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Carla Jean Lauter

Carla Jean Lauter is a craft beer lover and investigator of all things beer. She started a craft beer website and blog thebeerbabe.com in 2007, sharing her thoughts as she explored what was new in beer, as well as brewery visits, trips and "beer adventures." Moving to Portland in 2009, she found herself surrounded by the Maine beer community and has been exploring it ever since. In her blog, Carla profiles craft beer (and some mead and cider, too) being brewed in Maine, as well as looks into the people, places and stories behind the beer that makes the community so vibrant. Join Carla on her beer adventures and advice on where to get the best, newest, and most interesting fermented drinks around. Carla can be contacted at askthebeerbabe [at] gmail.com or on twitter at @beerbabe. Subscribe: RSS Feed for The Beer Babe

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Posted: April 2, 2018

Coming soon: Maine-made coasters for your craft brews

Written by: Carla Jean Lauter

Product prototype from Maine Beer Coasters, which it hopes to get into breweries this spring or summer. Photos courtesy of Maine Beer Coasters

Have you ever taken a moment to consider the importance of the beer coaster?

The paperboard circles are ubiquitous, found at both the swankiest craft beer bars and the lowliest dives. Not purely for decoration, their fibers are absorbent, they protect surfaces from damage, dampen noise and prevent beer glasses from sliding around. Breweries and other companies use them for advertising, and a blank back side can provide space for sketching out a brilliant business idea born over a few beers. But for all of that, coasters are an unnoticed bar accessory, taken for granted as standard bric-a-brac.

It wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that something so prevalent at American drinking establishments would be produced in the United States. Clearly, we know how to make paper products and have lots of trees. However, of the nearly six billion coasters being produced each year, almost every bar mat that you’ve ever set a glass started as fibers made from trees grown 3,500 miles away, in Germany’s Black Forest.

Thankfully, a creative Maine entrepreneur is trying to change that. Kai Smith first had his curiosity piqued when collecting old coasters at flea markets. After some research, he came upon the stunning fact that, despite being such an American bar staple, they were almost all internationally produced.

“I found out that … the vast majority of the world’s coasters come from a single town in Germany. My research led me to a company, which has been making coasters for over 100 years, and they sell to literally everyone, including Maine’s largest breweries,” said Smith.

Digging a little deeper, Smith learned that the raw materials were similar to what is available locally and that there potentially was a huge opportunity for Maine’s foresters to start producing from these materials.

“When I learned that the coasters are also produced from pine and spruce pulp, It dawned on me that this could be any small town in Maine,” Smith commented.

With a seed grant from the Maine Technology Institute, UMaine’s Process Development Center is helping Maine Beer Coasters make prototypes.

The new company, Maine Beer Coasters, is prototyping locally-made coasters with help from the Process Development Center at the University of Maine in Orono, using funds from $25,000 seed grant awarded by the Maine Technology Institute. The Process Development Center will help to find out if there are any differences in composition between the Maine spruce pulp and the German pulp and how to make the best product possible using local materials. Typical coasters are made from a layered “web” of wood fibers, made of spruce and softwood pulp and 20 to 40 percent recycled newsprint. They are then compressed by paper machines that reduce the moisture content – giving them their rigid and absorbent qualities.

Smith is also hoping to innovate by replacing the newsprint portion with spent grain. “I’ve discovered, and been told by the University of Maine, that the fibrous nature of the grain will act as a good substitute and may even be a smoother finish for printing purposes.” This twist on the typical coaster may make them even more desirable for breweries, and could help reduce the cost of disposing of spent grain leftover from the brewing process.

The resulting coasters would not only be Maine-made but sustainable. The end product will be certified by the Forest Stewardship Council and Sustainable Forestry Initiative. “My goal is simply to create coasters that brewers can feel good about and that are intrinsically linked to what I perceive as some of the industry’s core values, namely sustainability, innovation and a connection to the community,” said Smith. He expects the company’s prototypes to be released to breweries this spring or summer.

No stranger to the Maine small business world, Maine Coasters is Smith’s second company. His first business was the Portland-based gift card startup Buoy Local, which he founded with Sean Sullivan, now the director of the Maine Brewers Guild. Buoy Local, which was purchased by Bangor Savings Bank in 2016, focused on bringing customers to local businesses and helping the local economy.

Other businesses have sprung up to support the breweries around them – including beer tourism companies, malt processors and hop growers – but little has been invested in the packaging and products. These niches are still there, and still bringing creatives like Smith to the table.

For Maine Beer Coasters, it seems like just the right move in the middle of a craft beer boom, and the decline of the forestry and paper industry in Maine. While it may be small at the outset, this project has the potential to breathe new life into some neglected industries. Hopefully by next year, the coaster that I’m absent-mindedly twirling at the bar will have made a much shorter trip to get there.

 

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