In many homebrewing books there is often an early chapter that covers the very basics of brewing your first batch of beer, guiding you through the process and fully explaining each step. That’s what this is: a step-by-step guide to brewing your first batch of Apocalypse Beer, starting with the simplest possible recipe: Sugar Beer.
While the essence of fermentation is in fact the conversion of all kinds of sugars into alcohol by yeast, in this case “Sugar Beer” means exactly what it sounds like with just three ingredients: white table (or cane) sugar, water, and yeast. I’ve picked this as the “simplest possible” recipe for several reasons:
- It’s the most basic, straightforward way of introducing you to the concepts of brewing and fermentation;
- Plain white sugar should be fairly easy to scavenge/hoard in a post-apocalyptic setting;
- There are no complicated steps involved in extracting the sugars from a primarily non-sugar source—all the work has been done for you (unless, of course, you have to “extract the sugar” from a rival warring tribe);
- There is a drink in Finland named “kilju” (“sugar wine”) which is essentially the same recipe and thus provided a basis for this one (although kilju not boiled, and the strength of kilju as described will be stronger than the recipe below).
The recipe presented here is for a one-gallon batch of beer; to make more you will be able to scale it up proportionally.
To begin with, let’s go over the minimum equipment you will need to brew your Sugar Beer.
- Heat source. You need to be able to bring the pre-beer (called wort) to a boil, which calls for heat: this can be a campfire, stove, propane burner, or whatever else you can manage.
- Large pot or kettle. For a one-gallon batch of beer I recommend an eight quart (two gallon) capacity, if you can manage it; six quarts will do in a pinch. This needs to be a container that will be placed on or above direct heat to bring liquid to boiling, and if you’re worried about long-term health effects, probably shouldn’t be aluminum (but beggars can’t be choosers).
- Long-handled spoon or similar stirrer. This could be something as simple as a stick if you have nothing else (just be sure it’s clean)—basically you just need something to stir your pot full of liquid.
- Fermenting vessel. This is the container that will hold the fermenting beer, and ideally you will have some way to cover it (a lid or even, if necessary, a clean bit of cloth stretched over the opening) or even seal it with an airlock (basically, to allow the excess carbon dioxide gas produced by the yeast to escape without letting anything back in). This must be large enough to hold the full amount of beer plus some extra space if possible: think six quarts for a gallon of beer (though if you only have a one gallon container, that will do). Some possible options are:
- Glass jug: old gallon-sized juice jugs work well
- Plastic bucket with lid (food grade if possible, one that hasn’t otherwise held poisonous or toxic substances)
- Plastic milk jug: the gallon-sized kind with the screw cap and handle (make sure it’s clean with nothing funky growing in it)
- Crock: large ceramic or stoneware container; if you’re very lucky you might even find one specific for fermentation
- Plastic water jugs: the kind that fit office water coolers, or the portable camping variety
- Boiling pot: technically nothing says you can’t ferment directly in the pot or kettle you boiled in
- Bottles or jars. You need to store the beer after it’s done fermenting which calls for clean containers with reusable caps or lids. You don’t have to be constrained to a size; clean plastic gallon milk jugs would work well if that’s what you have. Other possibilities include: plastic soda pop or energy drink bottles; mason jars; sport water bottles; beer bottles (if you have unused caps and a capper); wine bottles (you could fashion makeshift corks); empty food containers (ketchup bottles, pickle jars, vinegar bottles, and so on).
- Funnel or plastic tubing. You need some way to transfer the beer to the fermenter from the pot (if the fermenter has a narrow opening), and then from the fermenter to the bottles (or jars), and minimize any spillage. A funnel will work fine, clean plastic tubing (to siphon the beer from one container to another) will work better.
- 1 gallon of water. This needs to be filtered and/or purified before being used to brew beer; while boiling during the brewing process will kill any stray microorganisms and make it safe to drink, it’s no substitution for filter or treating for chemicals, radioactivity, mud, etc.
- 1 pound of white sugar. Primarily I am thinking of white cane sugar: the most common form of processed sugar that could be found on grocery store shelves. Being the “most common” could mean it’s easy to scavenge from looted or decrepit stores, but then again every other survivor might have had the same idea, so you may need to hoard now or barter later. And you may find it in other forms if not in bulk:
- Sugar cubes: these weigh approximately 3 grams (or about 0.0066 pounds), which means you would need about 151 sugar cubes to equal 1 pound.
- Sugar packets: the small paper packets that you would typically find in a restaurant to add to coffee or tea; in the United States these contains between 2 and 4 grams of sugar, so the same calculation as above for sugar cubes would apply—i.e., about 151 sugar packets will equal one pound.
- In bulk, since I doubt there will be a scale handy, 1 pound of sugar equals approximately 2¼ cups.
- Yeast. For simplicity’s sake, this recipe will call for baker’s yeast—the pre-packaged variety most stores would carry that is specifically called “active dry yeast” and would be in either small jars or individual foil packets. Like sugar, this will hopefully be scavengeable, otherwise stock up when you can or find alternatives.
- If you can find a homebrew supply store, you may be able to find yeast specific to brewing or winemaking, often packaged in both dry and liquid cultures. Since the liquid cultures require refrigeration, look for the dry packets (similar to the foil packets of active dry baker’s yeast) and grab as much as you can.
- Are you on good terms with a baker? See if you can barter with them for some fresh yeast.
- There are of course wild yeasts in abundance in nature, and though details on culturing and propagating wild yeasts for brewing will be covered later, in the short term you could prepare a culture in a similar method to creating a sourdough starter.
Step by Step
- Fill your boiling pot with one gallon of water and place it on the heat.
- Stir in the sugar as the water warms, until the sugar dissolves completely.
- Continue to stir periodically as you bring the mixture (known as the wort) up to a boil.
- In the case of our Sugar Beer we only need the wort to come to a boil (it should be a full boil, not just a simmer) and then we can remove it from the heat—remember, simply bringing a liquid to a boil is enough to kill any pathogens, you don’t have to boil it for a longer period of time. Of course, when you add more ingredients and components to your beer, you may want or need to boil it longer to extract the desired characteristics from those ingredients; but in the case of this Sugar Beer only sugar and water are present and neither benefits from an extended boil.
- Once the boil is achieved, remove the pot from the heat.
- You must allow the wort to cool before adding (“pitching”) your yeast, otherwise you will kill the yeast. The simplest method is to place a lid on the pot, set it out of the way and let it cool on its own. However, the quicker you can cool it down the better, as other organisms (bacteria, other wild yeasts) will have a greater chance of infecting the beer the longer it sits. There are several ways you can speed up the cooling process, including:
- Place the pot in a cold water bath (a shallower tub or pan filled with cold water, and ice if you have it)
- If there is a running stream or creek nearby, place the pot in a shallow part of the water (you don’t want to submerge it, after all, and let more water in), in the current if possible
- Place the bot into a snowbank (if convenient)
- Alternatively, you could have pre-boiled a half gallon of water by itself to sterilize it, let it cool (this can be done overnight), and then boil the other half gallon of water with the sugar; then add the hot wort to the rest of the cool water to bring it up to a gallon
- If possible, re-hydrate the yeast in a half cup or so of warm water. This only applies to dried yeast, obviously, such as packets brewing or baking yeast or the jars of backing yeast—they look like granules, and you simply need to add about 1 tablespoon (or the entire packet) to the water. The granules will absorb the water and expand, and start looking blob-like.
- Pre-apocalypse, it was common brewing knowledge that the “ideal” temperature to pitch your yeast was between, say 55 and 75 degree Fahrenheit. Post-apocalypse, this is great if you have a thermometer to measure the actual temperature of the wort; however we can’t count on one being available so we need some other gauges to tell us what a good pitching temperature would be. We’ll cover that in more detail later but for now you can roughly tell by feel:
- “Blood warm”: the method used to gauge if a warmed baby bottle full of milk was just right—dabble a little on your inner wrist. If it is comfortably warm, not scalding, then it’s safe to pitch the yeast. Unless you have nerve damage this should be a fairly intuitive method, and I’d consider it the upper end of the temperature scale (i.e., never pitch if the wort is hotter than this).
- Likewise if the wort (or the pot) is cool to the touch, but not cold, then you can probably consider this a safe lower end to the scale and pitch accordingly. If the wort is too cold, it won’t kill the yeast but they may stay dormant or sluggish and not ferment as expected.
- Transfer the wort to your fermenter. Take care not to spill any!
- Pitch (add) the yeast into the wort in the fermenter.
- Cover the fermenter with lid if possible, or cloth if necessary, or if possible seal it up with an airlock.
- Now the waiting begins. Fermentation can begin anywhere from several hours to 24 hours, and depending on the type of container and cover or airlock your fermenter is, you may see visible activity of fermentation in process: bubbles of gas escaping the airlock, fizzy bubbles rising and breaking on the top of the fermenting beer, perhaps even some foam on the top.
- Unless it’s very warm where you are, which would speed up this process, it’s likely going to take several days for the fermentation to finish; anywhere from 2 to 7 days is acceptable. When the observed fermentation activity from the previous step has subsided, it’s likely complete; most or all of the yeast will have collected on the bottom of the fermenter, and you can focus on bottling.
- If you want to carbonate the beer in the bottles, keep in mind there may still be enough residual sugars to do so: the remaining yeast in the beer that makes it to the bottles will consume those remaining sugars and produce carbon dioxide which causes the beer to be carbonated—fizzy. If you’re not worried about carbonating it, that’s fine, however you can initiate this as well to make sure the beer gets fizzy:
- You will mix a measured about of sugar water into the beer at bottling time. The ideal way of doing this is to mix a small amount of sugar in a half cup of water, bring it to a boil if possible (and cool it down!), and add that to the beer. For this one gallon of beer, you should use only 2 tablespoons of sugar for this.
- If you have some plastic tubing or hose, the bottling process will go easier, but if not then you will definitely need a funnel. In either case the goal is to transfer the beer from the fermenter to the bottles and leave as much of the “trub” behind (the yeast that dropped to the bottom) as possible.
- With tubing you can siphon the beer from the fermenter directly into your bottles or containers; there’s a decent possibility that you’ve been siphoning fuel from abandoned cars so ideally you should be familiar with it. You can carefully siphon the beer directly from the fermenter to the bottles—it will take some practice to not overfill and minimize spills.
- If you only have the funnel option, you will first want to pour the beer from the fermenter to another container (your boiling pot will work just fine), taking care to not disturb the trub in the bottom as much as possible. Then, from the new container, carefully pour the beer into the bottles using your funnel, taking care not to overfill and slop the beer.
- If you are mixing sugar into the beer to carbonate as described in step 14 above, you should transfer the beer to the container mentioned just above regardless if you’re using the siphoning or funneling technique, and then add the sugar water to mix it with the beer. This will yield more consistent carbonation among the bottles than trying to add on a per-bottle basis. (Which is viable, but not always as effective.)
- Seal up the bottles using caps, lids, corks, or whatever you are using.
- If you’re not waiting for carbonation to form, the beer is drinkable now. If you are waiting for the beer to become carbonated, you will have to wait up to a week or two before drinking.
And there you are—you have brewed your first batch of beer! What you will likely find with this Sugar Beer is that the finished product has a “cidery” character to it: similar to apple cider fruitiness. (This is somewhat particular to how white sugar by itself ferments.) It may also be sweet and yeasty and will be fairly “thin” in mouthfeel—how it feels in your mouth, on your tongue.
Some numbers (don’t worry, these numbers will mean more to you as you progress): 1 pound of cane sugar in water has a specific gravity of 1.046, which means on a practical level you will likely end up with a beer that has an alcohol content of anywhere from 3 to 5.5% by volume. For higher levels of alcohol, you can increase the amount of sugar per gallon, but one thing to keep in mind is that yeast will only work up to a certain point (potentially an upper limit of 10-18% alcohol by volume).
Remember, this is the most basic beer recipe possible that we’ve started with, and it’s a fairly blank canvas; start thinking about ways you could add to this recipe. What about adding herbs, spices, fruits, berries, other sources of sugars like molasses or honey? In fact many old beer recipes follow this very pattern, of using plain sugar as the fermentable base and adding other ingredients for their particular character, or flavor, nutritive, and/or medicinal qualities. We’ll be covering all these in detail later.
And of course, you may not have easy (or any) access to sugar by itself; in that case, you will need to know how to extract the sugars from other sources—essentially, because fermentation requires sugar, we’ll figure out how to ferment (almost) anything, and will cover all manner of these “fermentables” in detail later as well.
Finally, start thinking about equipment. The list outlined above covers the bare essentials you’ll need to brew beer, but there is other additional equipment that will be helpful if not essential in making the brewing process easier and the beer better. We will (of course!) be covering equipment in detail as well—and if necessary ideas on how to improvise and/or build your own with whatever materials you have on hand (given that brewing equipment may not be available in the post-apocalyptic world).
In the meantime, cheers to your first beer!