October 21, 2018
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Maine craft brewers look to expand market at British beer festival

Chris Cary | Maine Brewers' Guild
Chris Cary | Maine Brewers' Guild
Sean Sullivan (left, back row), executive director of the Maine Brewers' Guild in South Portland, and Dave Carlson, owner of Marshall Wharf Brewing Co. in Belfast, hoist mugs of beer to celebrate the first Maine Beer Box to travel overseas. This summer Maine beers will debut at the popular Leeds International Beer Festival in the UK before returning to Maine stocked with British beer.

The Maine Beer Box, a converted cargo container retrofitted with 78 taps, will make its second overseas journey soon to try to tap the European market for Maine craft beer, this time at the Leeds International Beer Festival in the United Kingdom.

The four-day festival in September will give the expected 12,000 attendees a chance to taste craft beers from all over Maine. Collection of the beer that will be transported to the United Kingdom — 500 kegs worth — is scheduled to start next week and include breweries in Fort Kent, Caribou, Brewer, Ellsworth, Belfast and Lewiston.

The cargo container will be leave Portland Aug. 3, with Eimskip paying for the transportation and each brewer donating beer and paying taxes.

After the kegs are emptied, British beer will be shipped back to the United States for a tasting party at Thompson’s Point in Portland.

“We’re trying to leverage the resources of Maine,” said Sean Sullivan, executive director of the Maine Brewers’ Guild in South Portland.

The idea for the first Maine Beer Box, which took beer from 40 Maine craft brewers in June 2017 to the Bjorfestival in Reykjavik, Iceland, and then returned filled with Icelandic beer for a festival at Thompson’s Point, was that Sullivan heard it was much less expensive to ship beer by boat to Europe than by truck to New York City.

Case in point: a one-way trip to Europe is about $2,000, while it will cost at least $4,000 to send a truck through Maine next week to collect all the beer for the Leeds trip.

“Leeds is one of the most prominent beer festivals in the United Kingdom,” Sullivan said. “There is a vibrant beer culture in London, but the energy around craft beer is in Leeds.”

While the Iceland exchange last year resulted in some collaborations on new beers, it hasn’t yet led to Maine beer exports to Iceland. Sullivan expects some Maine brewers are looking to export to the United Kingdom.

Shipyard Brewing of Portland already has an agreement to make beer in the United Kingdom, he said, and it is the top U.S. craft beer on tap in the United Kingdom.

It’s still hard to put a number on the economic impact of the Maine Beer Box because it’s so new, but Sullivan said the Maine Brewers’ Guild website is getting a large increase in traffic with inquiries to visit Maine and to follow the Maine beer trail to visit different breweries.

“We’re creating a new narrative for Maine tourism to attract younger people, and also possibly to attract jobs and retain people,” he said. “People want experiential tourism, and beer does this.”

Meanwhile, the growth of craft brewers in the state shows no signs of drying up. Maine has 124 craft brewers, up 30 percent over the 93 in January 2017, according to the Maine Brewers’ Guild.

In 2016, craft brewers had a $227.95 million economic impact on Maine and employed a total of 2,177, both including multiplier effects from related businesses.

An average of six craft breweries opened annually statewide during the past decade, according to a study released in March 2017 by the University of Maine School of Economics and the Maine Brewers’ Guild.

Sullivan said the two groups are in the midst of a new study to be released this fall that will include more details.

Sullivan said the number of breweries and employees has expanded greatly since the last study, so he expects big numbers for the economic impact of the industry with the new study.

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