Home Brewing for SHTF, by C.K.

(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.)

What is home brewing? I am not talking about brewing your favorite cup of coffee or tea; I am referring to the growing hobby of brewing beer, wine, and other spirits at home. There are many advantages of brewing in SHTF. However, like other skills, you need to practice now so that you do not make costly mistakes when all the cards are on the table. For this article I will cover the advantages of home brewing and a basic introduction to complete your first brew. Home brew can also be converted into spirits (hard alcohol) through distillation, but this is not something that should be done by beginners, and it is illegal in some areas. I would recommend you start with beer, wine, and hard cider; then, once you have a better handle on the process, consider making the harder stuff IF it is legal in your area. Also, distribution of your home brew is a touchy subject. While it should be okay for you to give it away to friends, it is definitely illegal to sell it. I am NOT responsible for any legal trouble you encounter during your home brewing adventures.

Why home brew in SHTF?

I have broken down the potential advantages of home brewing into four categories– food, medical, fuel, and barter. There is also the added benefit, before SHTF, of saving money, meeting new people in brewing clubs, and having a great time.

Food. There is a great documentary available online called “How Beer Saved the World” that goes into great detail about the history of fermented beverages. In a nut shell, back in the day, water was not always safe to drink, so in larger cities (especially in Europe), people drank fermented beverages in place of water. In these United States, most of the apple trees that were planted during the expansion west were used for making hard cider rather than for baking pies. In fact, hard cider was a common breakfast drink up through the early 20th century.

We can go well beyond just turning malted barley into beer. You can make wine from grapes and other fruits, or my fall favorite is turning apples (or apples and pears) into hard cider. What better way to preserve the abundance of fallen apples than to crush them into cider that is then fermented and can last all winter? You can also take the hard cider you just brewed and expose it to oxygen again to make apple cider vinegar. I have unfortunately learned the hard way what happens when a batch of hard cider is exposed to oxygen after fermentation and “goes bad”; your wife gets five gallons of the best apple cider vinegar she has ever had. As I mentioned before, you can also harvest the yeast from your batch of beer for making bread, so home brewing it not just a means of making a beverage to escape the reality that is now before you but also a means of improving your life in a SHTF situation. Fermenting fruits and grains is an easy way to preserve the nutrients throughout the winter with many heath benefits that will be discussed in the medical section. For those of you thinking you don’t want to give your kids an alcoholic beverage, in the tutorial on making your first home brew, I will also discuss how to stop fermentation short to produce a carbonated drink with virtually no alcohol (less than ~0.5 %) a.k.a. soda. The favorites in my house are our honey ginger ale and good old fashion root beer, which are both packed with more nutrients then the “soda” from the store that is made with high fructose corn syrup and carbonated water.

Medical. Consumption of alcohol (in moderation) has been shown in dozens of studies to decreases chance of stroke, heart attack, or heart disease. Specifically related to home brewed and other unfiltered beers, they are full of B vitamins, trace minerals, and phytonutrients (a.k.a. antioxidants.). These are all nutrients that can be hard to find in a SHTF diet. When we consider home brewed wine and ciders, they also contain the nutrients from the original fruit used in the fermentation process. There are also beneficial bacteria, yeast, and fiber that aid in digestion to help keep you regular. Just ask anyone who has ever had a few too many home brewed beers how well they keep you regular.

Through distillation you can produce higher-alcohol-content liquids for cleaning wounds and sterilizing instruments. A common method some people use to increase the alcohol content of hard cider is to put it in the freezer and skim off the ice. While this method can bump up the ABV (alcohol by volume), since you are not distilling, you risk concentrating the methanol (a cousin to the ethanol you want). Methanol has the same initial effects of ethanol, but it is lethal. Somewhere around 10 mL of pure methanol will kill the average size adult, and smaller amounts can destroy the optic nerve resulting in blindness. However, if you are not drinking the byproduct, then you do not have to worry about methanol, which can be used externally just like ethanol.

Fuel. Any fermented, alcohol-containing beverage can be distilled into a higher-alcohol-content liquid to burn in lamps or engines. As stated previously, this is a very dangerous process that requires a still and knowledge of distillation in order to prevent injuring yourself or others, and I DO NOT recommend people go build stills in their back yard. That said, the alcohol that is produced, when done right, is over 80% alcohol. I know an old timer who makes small batches of moonshine for fun, and he has produced batches in excess of 95% alcohol, which is close enough to be considered pure by most people. The moonshine that is produced can be burned as fuel in alcohol stoves, lamps, or even mixed into gas and used in your car in the right proportion. Assuming you have a Ford Ranger that can run on E85 (a mixture of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline). I probably would not go more then 50-50, but this would allow you to stretch that gas you have in storage and nearly double how far you are able to drive.

Barter. Whether good or bad, there is always a need of alcohol for consumption. Being able to brew beer, wine, or other spirits in the first weeks of a SHTF scenario might not be worthwhile, but what about six months to a year after, when the stores are empty and liquor cabinets are dry? Aside from bartering alcohol intended for consumption, there is also the need for higher proof of distilled alcohol for fuel and in medicine to clean wounds and sterilize equipment. You can also barter some of the other good associated from home brewing; I have even used harvested yeast from a batch of beer to make bread. The resulting loaf was just as fluffy and great tasting as any loaf we have baked with regular store-bought baker’s yeast. There are also all the other goods that can be made and bartered that I mentioned in the other categories.

Making Home Brew Basics

At a minimum, there are some basic pieces of equipment you will need for your first batch. I have found that hard cider is a really easy first brew, so I will be using that as an example. For a five gallon batch, the basic equipment (at a minimum) is:

  • Five gallon Carboy or bucket with tight fitting lid that is air tight,
  • Airlock,
  • Fermentables (five gallons of apple cider or apples to turn into cider),
  • Yeast,
  • Hydrometer (not 100% necessary but highly recommended to calculate ABV– alcohol by volume), and
  • Bottles, supplied for final product.

The carboy can be as fancy as a 5-gallon glass carboy made specifically for brewing, a 5-gallon plastic water jug like you can get at the store or have delivered, or even a plastic bucket. Just make sure whatever you use is FOOD GRADE and that you have a tight fitting lid that is airtight.

The airlock is a device to let carbon dioxide out, while not letting air back in. A good airlock is crucial, because once fermentation begins if you let oxygen back into the system you will begin producing acid and making vinegar. You can buy an airlock for a couple of dollars off amazon or your local home brew supply shop, or you can make one. In a pinch, I have used a rubber hose and an old milk jug. Just drill a hole in the lid of your carboy just big enough for the hose to fit and seal around it with caulking or something to prevent leaks. Then put the other end in the milk jug and fill the jug about 1/3 the way up with water so the end of the hose is under water. Now, when the carbon dioxide is produced during fermentation the gas will flow through the hose out the end under water so no oxygen can get back through.

The fermentables in this case will be five gallons of apple cider. The best cider to use is fresh and unfiltered or unpasteurized. If you have to use store bought cider, make sure there is nothing added, since a preservative like sorbate kills yeast. Some people like to use fresh cider that they beat to a simmer to kill off the wild yeast before adding in their yeast. Of all of the batches I have done, I simply took cider directly from the orchard into my carboy, then I pitched my yeast and a few secret spices. I have never had a batch go bad, except the one that I forgot to reattach the airlock to when I checked it after two weeks.

The yeast can be as fancy as you like. I have ordered some rare strains over the Internet and bought some at the local home brew supply for less then $3. I have even known people who have used store-bought bread yeast. If you want your hard cider to turn out as good as it possibly can, then you have to buy cider yeast. Believe me or not, each yeast imparts different sublet flavors in the finished product. I have used ale yeast to make hard cider, and everyone noticed it had a distinctive beer-like smell to it that my other batches did not have. If you are worried about the cost, there are great tutorials on YouTube about how to harvest yeast from your brew to use again. I have done this, and it is easy to do.

The hydrometer is used to measure the specific gravity of the initial cider (before fermentation) and the final hard cider (after fermentation). You can use this to calculate how much alcohol has been produced and to determine when fermentation has actually stopped. They are easy to use and will cost in the area of $10 to $20.

When fermentation is done, you are now ready to transfer it to the final bottle or keg, if you have one. I do both kegging in 5-gallon corney kegs to for carbonate as well as in bottles to naturally carbonate. For bottling you have a decision to make– do you want sparkling hard cider (like a beer) or still hard cider (like a wine). For the sparkling hard cider, I bottle in a used pop top beer bottle, usually the 22 oz. size but the more common 12 oz. also works. For this you will also need new caps and a capper, both available online or at brew stores. You could also use plastic soda bottles with lids, if you wanted; those have the advantage of the squeeze test to see if they are carbonated. If you want still hard cider (which is also good and great for cooking) I use old wine bottles and new “corks” that I buy online.

Making the Home Brew

Making the hard cider is easier then most people think. The first step is making sure everything is clean and sterile. I always wash my carboys with hot soppy water first, followed by a bleach solution, and then several good rinses. Now is also the time to follow the directions on the yeast to get it started; some packs tell you to add the yeast to warm water while some instruct you to smack it to activate it. Next we can focus on the cider. Pour one gallon into a large cooking pot and set it on the stove to heat up, but DO NOT BOIL. Pour the remaining four gallons into the carboy. Put on the cap and set it aside for now. Return the gallon that is on the stove; now is the time to add any seasoning or spices you may like. I will usually add some cinnamon sticks and maybe even a few cloves. You can also add some brown sugar or honey, if you want to add another flavor profile, or you can keep it all natural. Once the cider is heated to a mild simmer, pour it into the carboy with the other four gallons. The main goal here was to increase the temperature of the cider to give the yeast a jumpstart in the cider. Now is a good time to tack your first reading with the hydrometer. Follow the directions that came with your specific hydrometer, and record both the specific gravity (this will be the original gravity– OG) and the potential ABV. Pitch the yeast as long as the temperature of the cider is in the 80 to 90 degree F range. Put on the cap with the airlock, and move the carboy to a dark place. Just a warning– Sometimes fermentation can lead to foaming that will overflow from the airlock, so I always put the carboy in the bath tub for the first 24 hours.

Over the next few days, check on the carboy to make sure your cider is fermenting. There should be bubbles coming up through the airlock at a fairly rapid pace. You can also give the carboy a shake if you want to keep everything well mixed, but it is not necessary. Depending on how much sugar is available for the yeast, fermentation will begin to slow down in anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. The best way is to wait until few if any bubbles are coming up from the airlock; this is a sign no more carbon dioxide is being produced. Now, take another reading with the hydrometer and record the value. DO this again every day for the next two days. If the reading does not change, then fermentation is complete. Keep in mind that anytime you open your carboy to take out a sample air has the potential to get in, so be quick, and above all else, make sure everything is clean to prevent contaminating your cider. Once your specific gravity has stabilized you can calculate the ABV of the final product. On most hydrometers, there are two scales– the specific gravity and the ABV. To determine your ABV, take the first reading minus the second reading, and that is your final ABV. Typically for most hard ciders I have done, they end up in the 8 to 10% ABV. Ciders, like wine, typically have a higher ABV than beer, because fruit has a lot more sugar for the yeast than grain, like barley, will have.

Now comes the time to decided what you want the final product to be. If you put the cider as-is in wine bottles with corks, you will have a great still hard cider, like an apple wine. You can also add a priming sugar and bottle in beer bottles or plastic soda bottles to get a carbonated beer-like hard cider. Depending on the temperature of the cider, how much you are making, and the kind of sugar you are using to carbonate the cider, you will add different amounts. I recommend using the calculator on the website http://www.northernbrewer.com/priming-sugar-calculator/. They are a great resource, and I have used their blog on numerous occasions, as well. The goal of the priming sugar is only to add the carbonation; too little sugar will result in it being flat but too much sugar can make the bottles blow their tops. I usually have good results using 1/3 cup plain white sugar to five gallons of hard cider. Finally, you can also pour the cider into mason jars or other wide mouth jars and cover with cheesecloth or other air permeable material. This will introduce oxygen back into the hard cider; the alcohol will be converted into acetic acid to create apple cider vinegar.

To actually pour the cider from the carboy into the bottles, I prefer to use a hose and then syphon the cider out. Syphoning causes less agitation, so there is less chances of adding in oxygen and disturbing the sediment at the bottom of the tank. The final step, after all of the wonderful cider has been bottled for its intended uses, is to harvest the sediment in the bottom of the carboy. This sediment is a combination of live and dead yeast, pectin from the apples, and other bits of stuff that were in the cider.

Harvesting/washing the yeast is an easy process that will result in collecting live yeast that can be used again. For this, you will need a large 1-gallon glass jar. I use an old pickle jar, with 2/3 to ¾ a gallon of boiled and cooled water. Pour the water from the jar into the carboy and swirl it around until it is all mixed up. Let it sit, so all of the heavy stuff sinks to the bottom– about 10 to 15 minutes. Then pour the liquid into the 1-gallon glass jar, trying to keep all the sediment that has settled out in the carboy. Now let the 1-gallon glass jar rest for another 10 to 15 minutes, until even more of the heavier sediment settles out. The liquid above should be a creamy white color. Pour this creamy colored liquid into sterile pint jars and cap. Put these jars in the fridge over night. In the morning you should have a clear liquid on top that looks a lot like the cider and a creamy white layer on the bottom, which is the live yeast. Leave the yeast as-is in the fridge and it will stay viable for at least a year. I have used yeast that was 13 months old with no problem, but others have told me after 1 year the reliability of the yeast is decreased.

“Non-alcoholic” Options (aka soda). Follow the same steps as before, except that the fermentation is limited to just one or two days to achieve carbonation. At that point, you cold crash the soda to stop continued fermentation. Generally soda will need to be kept cold and consumed with one to two weeks to keep the ABV below 0.5 to 1%. I usually make soda in small batches (one gallon) at a time to prevent the soda from turning to beer in the fridge. Cold temperatures only slows the yeast; it does not stop them 100%. Alton Brown, on his show Good Eats, does a great tutorial for making ginger ale. I even tried his recipe, which was really good. I would highly recommend watching it to anyone who wants to make homemade sodas.

Remember home brewing is about having fun; I have used my brewing as an opportunity to bring together family and friends at brewing BBQs. I invite friends and family for a BBQ and demonstrate how to make homemade beer. It usually helps if you have a batch ready for them to drink as well. I have also taught my son about bacteria, yeast, and contamination through the brewing process, and he has started making his own soda when I brew my beer and cider.