Germ-killing hand sanitizer is in short supply these days, especially in hospitals, where doctors and nurses on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic need it to protect themselves and their patients from the coronavirus.
As it turns out it, it can be produced pretty easily — so easily that craft distillers and brewers who would normally be making whiskey and beer appear to have found a way to repurpose their industry, with help from the University of Maine and others.
They’re not turning lemons into lemonade, exactly, but it’s the same idea. At a time when sales have come to a screeching halt, craft distillers and brewers have discovered that, together, they have something valuable to share.
“Ethanol — high-proof alcohol,” said Ned Wight, a partner at New England Distilling in Portland, which typically produces whiskey, gin and rum.
At the end of the day, Wight’s products are typically served in a glass tumbler. But what he and other distillers are working on these days isn’t served on the rocks.
Ethanol, at more than 94.9 percent alcohol, is one of two formulations approved by the Food and Drug Administration for hand sanitizer, along with several other ingredients. To make the high-test ethanol, distillers need beer — and lots of it.
“Right now, we are distilling Allagash White beer. We’re separating the ethanol from everything else that makes the beer beer,” Wight said. “It’s the first stage in taking it up to high enough proof to make hand sanitizer with.”
Nearly 20 distilleries and breweries are involved in the effort. Sean Sullivan of the Maine Brewers’ Guild said when he sent out an email last week asking brewers not to dump any beer, so that it could be used to make sanitizer for health care workers, he was overwhelmed with responses from those who wanted to help out.
Some brewers said they would brew special batches, but others already had a good amount on hand.
“Because St. Patrick’s Day was effectively canceled around the state, a lot of our brewers have a lot of supply of beer right now that they’re able to donate,” Sullivan said. “At this point, we think have enough of a supply, but I think as we know, the demand for hand sanitizer is likely to increase.”
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, health care providers may need to clean or wash their hands as many as 100 times in a 12-hour shift as the number of patients requiring hospitalization for COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, ramps up, and alcohol-based sanitizers are the preferred way to do it in a hospital setting because they kill germs and are more efficient than soap and water. Hospitals and health care facilities are running low — enter UMaine’s chemical and biomedical engineering department, where glycerol, hydrogen peroxide and distilled water are added to the distilleries’ ethanol.
“Right now we’ve been able to produce a pilot batch that we’ve distributed to Central Maine Medical Center,” said Dan Demeritt, a spokesperson for the UMaine System.
Demeritt said a second pilot batch has also gone to Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor.
“And the university is now working with federal regulators, state agencies and public health partners to come up with a plan where we can scale up production in partnership with private sector distilleries to meet a bigger need in Maine,” he said.
A week or two ago, Wight said he knew very little about hand sanitizers. Now, he and others in his industry are working to retool their operations for production of something that has become essential on the front lines of the pandemic.
“It’s really a way that Maine is coming together to defeat something and take something on that’s scary to a lot of people but, together, we’re going to get through it,” said Mike Arsnow, an administrative fellow with MaineHealth, the health care network that includes Maine Medical Center in Portland.
In a written statement, a spokeswoman for Central Maine Healthcare, Kate Carlisle, praised what she called Yankee ingenuity.
“Whether it’s plowing out your driveway or making 300 gallons of hand sanitizer — Mainers take care of each other,” Carlisle wrote. “This … required a little extra creativity. But it’s helping us take care of our community, and we’re deeply thankful.”
This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.