Craft breweries and distillers have joined forces with the University of Maine on a venture that none of them could have imagined before the coronavirus outbreak.

They’re helping to make hand sanitizer. Specifically, the high-alcohol content sanitizer needed to meet federal standards for use in hospitals at a time of heightened demand.

Breweries in southern Maine have been donating the base stock of fermented liquid – beer – and distillers have been refining it until the alcohol reaches the necessary potency. Chemical engineers at UMaine mix the alcohol with hydrogen peroxide and glycerol, and then the university distributes the final product to hospitals.

The pandemic led to the closure of restaurants and bars on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day, leaving breweries with large inventories of beer in fermenting tanks or kegs that essentially couldn’t be sold. Meanwhile, 60 to 80 percent of distilleries’ sales “just evaporated” overnight, said Ned Wight, a co-owner of New England Distilling Company in Portland and president of the Maine Distillers Guild.

Maine Beer Company of Freeport had shipped roughly 1,750 gallons of beer to two distilleries as of Tuesday.

“The beer that we have currently donated would be sitting in a tank waiting for a time when we’d be able to keg again, but we can’t hold it forever,” said Colleen Croteau, the director of business operations for Maine Beer.

Other breweries involved are Allagash, Rising Tide, Oxbow, Foundation, Shipyard, Baxter Brewing and Bissell Brothers. Distillers working on the project include Hardshore Distilling, New England, Stroudwater, Sebago Lake, Split Rock, Blue Barron, Mossy Ledge, Wiggly Bridge, Round Turn, Chadwick’s Craft Spirits and Three of Strong Spirits.

UMaine is the catalyst behind the effort. The university has special authorization to produce sanitizer for the Maine Emergency Management Agency, and its Process Development Center has the industrial scale, technology and trained staff to create the final product.

What the university needed was large quantities of high-grade ethanol, distilled until it becomes 96 percent alcohol. That’s where Maine’s craft breweries and distillers come into the equation.

Jordan Milne, owner and founder of Hardshore Distilling Company in Portland, disconnects a hose from a fermentation tank Wednesday. Tanks that are normally used to ferment grain for the company’s gin are now used to hold beer that is distilled to a 96 percent ethanol. After distilling, the company ships it to the University of Maine, where hydrogen peroxide and glycerine are added to create hospital-grade hand sanitizer. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“We’re just trying to do our little piece, and, personally, my morale has really improved since we started to create hand sanitizer because it gave me purpose,” said Jordan Milne, the founder of Portland’s Hardshore Distilling Company.

For all parties – brewers, distillers and UMaine’s chemical engineers – it’s a dramatic and quick shift in purpose. UMaine has already delivered finished product to hospitals while distillers are working on ramping up their production.

The goal is to produce 400 to 800 gallons of hand sanitizer a week to meet the expected need of hospitals statewide in the coming weeks, said Jake Ward, the vice president for innovation and economic development at the University of Maine.

It takes about 11 gallons of beer to produce one gallon of the high-proof ethanol needed for the hospital-grade sanitizer, Milne said. One gallon of ethanol is enough for 1.16 gallons of sanitizer. Hospital-grade sanitizer must be at least 80 percent alcohol. Store-brand sanitizer is 60 percent alcohol.

“It’s all basic chemistry and science and people have been doing it for thousands of years, but it all depends on how big your system is,” Ward said. “Trying to get the ethanol, it’s a nationwide problem. Everything has slowed up.”

Faculty, staff and students at the University of Maine in Orono have been adding hydrogen peroxide and glycerol to 96 percent ethanol to create hospital-grade hand sanitizer. University of Maine photo

Wight and Milne say they were already being inundated with email requests for consumer grade hand sanitizer in early March, when the coronavirus began to shut down college campuses and professional sports, but Gov. Janet Mills had not yet ordered Maine’s restaurants and bars to close.

“Then we got an email from Northern Light Pharmacy, saying they were working with UMaine, trying to make hand sanitizer for Maine hospitals and that’s when we realized where we were with this in terms of size and scope,” Milne said.

Several other distilleries around the state are producing sanitizer for public sale and to support organizations that have a great need, but don’t require hospital-grade sanitizer. For example, Maine Craft Distillery of Portland has delivered sanitizer to shelters and nonprofits around the state.

Beer serves as the base fermented ingredient. It is delivered to distilleries, where it goes through multiple distillations, called strip runs. Each distillation increases the alcohol content while reducing the volume of the liquid.

When the alcohol percentage gets to the 35 to 40 percent range, it is then delivered to a different distiller with a still capable of producing 96 percent, or a 192-proof alcohol. Most whiskeys, gins and vodkas for consumption purposes are in the 80-90 proof range.

“Hardshore has one of the only stills in the state with capability to produce up to 192 proof. Other distillers can get very high but not quite high enough,” Milne said. “To make this efficient we’ve been relying on other distilleries to do the (stripping).”

Hardshore has been able to make two deliveries of ethanol to the University of Maine, 165 gallons late last week and 107 gallons on Tuesday.

Evan Williams, assistant distiller at Hardshore Distilling Company in Portland, puts a cap on a tote that contained beer that was transferred to a tank at the distillery on Wednesday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“It’s the network that we are still ramping up and we need more distillers to be distilling beer for us,” Milne said. Some brewers have offered to brew new batches of beer just for the sanitizer purpose, Wight said, but that has not yet been needed.

Nearly 800 gallons of the sanitizer already have been delivered to hospitals. The first batch went to Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston. Other shipments have gone to Northern Light hospitals, Covenant Health, MaineHealth, Cary Medical Center, Houlton Regional Hospital, Down East Community Hospital, Maliseet Health and Wellness Center, and the Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Hospital.

Need varies across the state, according to a survey of hospitals conducted by the Maine Hospital Association last week.

“Some were so low they were either making their own or supplementing with sanitizer from distillers. Others had sufficient supplies,” said Becky Schnur, the association’s director of communications. She said the limited supply of hand sanitizer nationwide led the FDA to announce March 20 that it would not take action against non-licensed companies compounding sanitizer for public and hospital use.

While the process started as a complete donation of product and labor, the University of Maine, because of its designation as supporting the Maine Emergency Management Agency, intends to invoice hospitals going forward for product cost and reimburse the breweries and distilleries.

Ward, the UMaine vice president, estimated a gallon of sanitizer produced by the brewery/distillery/university method will cost hospitals $40 to $50. UMaine can package shipments in 55-gallon drums, 5-gallon buckets or 1-gallon jugs.

“We can’t do it for free, but we are trying to do it for cost,” Ward said, noting that a gallon of sanitizer in 12-ounce pump bottles (if you could find that much) would cost $90.

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