these guys loading and unloading containers. It’s mesmerizing,” says David Carlson, founder of Marshall Wharf Brewing Co. in Belfast, Maine. “So we launched this harebrained idea.”

The idea for the Maine Beer Box, hatched by Carlson and Maine Brewers Guild president Sean Sullivan, was at least three years in the making.

“It’s definitely part marketing initiative, part goodwill trade, part economic development,” Sullivan says. “The truth is: No one’s done this before.”

The pair was inspired by Maine’s history of maritime trade and its contemporary role as a shipping hub for the Northeastern U.S. Eimskip is one of the companies that uses Maine’s ports to transport goods to 47 cities around the world. Seeing all the cargo ships coming and going, Sullivan and Carlson wondered if they couldn’t load one up with some Maine-brewed beer and send it on a trip across the Atlantic. Eimskip was on board.

“The more you run the crazy idea up the flagpole, the more you see the excitement,” Carlson says. “I don’t think anyone along the line has poo-poo’d it. They definitely think it’s crazy, but they also recognize the uniqueness of it.”

The project is also a bit personal for Carlson. In the years just post-World War II, his mother lived in Reykjavik, Iceland where her father was the public affairs officer for the U.S. State Department.

“I have visited Iceland a few times prior to this Beer Box concept and have heard a lot from my family about the experiences they had living there,” Carlson says. “So when the idea came up between Sean and I for working with Eimskip, I of course wanted to circle back, so to speak.”

The Maine Beer Box is still under construction, but will be a refrigerated shipping container loaded with more than 100 half-barrels of beer hooked up to taps along one side of the container. Its first trip will be to Reykjavik, where the Maine-brewed beer will pour at a beer festival on June 24. Icelandic brewers will then fill the box with their own beer and send it back to Maine, where the kegs will be tapped at the Maine Brewers’ Guild’s Summer Session festival on July 29 in Portland.

The goal is for the Maine Beer Box to travel to many other countries that Eimskip services, with a port in the British Isles as perhaps the next destination.

Its objectives are many: to celebrate the inclusive spirit of small breweries, to promote Maine as a beer tourism destination and, perhaps most importantly for the Maine Brewers’ Guild, to potentially open up channels to export Maine-made beer to Europe.

“One of the biggest facts that we learned that motivated us to take this idea more seriously is that it’s less expensive to send a container to Europe than to truck it to the Southeastern U.S.,” Sullivan says. “We also feel the European market is clamoring for craft beer, whereas the American market is growing and getting more saturated. … So we’re educating our brewers about how to look at export markets, how to go through the customs process, who to work with to make that happen.”

Indeed, U.S. craft beer exports were a boon to breweries last year. Per the Brewers Association, American craft beer exports grew 4.4 percent in 2016. Exports to Western Europe specifically grew 0.4 percent.

“A question a couple folks have asked me is, as you know, a lot of [our] brewers’ biggest problem is just making enough beer to meet demand. They’re selling it at their taproom or within a 15- to 20-mile radius. So the question is: If they can’t even make enough to meet demand within 20 miles, why are you sending beer to Iceland?” Sullivan says. “But this isn’t just about exporting; what we’re trying to do is get ahead of the curve and entice people to come to Maine, to make it the number one destination in the country for beer tourists.”

Whether or not this program can catapult Maine to the top of U.S. beer destinations for foreign visitors, a box full of beer is usually a solid diplomatic move.

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