PORTLAND, Maine — Laura Zajac has a deadline at beer o’clock.
By June, her Saco company has to make what could be the world’s largest kegerator, equipped to serve Maine beer through 50 taps to festival-goers in Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik.
“It’s definitely a first of its kind,” said Zajac.
Zajac LLC will start design next week on the “Maine Beer Box,” a project of the Maine Brewers’ Guild and the Icelandic shipping company Eimskip, which has its U.S. headquarters on Portland’s waterfront.
Sean Sullivan, head of the guild, said the project aims to start an exchange between brewers in Maine and Iceland. Eventually, the Guild hopes it will crack open the European market to the rapidly growing industry.
“We’re trying to get five years ahead of where our brewers are,” Sullivan said. “We don’t want to wait until our brewers need to expand to export markets.”
David Carlson, a co-founder of Marshall Wharf Brewing Co. on Belfast’s waterfront, helped dream up the Beer Box idea. He and his wife Sarah opened Marshall Wharf in 2007. They were the state’s 25th brewery.
Today, there are more than 90.
Despite the rapid growth and a scrum for market share, Carlson said the project proves there’s still a collaborative spirit among Maine brewers.
The Beer Box will make its first trip across the Atlantic in June for the annual Icelandic Beer Festival, which will celebrate 29 years of “beer freedom.” The country had prohibited beer sales until 1989.
In July, the Guild expects Icelandic brewers will fill the Beer Box and send it back to Maine for an annual beer festival at Thompson’s Point in Portland.
While the project is specifically about beer, economic development officials and the Guild said they hope the arrangement will open other doors for trade across the North Atlantic, too.
“We’re going to start with the fun and the business will follow,” said Dana Eidsness, head of the Maine International Trade Center’s North Atlantic Development Office. “This is beer diplomacy.”
Shipping company Eimskip sees the potential, too. The company moved its only U.S. port of call to Portland from Virginia in 2013. Since then, it has built up its export business sourcing New England goods to ship back to Iceland and Europe. But imports still make up about 60 percent of its business, according to Andrew Haines, the company’s vice president of sales.
The company donated the refrigerated cargo container to the Maine Brewers’ Guild and plans to also let the container hitch a free ride across the Atlantic. In years to come, the Beer Box will visit some of Eimskip’s other ports of call.
Beyond that effort, Haines said there’s a big business opportunity for Maine food and beverage producers. Producers can export to Europe for less than the cost of shipping goods to New York, Haines said. Judging only by cost, he said, Dublin is as close to Maine as New York.
“I can’t quantify the market,” Haines said, “but we know there’s a demand there.”