A Glass Half Full

The Resourceful, Inventive History of Beer

By Jimi T Hardee & Rachel Major

Original Post Date: Feb 28, 2019


Pass me a...draft, brewski, cold one, or simply beer is a saying that usually conjures up a cozy, warm feeling for a certain amber nectar. For all it’s influence, it should come as no surprise that brewing is a old industry. With the earliest evidence of the first beer dating back 13,000 years, it even predates agriculture and is the oldest recorded man-made alcoholic beverage.

And when we made the crucial transition to an agricultural society, beer may have been the reason. From Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia to the bustling streets of 19th century London and New York City, the impact of brewing is ubiquitous throughout history.

Here at NuLeaf we focus on challenges in the modern brewing industry, but in all these centuries, how have these challenges changed over time? We sat down with Professor Gerald Lorentz--an expert on the history of brewing--to help us explore how the obstacles facing the brewing industry have changed, and how they haven’t.

One of the key factors in the historical development of the brewing industry has been geography. Geography determines how beer is made, who is making it, and who it is made for.

“If you are talking about Egypt and Mesopotamia, beer was an everyday drink for everyone.” says Lorentz. “Even into the middle ages throughout Northern Europe beer was regularly drunk by everyone from peasants to kings, the main difference was just the quality.”

When the brewing industry was brought to the new world though, we begin to see innovations born out of necessity.

A Brave New World


“If you look at the [northern] US colonies they would make their beer with grain (like they did in Europe). In the south though, the cash crop was tobacco. They didn’t want to waste real estate on growing grain so they began making beer out of molasses.”

These kinds of innovations to reduce costs and maximize resources would become par for the course in the American brewing industry.

“Brewing is a cash heavy business,” says Lorentz “If there was a high price for hops they would use something else, if there was a high price for malt they would use something else…. maximizing profit in terms of materials was important because small brewers were constantly on the cusp of going under.”

This is certainly true even now for small breweries who are just as motivated as ever to maximize resources as they struggle to succeed in an industry dominated by large brewing companies. The relationships between smaller craft breweries and the big guys are dubious at best, but this is nothing new. Indeed prior to the 20th century in America, it was much harder for smaller breweries to survive in a market controlled by wealthy brewers.

“One of the things you had then that you don’t necessarily have now, you had brewery associations. Only the wealthier brewers would be members of these and they participated in price setting” says Lorentz. “By 1865 in the US the minimum efficient scale for brewing was 100,000 barrels [annually].”

This was not a terribly tenable position for the little guys, with many breweries in places like New York State struggling to make more that 500 barrels a year. And while price fixing has been done away with (at least in the brewing industry), we still find ourselves in a market climate that massively favors large operations.

So what has changed? Well, as with many things in life it comes down to money and resources, and since we are in the water business, let’s focus on water.


Innovation out of Necessity


“Water is always important to brewing, you can’t brew without it.” says Lorentz “But for most of human history people were more concerned with the water going into [beer] than the water going out.”

Today this is not really the case though. Water treatment is hugely expensive for modern brewers, and this expense disproportionately affects the little guys. Simply put, the more beer you brew, the more money you have, the less you worry about water.  

The largest breweries can afford on site treatment systems that reduce their overhead considerably, but smaller craft brewers are stuck paying large treatment fees, with some breweries in areas with the most water pain struggling to brew consistently at all.

On top of this, most municipal treatment plants are often not designed to handle brewery--or any specialized industry--wastewater. Sometimes even a small amounts of specialty wastewater can overload already stressed infrastructure, affecting the larger municipality.

In this way the “little guy breweries” can be a canary in the coal mine for the future of water in our businesses and communities. Lucky for us, we can draw strength from that. The brewing industry is inherently innovative in part because smaller brewers are forced to maximize resources to compete with larger breweries.

95% of breweries in the US are microbreweries often backed by brewers and owners with a fierce loyalty to their communities, local resources and environment included.  And if there is one thing we learned from Professor Lorentz, it’s that brewers are adaptive and inventive.

Today there are over 7,000 breweries in the US going strong, with more coming into the scene everyday. With them they bring innovations in water treatment, manufacturing, and agriculture, and the possibility for a more sustainable future for all.  So let’s raise a glass to a history of beer, and to a future we hope will be just as long!