Beer drinkers in Iceland will get a taste from across the Atlantic this summer when the “Maine Beer Box” comes to Reykjavik.

The Maine Beer Box, a branded shipping container with more than 50 taps built into its side, is the centerpiece of a multi-year effort between the Maine Brewers’ Guild and Eimskip, the Icelandic shipping company, to expose Maine beer to new markets and bring beers from Iceland and beyond back to the state.

“As far as we know, this is the first time an entire state’s brewing community has come together to exchange beer with an entire country’s beer brewers,” said Sean Sullivan, executive director of the Maine Brewers’ Guild, during a Thursday news conference in the Maine International Trade Terminal in Portland.

“This is not easy, this is not inexpensive, and this is not following a trend,” Sullivan said. “This is setting a trend.”

The guild does not intend to flood a foreign market with beer, he said.

However, the state’s growing craft brewing industry wants to get a head start on a future market with millions of thirsty Europeans by creating an international brand for Maine beer.

David Carlson from Marshall Wharf Brewing Co. in Belfast listens as Sean Sullivan, executive director of the Maine Brewers’ Guild, speaks at Thursday’s news conference about Eimskip and the Brewers’ Guild’s new partnership. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

“American craft beer is the hot thing in Europe and they are clamoring for it,” Sullivan said.

This June, the Beer Box will be filled with kegs from breweries across the state and shipped to Iceland for a major beer festival. The same container will return to Maine filled with beer from Iceland’s craft breweries in time for a Portland beer festival in July.

With a population of roughly 323,000, Iceland is not the target market for Maine brewers, but the Beer Box’s maiden voyage is a test to prove if the project will work elsewhere, Sullivan said. Iceland only allowed low-alcohol-by-volume beers until 1989, but a fast-growing craft beer industry has developed in the last decade and now the country has about nine breweries, Sullivan said. Last fall, members of the guild’s executive committee toured the country and met personally with every brewer to get them on board with the exchange.

Beer accounts for 62 percent of the 7.1 liters of alcohol annually consumed by adults in Iceland, according to a 2014 World Health Organization report. That’s more than traditional beer drinking countries like Germany and the Czech Republic, where beer accounts for about 54 percent of alcohol consumed, and more than the U.S., where beer accounts for 50 percent, according to the report.

The guild and Eimskip plan to visit each of its ports of call with the box in the coming years. That could mean bringing Maine beer to as many as seven countries, including international beer capitals such as Germany and Belgium.

Sean Sullivan, front center, executive director of the Maine Brewers’ Guild, joins local brewers and Eimskip employees at a press conference announcing the partnership between the guild and the container shipping company. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

Beyond testing new markets for Maine brews, the initiative is a way to brand Maine and highlight its burgeoning role as a gateway for international trade, Sullivan said. The guild also hopes other Maine industries will recognize the potential for new markets across the Atlantic, and raise the state’s profile as a travel destination.

Maine’s craft beer industry has grown rapidly in the past decade. Sixteen breweries opened in 2016, pushing the number in the state above 90. The industry added an estimated $228 million to the Maine economy last year and directly employed 1,600 workers. The pace of growth is driving competition to get onto taps in bars and restaurants, especially in the Portland area.

Maine brewers were willing to put business competition aside and work together on the Beer Box, said David Carlson, owner of Marshall Wharf Brewing Company in Belfast.

“I think what is really fun about this project is the collaborative feel within our community is something we find in Iceland as well and it is something that is tremendously unique,” Carlson said.

SHIPPING THE BEER BOX

The beer box itself is still being manufactured, and he doesn’t know exactly how many breweries will end up working on the project. To join, breweries have to donate the beer they want to send, and also pay for Iceland import duties and tax, which end up costing about as much as the beer does, Carlson said.

Exports of U.S. craft beer have been rising steadily in recent years. In 2015, the last year data was available, U.S. breweries shipped 446,000 barrels of beer overseas, a 16 percent increase from the year before, said Jeff Bennett, senior trade specialist with the Maine International Trade Center. Canada is the top destination for U.S. craft beer, taking in half the amount exported.

The amount of beer that Maine currently exports is very small and the data doesn’t distinguish between craft brewers and large commercial breweries, but the state’s exports mirror national trends, Bennett said.

The top five destinations for Maine beer in 2015 were Canada, Italy, Sweden, the Netherlands and Finland.

Strengthening the trade and cultural connections Eimskip has made between Maine and Iceland is a logical step for the state’s craft brewers exploring European markets, Bennett said.

“We are certainly close enough to areas of Western Europe where there has been trade growth, it makes sense to look at that part of the world,” he said.

Shipping the beer box is a way for Eimskip to get companies to think about new ways of moving freight, said Larus Isfeld, managing director of Eimskip USA. The company, which specializes in cold storage shipping, moved its U.S. headquarters to Portland in 2013 and has recorded steady annual growth every year since.

Selling beer through the trans-Atlantic route is just one aspect of trade, Isfeld said. Barley and malt used by Maine brewers come from the United Kingdom and are shipped to Montreal, before being trucked to New Hampshire and then to Maine. Companies could cut down on shipping costs by bringing future shipments directly to Portland, Isfeld said.

“For us, it’s about explaining and trying to educate people about different options that could cost them less and make them more competitive,” Isfeld said.

Peter McGuire — 791-6325

[email protected]

Twitter: @PeteL_McGuire