Fermentative production of many attractive biorenewable fuels and chemicals is limited by product toxicity in the form of damage to the microbial cell membrane. Metabolic engineering of the production organism can help mitigate this problem, but there is a need for identification and prioritization of the most effective engineering targets. Here, we use a set of previously characterized environmental Escherichia coli isolates with high tolerance and production of octanoic acid, a model membrane-damaging biorenewable product, as a case study for identifying and prioritizing membrane engineering strategies. This characterization identified differences in the membrane lipid composition, fluidity, integrity, and cell surface hydrophobicity from those of the lab strain MG1655. Consistent with previous publications, decreased membrane fluidity was associated with increased fatty acid production ability. Maintenance of high membrane integrity or longer membrane lipids seemed to be of less importance than fluidity. Cell surface hydrophobicity was also directly associated with fatty acid production titers, with the strength of this association demonstrated by plasmid-based expression of the multiple stress resistance outer membrane protein BhsA. This expression of bhsA was effective in altering hydrophobicity, but the direction and magnitude of the change differed between strains. Thus, additional strategies are needed to reliably engineer cell surface hydrophobicity. This work demonstrates the ability of environmental microbiological studies to impact the metabolic engineering design-build-test-learn cycle and possibly increase the economic viability of fermentative bioprocesses.