Pop quiz: What is the most important ingredient of beer? You’re thinking barley, right? Or hops? Maybe yeast?
Wrong, wrong, and wrong. The most important ingredient of beer is water. Beer is mostly water, for one thing (90 percent, give or take). Also, water is the only ingredient that is unique to any given brewery. “Everything else, we get from the same sources,” said Drew Brosseau, the president and owner of Mayflower Brewing Company in Plymouth, Massachusetts. “We get the hops from the same sources, the grains from the same sources, but the water is unique. And the styles of beer we’ve developed around the world are based on the water we have. We have pilsners in the Czech Republic and Germany because they have soft water, and stouts and porters in Ireland and England because they have hard water. Water is more important than people realize.”
The importance of water has a lot to do with why a coalition of over fifty craft brewers just sent a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opposing the agencies’ recent proposal to repeal something most people call the "Clean Water Rule." Passed in 2015 by the Obama administration, the rule allows the federal government to oversee the streams, rivers, and other waterways that feed into larger bodies of water, like bays and lakes, which have been regulated by the federal government since the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972.
Scott Pruitt, head of the EPA, called the rule “something that created a substantial amount of uncertainty and confusion” for ranchers and farmers; Trump called it “a very destructive and horrible rule.” Then you’ve got Paul Ryan, who said the rule was bad for “entrepreneurs.” Well, some entrepreneurs disagree, and maybe none more than brewers.
Jenn Vervier is the vice president of strategy and sustainability for the New Belgium Brewing Company, a brewery probably best known for making Fat Tire, the favorite beer of fictional LAPD detective Harry Bosch. Despite the name, the company is arguably more American than Budweiser (which is owned by a Belgian-Brazilian conglomerate). On Thursday afternoon, two days after the repeal was proposed, I called Vervier at the company’s headquarters along the Cache la Poudre River in Colorado.
“The quality of our beer can be attributed to the quality of our water,” she said. “We don’t have to treat it. It comes from a municipal source in a great location. We hope it won’t be contaminated, but if it is, treating it would raise costs for the city, and for New Belgium, and it could change the flavor of the beer.”
Vervier has been speaking out in favor of stronger water regulations for some time. In 2012, when the Obama administration first started looking into strengthening the Clean Water Act, she wrote a HuffPost blog expressing her support. The blog caught the attention of Karen Hobbs at the National Resources Defense Council, who reached out and asked if she’d help rally other craft brewers around the cause. She did, and the result was “Brewers for Clean Water,” the same group that sent the letter to the EPA and the Army Corps on Thursday. Vervier says she believed they played a role in convincing Obama to pass the rule. In 2015, right after the change went through, Gina McCarthy, Obama’s EPA director, accepted an invitation to speak at the Craft Brewers Conference in Washington, D.C. “She spoke about the importance of the rule,” said Vervier, “and about how much she personally likes beer.”
One thing that puzzles Vervier about the effort to roll back the rule is the administration’s insistence that it’s bad for farmers — including those who grow the barley that New Belgium turns into beer. “Our understanding was agriculture was protected under the rule,” she said. “In no way would the government go onto people’s farms and regulate people’s irrigation ditches.” So why all the opposition, did she think? “I think there are folks who aren’t as concerned with the specifics of the rule as they are with any federal interference,” she said, diplomatically. “There’s a cultural difference between us and those who do not like federal environmental regulations.” (That said, at least one agricultural organization, the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, worked with New Belgium to build support for the rule.)
It was at about this point in the call that the conversation shifted from the importance of certain government regulations to the company’s recent decision to reimagine its entire collection. By the time we were done talking, I wanted a beer. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any New Belgium brews in the fridge, but I did have a great summer ale from a little Massachusetts concern called the Mayflower Brewing Company. I cracked it, took a refreshing sip, and then decided to call up the company to see if they had any thoughts about the proposed repeal.
Brosseau, the owner, answered the phone. He hadn’t heard about the Clean Water Rule, or the new proposal. No one had ever reached out to him about either, which is not too surprising: The “Our Crew” section of Mayflower’s website identifies only 19 people as employees, and one is a dog. Also, the company doesn’t use water from a river or stream. “It’s groundwater coming from an aquifer that sits under Plymouth,” Brosseau said. “It happens to be very soft water and it goes through nothing but sand on its way down. So I’m not familiar with the specifics of the law, but certainly anything that affects the quality of the groundwater detrimentally would be a problem for us.”
Brosseau then told me an unexpected tale. In 1620, when the Mayflower left England, there wasn’t any water aboard. Back then, before the advent of environmental regulations, streams were often contaminated by livestock waste. So people mostly drank beer. They drank it on land, and they drank it at sea. The Mayflower was thus a kind of booze cruise.
By the time the ship arrived on Cape Cod, the beer was running out. The pilgrims needed fresh water, and that’s why they settled on Plymouth. “They found a brook there that they called a ‘very sweet fresh water brook’ and ‘many delicate springs,’ ” Brosseau said. Those are the springs Mayflower draws its water from today.
I asked Brosseau how he learned all this.
“Well, I’d known I was descended since the time I was a tiny kid,” he said, meaning descended from a passenger of the Mayflower. “As I was looking for brand ideas for the brewery, I began reading up on it. My relative’s name was John Alden. He was my tenth-great grandfather, and I learned that he was the ship’s cooper, and the cooper’s job was to make the wooden barrels and they held all the beer. I bumped into this story and I thought, ‘How come nobody’s ever created a Mayflower Brewing Company,’ and it just came together all at once.”
I told him I thought it was a striking coincidence, the fact that clean water is apparently the literal wellspring from which the history of America flows.
“Our natural resources have been critical since the very beginning,” he said. “They’re a big reason why folks came here in the first place. The water and the land and the animals and vegetation — all of it was in their minds a source of opportunity, which they took advantage of, and in some cases mismanaged, as they expanded across the country. But in the end those natural resources are vital to human survival and the success of any civilization. That was true then, and it’s true now.”