(Preface by HJL: SurvivalBlog neither condones nor condemns alcohol consumption. However, we stand by a biblical perspective that takes a strong stance against drunkenness. There are serious issues that must be weighed in regards to alcohol consumption and commerce, and each reader should measure them carefully to know whether home brewing is for you or not.)
“People are going to want to escape from reality and history has shown that alcohol is the escape of choice.” I don’t know how many times I have seen this exact quote in prepping manuals, on survival sites, and included in SHTF barter item lists. Someone must have a copyright on this phrase and is making a pretty penny on it these days. Nevertheless, this phrase does speak the truth. Since that day, thousands of years ago, when someone lost a dare to drink a clay pot of fermented barley, alcohol became a form of payment and an easy way for the long-term storage of calories. In fact, historians believe that beer was so sought after as a potable food source that it was used as payment for labor in the fields from Mesopotamia to Egypt. However, there’s a problem with prepping philosophy regarding alcohol as bartering medium. When the oil stops flowing into the country, all supplies will eventual become extinguished. It will be a situation, once again, where niche markets will rule. People are going to have to find ways to fill those niche markets, and the supplying of hooch will be one of those markets. Stocking up on bottles of alcohol will work in the short term, but after a year of being cut off, which could easily take place, where will the supply come from to meet demand? This article is intended to provide a basic overview of how to become your community’s brewery after societal breakdown.
Here’s a little back ground information, before I get started. Ever since I took a chemistry class in college, I have been brewing my own beer and wines. The professor was a homebrewer and built many of the class lessons around brewing. I found them intoxicating (pun intended). My undergrad degree was in Biology, but I got my masters degree in Agricultural Science. At first, just brewing the hooch was fine, but soon I was growing many of the ingredients and experimenting with unusual recipes. It became a passion to the point where people see my basement and think I’m up to no good with all the copper tubing and buckets everywhere.
The first thing to mention is that making a palatable product takes some practice. Actually, I often tell many of my friends, as we drink a cold one, that a beer is science in a glass. It takes some knowledge to understand what is taking place in a fermenter and how it all comes together. Thus, like all worthwhile skills, you have to practice it to get better. You have to brew. Don’t think you can get all of the equipment for brewing and start this endeavor after everything goes to hell in a hand basket. You should start small and start tomorrow. You can find starter kits online for around $100, and as far as that goes most people have the necessary equipment in their kitchen to make a one-gallon batch of homebrew.
That being said, what is needed to set up business? I’m going to break this down into a few different topics.
First off, when I refer to hooch, I’m speaking of beer, mead/wine, hard cider, or distilled spirits. All of these will be commodities that will have value after societal collapse. When determining what you would like to produce, take into account your location, the amount of land you have control over, and your available labor force. As an example, if you are a married couple with no children and you have a large garden and an orchard but do not own many acres of farmable land, I would recommend managing a beehive and brewing mead and cider. The reason being is that barley requires lots of land in order to have abundant product, and the bees will increase your harvest in your orchard and garden. Alternatively, if you have a large family with lots of farmable land in a relative dry area, I would go with beer and mead. The reason for this choice is that barley needs little rain to produce a crop, but it takes a lot of labor to make a final product. Bees are rather simple to keep, and they do all the work as long as you have enough foraging area for them. Everyone should keep bees. Remember that all fermented products can be distilled into spirits. All distilling is the process of removing some of the excess water from a fermented beverage. So, a distillery should be incorporated into every scenario.
As a gardener, I am big on diversity. I try to plant multiple types of produce, because from year to year one thing will do well while others will not. As a brewer, I think it’s a good idea to do the same thing. Have the knowledge to brew anything but know what is most likely to be abundant in your region. There could come a time where a bumper crop of apples happens in your area and you could get them cheap (even though you have no apple trees). Turning them in hooch would be wonderful, but you need to have the experience and knowledge to make it happen. So experiment now, so that you will have the knowledge later.
Water is the essential of all life on our planet. The same holds true for brewing. You must have a reliable, clean water supply. Beer and mead are basically 90% water, and water is needed to sanitize your equipment, so make sure you have a solid water supply. I remember when I bought my home, I told the realtor to not even show me a house that does not have well water. Well water is great for brewing, because it is usually high in calcium and/or magnesium. These elements provide binding agents for the flavor and bitterness added to a brew. In a societal breakdown scenario, do not depend on the grid to be functioning. Either invest in renewable energy system to power your pump or purchase a FloJak Earthstraw. If you have a natural spring on the property, that would also provide a great source of brewing water, but I would hedge my bets with a nice well set up.
Everything starts with sugar when it comes to brewing, and after the SHTF you are going to have to grow those sugars yourself or barter for the ingredients. Knowing how much you need to make your products is going to be essential.
Let’s start with everyone’s favorite or at least my favorite– Beer. As I stated earlier, growing barley is rather simple. Humans have been doing it for over 12,000 years, and many people attribute beer as the reason why barley became so popular. I’m guessing bread had a bigger deal to do with its popularity, but this is not a pissing contest (pun intended). Barley is drought tolerant, easy to store, and can be used to also produce bread, which I have already mentioned is one of the oldest food staples on the planet.
It takes around five to seven pounds of barley seed to plant a 800 square foot plot, and that will produce about a bushel of grain. A bushel to grain weighs about 47 pounds, and that is enough barley after it is malted to produce about four 5-gallon batches of brew. Five gallons of brew will fill about two cases of 12 ounces bottles (48 beers). So that comes out to about 200 beers per 800 square foot of barley. One fourth of an acre is 10,890 square feet so that would produce just over 2,700 twelve-ounce beers. Calculate accordingly, but remember you need to reserve enough seed for the following year’s planting. Don’t forget that harvesting, malting, and brewing beer is very labor intensive. Before I move on, there is one more thing– grow hops. They are extremely hardy. They only need a good helping of composted manure each year, water, and a structure to climb. If you provide the plant with these needs, they will produce for you for years to come.
The next place you can get sugars is honey. Honey is a wonderful product. It has a shelf life that is forever. Honey has been eaten that was discovered in the pyramids. I love honey and always have a nice supply on hand. At this point, I must repeat my suggestion that you keep bees. You will never regret it. Pure honey can be traded, but mead will have tremendous value also.
A first-year hive will produce between 50 to 100 pounds of honey, but remember that in northern climates the bees need honey to survive the winter. Above the Mason-Dixon line, count on at least 80 pounds for the bees to survive. Established hives can generate upwards to 300 pounds of honey. That is a lot of sugar. Semi-dry mead needs about 15 pounds of honey for a five-gallon batch. Five gallons of mead will fill around 25 standard wine bottles. So if you subtract the 80 pounds, required for the bees to survive winter, you get 220 pounds of honey, which will produce roughly 350 bottles of mead.
Making hard cider is easy, but getting to the cider part is a lot of work. However, it can be well worth the effort. One hundred pounds of apples (depended on the apple) will make about five gallons of cider. From there, all you need to do is filter the cider and ferment the batch. I mix in a little honey with the cider to raise the alcohol level to up to 7%. About two pounds per three gallons of cider works well. Once fermented you could applejack the cider. This is a low-infrastructure way of raising the alcohol by volume of a cider. Set the fermented cider out in sub-freezing weather with a cloth covering the cider. Remove the ice that forms on the top periodically. This removes the water, in a reverse method to evaporation distillation, raising the alcohol level from 7% to 30-40% by volume.
Another source of sugar is grapes. Wine making is over 7,000 years old and has spread to most regions of the globe. You are going to need between 80-100 pounds of grapes to make five gallons of juice, which wine makers call “must”. The sugar content is going to depend on the type of grape, the regional climate, and the weather of that year. So you might need to add sugars before fermenting the must. Five gallons of fermenting juice will fill between 23 to 27 typical wine bottles. It all depends on the amount of water the sediment absorbs. Grapes vines are hardy, but you need to know the basics on pruning for good production. Properly pruned grape vines can produce hundreds of pounds of grapes. Learn this stuff now, not later.
There are other places to obtain sugars– sugar beets and cane, sorghum, and maple sap. All three can be grown or harvested, then processed, and turned into fermented beverages. Even out West, sugars can be harvested on a certain Eucalyptus trees. They are called sugar lerps, and it’s a sugary substance produced by a tiny insect called psyllid. I have even extracted sugars from fast-growing plants, like Stinging Nettles, and fermented them into alcoholic beverages. You just need to know your area and the procedures to obtain these sugars. Start this process of gathering regional knowledge yesterday.
This section is intended to provide you with the necessary knowledge of what equipment you are going to need before production lines breakdown. You have to remember that many things in our society are dependent of machines to produce them. You can grow and harvest sugars, but some things are just out of reach when it comes to a society with no stable electric grid. The good thing is that right now many of these things produced by machines can be purchased for cheap and will store nearly indefinitely.
Bottle capsare punched out by machines at massive rates, so purchase them now. (You’ll need a capper, too, to put the caps on the bottles.) Whenever I order supplies from a distributor, I always purchase a couple of gross (144) of bottle caps. It cost me a few pennies per cap, but they will last for years. Corks are another product that does not cost much and are nice to have lying around. I like to collect self-sealing bottles. The plus is that you can carbonate or store a beverage without a bottle cap or a cork; the minus is that the gasket sooner or later rots away, and they are nearly impossible to replace. Still, I would recommend you keep your eye out for these bottles and then stocking up whenever you can find them for a good price.
The second product I would recommend putting away is yeast. There is no alcohol without this sugar eater and yeast can be bought cheap right now. You can buy many different dehydrated yeast varieties nowadays, and they can be stored in a cool basement or root cellar for a few years. If you are one of the few with a functioning fridge after a collapse, that will double the viability of the dry yeast packets. You can learn to reuse your yeast from one batch of hooch to another, but stocking up right now is a good idea because these dry yeast packets are just so cheap.
Sanitation is key for producing a good product. Bacteria are the enemy, and you have to have a way to deal with them. There are numerous products you can purchase to sanitize your equipment, but knowing all your options in this case are vital. Most preppers know the importance to bleach in sterilizing water. This product also works well for sanitizing equipment. Use a tablespoon of bleach per gallon of water, soak the equipment in this bleach-water solution for twenty minutes, then allow it to air dry. Also, iodine can also be used. Most preppers know iodine is used in medical procedures to cleanse a surface from contamination, but it can also be diluted to sanitize equipment at the same ratio as bleach to water. Purchasing extra oxidizers is also another possible to keeping your equipment free from lactobacillus contamination. Boiling water is the final option, but that is a lot of boiling water to sterilize all of your equipment every time you brew. It’s nice to have options.
Another industry that will suffer after societal collapse is the chemical and preservative industries. There is just no use for these businesses when regions adopt a local mindset and the needed energy for production ceases to exist. There are a few additives that are mass produced in these industries that are nice to have around and that store easily.
Campden tablets are a sulfur-based product that is used primarily in wine and cider making to kill bacteria and to inhibit the growth of most wild yeast. You can purchase 100 tablets for four dollars rights now. One tablet per five gallons of brew does the job of killing off all wild bacteria and yeast present in the concoction. Store them in a sealed container in a cool dry place, and they will last quite a while.
The second chemical to stock up on is pectin enzyme or pectinase. Many times, when you brew with solid vegetable or fruit ingredients, you have an abundance of pectin. A few teaspoons per five gallons will help eliminate this problem. It’s inexpensive– one pound for about ten bucks– and will last forever. Stock up on it.
Besides these recommendations, I would suggest purchasing extra bottle cappers, hoses, brewing kettles, thermometers, and food-grade buckets. It is always nice to have a back up to your back up, but invention is the mother of necessity. I think you will find that once you have a basic understanding of the brewing process, you can make due with minimal equipment or adjust to what you have on hand. As far as beer bottles, I would not worry too much on stocking up on them, but I will discuss this in more detail in the next section. The last thing I will mention in this section is do not forget about hand-operated grain mills and apple presses. They will be worth their weight in silver when the SHTF.
So what are your best options to selling your product and how much should you charge? The first thing is to mention you want to establish multiple ways to receive income for your abilities. Some farmers might have an abundance of a sugar crop. Offer them the opportunity to produce a fermented product for a percentage of the cut. As an example, to someone with an orchard that has lots of apples offer to process their produce for a percentage of the cut. A 50-50 swap is recommended. The farmer gets half, and you the other half. This compensates for your skill and labor, but it gives the supplier the incentive to produce more and do business with you again. Make sure the farmer knows that you want those bottles back after consumption of the product.
The rule of thumb, when dealing with alcohol content, is a pint of beer (16 ounces), a glass of wine (6 ounces), and a shot of distilled alcohol (1.5 ounces) all contain the same amount of alcohol per unit mass. You want to keep this in mind when negotiating a price per unit, because this would basically mean that a 750 ml bottle of distilled liquor would have the same monetary value as a case of beer when related to alcohol content.
That being said, it’s up to you to find out what your customers are willing to spend. This could fluctuate greatly, depending on the time of the year and region of the country. I would recommend that a set price in silver be offered per case of beer or bottle of hooch, but incorporate an extra silver dime or two for a return policy. Meaning that when the bottles are returned those silver dimes will be issued to the returner. That should take care of your bottle problem. When recapping beer bottles, do not use twist off bottles; they sometimes will not seal completely.
You will want to find a small trading post that will spring up in your region to do business or take orders. Holidays and marriages (summertime) will be your busy times of the year for taking orders. Plan accordingly. Remember that you can have a batch of beer ready to drink in a month; cider takes about two months; wines/meads take around one year for a finished product. If you are selling at a trading post, have different kinds of products, so customers will have a nice selection from which to choose.
I currently barter a lot with my bubbly beverages. I have traded for meat, honey, cheese, and fruits. Be open to trading, but also be willing to spend some silver on extra sugars and other needs, because in order to have a sound local economy, money needs to circulate.
Now some people are probably thinking they should just open a bar in their garage or barn and have the costumers come to you; then the bottle problem disappears. I would disagree with this. Everyone will be caring firearms, and I do not know about you, but I am not giving mine up at the door. Besides that, drunken people have a rough time finding their way home, and some are just not pleasant to be around. Trust me, I used to work at a beach bar in the Virgin Islands, which basically had no consist law enforcement. The bars got robbed often, and drunken people will not leave. Keep your business away from your home. So, in this case, an easy solution for distribution is not good for what ales you (pun intended).
In closing, niche markets will rule when the grid goes down. Finding your niche will be the key, and alcohol will never fall out of favor with the public. Besides the recreational release, other business opportunities can arise through brewing. These include biofuel production, medicinal antiseptics, and essential oils and soap making, just to name a few. Chemistry can lead you down the road to many endeavors. So get to brewing, and good luck out there.