March 22, 2018|By Whitney Flanagan and Dagny Leonard| Water

In 1632, America’s very first commercial brewery was built on Brewers Street (now Stone Street) in Manhattan.  By then, spirits were already a fundamental part of daily life in America. Over time, as immigrants settled in the United States, a variety of ingredients began to influence the taste of beer. It evolved from a traditional British style ale to include flavors from Germany and central Europe, and finally a uniquely American style ale was born in San Francisco in the 19th century—Steam Beer, which became Anchor Brewing after prohibition ended. Yuengling Brewery, in Pottsville Pennsylvania, opened its doors in 1829 and remains our oldest and largest American-owned brewery. 

Yuengling Brewery 1855. Photo courtesy of U.S. Archives.

Today, there are nearly 6,000 breweries across the county—from large manufactures like Coors and Anheuser-Busch, to craft breweries like New Belgium and Sierra Nevada—and the industry continues to grow by 15 percent per year.

This is all very interesting, but you are probably wondering why a conservation group is talking about beer? Because beer and nature go hand in hand! From pale ales to stouts, the taste of beer is influenced by its ingredients, the most important one—CLEAN WATER—making up about 95 percent of each and every beer produced nationwide. When we look around the country at “beer regions,” it’s no secret that these areas often contain protected lands, like forests and wetlands, around the water sources. These protected lands filter water and ensure a fresh supply is available for consistent beer production now and in the future. Brewers know the value of these natural resources that make their product possible.

The Conservation Fund has protected over 230,000 acres of land and water resources in North Carolina alone. © Stacy Funderburke

That’s where we come in. The Conservation Fund has protected nearly 8 million acres of land and water resources in every single state, including over 230,000 in the rising beer capital of North Carolina. Our dual charter mission also focuses on spurring sustainable economic development around natural resources, and our Natural Capital Investment Fund (NCIF) exemplifies this by lending money and providing advisory services to small businesses (like breweries!) to help them grow environmentally responsible businesses that create jobs. To date, NCIF has created or retained 4,000 jobs and financed or provided advisory services to more than 900 companies in central Appalachia and the Southeast, including nearly 15  breweries, cideries and distilleries, and counting.  

Here are just a few stories from North Carolina breweries we’ve worked with. For a full list check out our map to find an NCIF Brew Near You! 

BearWaters Brewing Company—Canton, North Carolina

Art O’Neill (left) and Kevin Sandefur (right) discuss BearWaters Brewing and the importance of water quality to their operation. © Zhivko Illeieff

After their first four successful years of operating BearWaters Brewing in Waynesville, North Carolina, the owners knew they needed to expand. They set their sights on nearby Canton, a paper mill town with a struggling economy that could use the breath of fresh air this brewery had to offer. NCIF provided financing to acquire a historic downtown property right next to the Pigeon River, and the brewery has proven to be a lynchpin for the revitalization of Canton. Owners Kevin Sandefur and Art O’Neill acknowledge that their success and their superior craft beer is largely reliant on the pristine water quality in the Rough Creek Watershed.

"Water is everything,” says Kevin. “Beer Is 95 percent water, so the better the quality of the water, the better the end result is for the beer. The secret is out that Western NC has some really great water quality and, that's why you see a lot of major national breweries coming to capitalize on that natural resource.”

And they are committed to protecting it.

“We want to be about educating people on how to protect the watershed, why water quality is important and why we as a community have to protect our surroundings and do all we can to keep our rivers clean,” says Art. “The more we know about water and how important water is, the greater the chances are that this community can sustain itself year after year.”

Bearwaters’ commitment to the environment and sustainability can be seen throughout the business. They use solar-generated heat, rainwater collection system, and have built a river access point right outside the brewery for the public to enjoy. Most recently, they’ve added manufacturing to their list of accomplishments, and are producing a unique 8-pack of cans for local retail, using 100 percent recycled material, with each beer linked to a local environmental preservation cause that can be tracked on their website.

Visit BearWater Brewing Company’s website


Fullsteam Brewery—Durham, North Carolina 

Conservation Fund staff spent an afternoon learning about Fullsteam’s brewing process,commitment to sustainability, and of course, sampling their products. © Whitney Flanagan
Conservation Fund staff spent an afternoon learning about Fullsteam’s brewing process, commitment to sustainability, and of course, sampling their products. © Whitney Flanagan

Fullsteam Brewery, located in Durham’s Ellerbe Creek Watershed, creates “plow to pint” beer that is enlisting neighboring farmers, foragers and agricultural entrepreneurs to help build a Southern Beer Economy, one pint at a time. They use local ingredients like sweet potatoes, pears, figs and paw paws, as well as locally farmed and malted grain from fellow North Carolina NCIF borrower Epiphany Craft Malt.  

As Fullsteam continued to grow, NCIF provided financing to Fullsteam that helped it acquire kegs, install a new canning line and expand its distribution to more than 800 stores in North and South Carolina. In addition to supporting local farms and the local food system, Fullsteam’s success has also helped transform Durham’s Central Park area, and the company provides 25 well-paying jobs, and is part of the Durham Living Wage Project. And in 2018, Fullsteam became the first brewery to win three Good Food Awards in one year! The Good Food Awards recognize producers of food and beverage who are growing or making authentic, high-quality products that are socially- and sustainably-minded.  

“Water is the foundation of what we do. While we love working with farmed and foraged ingredients, we’re only able to pursue our passion for distinctly Southern beer because we start with good, clean water.”
-Sean Wilson, Owner, Fullsteam Brewery

Fullsteam ahead, with one of their flights! © Whitney Flanagan
Fullsteam ahead with a great tasting flight. © Whitney Flanagan

Visit the Fullsteam Brewery website

Ecusta Brewing—Pisgah National Forest

Josh Chambers samples Ecusta brews with Conservation Fund staff. © Zhivko Illeieff
Josh Chambers, owner of Ecusta Brewing, samples beer with Conservation Fund staff. © Zhivko Illeieff

Ecusta Brewing sits at the entrance of Pisgah National Forest—a mecca of East coast outdoor recreation, from mountain biking to tubing and kayaking. Named after the Cherokee word for the Davidson River (“Ecusta,” meaning “distant”), that runs by its back door, Ecusta Brewing has embraced the brewery’s surroundings, branding itself as an outdoor recreation brewery. (It’s tagline is “Get Distant”). A loan from NCIF helped Ecusta Brewing establish its Tap Room. 

Owner Josh Chambers knows that the area’s abundant natural resources are a huge part of both his beer’s quality, and his brewery’s personality, and he is conscious about using them responsibly.

“The need for fresh, clean water is huge,” says Josh. “It’s the number one ingredient in beer. It’s the reason there are so many breweries moving into the area. I believe western North Carolina beer has a unique flavor and a higher quality because of our water resources.”

It goes without saying that Josh is sustainably-minded in everything he does. He used recycled crates that his brewing equipment came in to make furniture. The tables and back bar are all made from one tree, a dying poplar that Josh saw an opportunity to repurpose. The sign out front is made from sheets of copper leftover from an electrician. The list goes on. 

“We want to use all of our natural resources in a way that ensures that they are there for future generations of people to enjoy.”

Ecusta Brewing Company Tour Pisgah Forest North Carolina Zhivko Illeieff 800w
Josh Chambers, owner of Ecusta Brewing. © Zhivko Illeieff

Visit the Ecusta Brewing website

Next time you’re enjoying a cold one, take a moment to appreciate the resources that made it possible. The land, water and local food systems that go into each brew are also integral parts of local economies. Conserving them is not just good for the environment, it’s also good for business.   

To learn more about NCIF’s work support thriving communities and sustainable economies, visit