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October 3, 2016 / 2016 Next List honorees

#MBNext16: As craft brewing evolves, Sean Sullivan aims to keep Maine at its forefront

Photo / Tim Greenway Sean Sullivan, the executive director of the Maine Brewers' Guild.

Sean Sullivan, executive director of the Maine Brewers' Guild and one of the partners who recently sold local gift-card company Buoy Local to Bangor Savings Bank, is somewhat of a paradox.

Calmly sipping beer and pointing to the art decorating Foulmouthed Brewing in South Portland, he leaned forward and became animated when the discussion turned to business. He readily admits he's full of energy and enthusiasm for whatever project he undertakes.

Take Buoy Local: Sullivan met Kai Smith at the 2013 Startup Weekend Maine, an intensive 54-hour entrepreneurial event where they worked on a Community Bar concept where part of the proceeds from sales would go toward a different nonprofit each month. However, months later, based on Kai's idea, the duo launched Buoy Local.

“That's the first time I sat in a room and met people similar to me, people who couldn't sleep because they had so many ideas,” he says.

Sullivan, 32, describes himself as a connector, someone who is passionate about sharing a good thing, whether it be a local shopping experience, going to a brewery, meeting a local entrepreneur or about the state of Maine.

He says he introduces himself at conferences and other events by saying, “I'm the luckiest son of a bitch in Maine.” He adds, “I love my work and the guild.”

Learning through failures

Like many entrepreneurs, Sullivan learned from earlier failures. An art history major at Bowdoin College, he went to Australia during his sophomore year for a study abroad program. There, the avid surfer studied environmental issues and wrote a thesis on why the surf industry should transition to boards with less environmental impact, as surfboards contain petrochemicals.

Australia's largest surf website published the thesis, and soon the 22-year-old college senior became a sought-after speaker at industry conferences. 

“The experience in Australia changed my life,” he says. “If you're generally passionate about something and have quantifiable data, you can find people worldwide who will follow you.”

He leveraged the experience lobbying for different surfboard materials to work at L.L.Bean in various capacities, but says he was missing the “you could do anything feeling.”

So he worked at a series of different jobs, including startups that failed, and at Bowdoin. Then he got involved with Portland Greendrinks, a social event in Portland for people interested in environmental sustainability, and took it over in February 2011 while still working a day job, because the nonprofit work was voluntary.

“But I learned how to create and grow a nonprofit, deal with a board of directors and create a strategic mission,” he says of the experience. He stepped down as head of Portland Greendrinks in 2014.

Keeping craft beer on top

Fast-forward to September 2013, when he became executive director of the Maine Brewers' Guild after meeting a lot of brewers while arranging the Portland Greendrinks events.

Sullivan says we're in the golden age of beer now, but the rate of growth of new breweries isn't sustainable. The Maine Brewers' Guild's 83 members include all but two of the state's breweries, plus 30 allied members.

Membership dues, along with the New England Brew Summit in April that brought in 500 attendees and the Thompson's Point 2016 Summer Beer Festival in July that drew 2,000 attendees, plus other smaller events, contribute to the Maine Brewers' Guild's revenues. The summit and festival this year bumped revenues to an estimated $250,000 for calendar 2016, up from $145,000 in 2015, Sullivan says. Since brewery memberships are based on production, higher dues also have contributed more as brewers up their output, he adds.

The New England Brew Summit was a key part of highlighting Maine's expertise in craft brewing, Sullivan says.

“My goal is to make Maine craft beer synonymous with quality,” he says. “We want to be a Top 3 destination in the United States for beer. We put on the technical conference that shows our home-grown expertise.” About 200 of the 500 attendees were from out-of-state.

Part of that expertise was tours during the conference of the University of Southern Maine's new Quality Assurance/Quality Control and Research Laboratory, started with a $488,000 seed grant from the Maine Economic Improvement Fund. The guild is helping guide the lab, which will test beer from breweries and let USM students get experience by helping.

A pilot USM class is underway now with five breweries running different tests on beer. The lab uses a fee-for-service model so it can run on its own.

Sullivan says the guild also is working to establish a future beer export market to handle the expected overproduction from the increasingly crowded field of brewers.

“The growth of craft beer isn't happening in other countries like it is here,” he says. “We'll have excess capacity built up, and can use the Maine craft beer reputation.”

He's also working with members of Maine's craft brewing industry, elected officials like U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree and related associations to find ways to boost the state's $400 million craft brewing industry. One meeting already occurred in early July.

Says Sullivan, “We're focusing on broadening the economic impact craft beer can have on the state.”

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