Apocalypse Beer: Redefining “Beer”

Amidst all the sometimes-vehement debates surrounding the definition of craft beer, and the arguments about styles, I am absolutely going to be cheeky enough sweep all of that aside as irrelevant and entirely redefine “beer.” Hey, it’s the Apocalypse, it’s a whole new world! And for some background, read the Introduction.

What is “Beer”?

In the early 21st century, “beer” has a rather precise classification among industrialized societies: a carbonated alcoholic beverage (usually less that 10-12% alcohol by volume) made from malted cereal grains (most often malted barley), almost always spiced with hops, and fermented with a specific family of yeast.

A lot of thought and ink has been devoted to defining “beer” and classifying it down into various styles, somewhat by ingredients (“beer” as opposed to “braggot” which is half beer, half honey mead for instance) but more often by appearance and flavor variations, especially subtle ones (pale ale vs. India pale ale vs. bitter for instance). Within these definitions, of course, there is variability: other sugar or starch sources besides grains (such as fruits, processed sugars and syrups, honey, and so on) may be added to supplement the beer at various stages of the brewing process; the beer can be flavored with other herbs and spices in addition to (and sometimes instead of) hops; it may be aged in wooden barrels previously used to age other alcohols; and so on.

Ultimately, these definitions all still agree that beer, at its core, is primarily made from grains and hops and adheres to a certain set of guidelines (and the country of Germany took this definition step further—or narrower—with their Reinheitsgebot purity law which stipulated that beer could legally only consist of malt, hops, water, and yeast).

However, outside of industrialized society, and particularly in the post-apocalyptic world, “made from grains and hops” is far too narrow a definition: we have to assume there will simply be no reliable, convenient sources for grains—particularly malted barley—nor for hops. There will be a limited supply of scavengeable materials (lucky would-be brewers may happen upon the remains of a homebrew supply shop, or a brewery’s storehouse), but such supplies have a limited shelf-life (as it were) and are likely to be consumed quickly. If you are relying on grains and hops to produce Apocalypse Beer, then you will be sadly disappointed.

Thus we need to broaden and redefine our concept of “beer.”

This will require a shift in the way we think about beer, and taking a cue from other cultures can help us here. In the introduction to the chapter on “Sacred Indigenous Beers” in Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers, Stephen Harrod Buhner writes (emphasis mine):

One recurring problem with the discussion of indigenous beers is the the word “beer” is never used within the indigenous cultures themselves. Each sacred fermented beverage has its own, unique name. And anthropologists can’t seem to make up their minds about indigenous fermentations. Some call them “beer”; others call the very same drink “wine” and there seems to be little logic in the decision process. Fermented maple sap is usually called a beer, fermented birch sap may be called either a beer or a wine, fermented palm sap usually a wine and sometimes a beer, and fermented agave cactus sap is usually called just pulque and rarely referred to as either a beer or a wine. I am not sure I have the capacity to solve this linguistic tangle. I think of them all as fermentations and… as beers.

We can find inspiration from various world cultures among the many indigenous beers Buhner covers, which include cactus fruit beers, corn and corn plant beers, manioc beer (manioc is the root from which tapioca is made), banana beer, beers made from various tree saps (palm, maple, birch), various plants and trees, and much more: enlightening examples of how “beer” isn’t necessarily “beer” as we normally think of it.

Accordingly, to brew post-apocalyptically, beggars can’t be choosers: you need to be able to use any source of sugar or starch (“fermentables”) to produce a reasonably drinkable beer, and to adapt to whatever flavoring and adjunct additions you find available. Forget the post-twentieth-century industrial definition of “beer” discussed above: it’s a new world, and anything goes.

Well, almost anything. There is one requirement that I believe all Apocalypse Beer must adhere to: the wort (the unfermented beer) must be boiled.

Why? Primarily for health and sanitation reasons; looking back to the Introduction, recall that beer is almost guaranteed to be much safer than water under unknown conditions, and a major factor in this is the boil. A good rolling boil of the wort for at least 15 minutes will work wonders for your beer, though even just bringing it to a boil for a mere minute is sufficient to kill pathogens, parasites, bacteria, and viruses. (Boiling water will also cause calcium carbonate to precipitate out of “hard” water, and help break down other contaminants that might be present.)

Secondary issues regarding the boil are related to the brewing process itself and will be covered in depth later, but suffice to say boiling the wort will help develop additional desirable flavors (and colors), as well as yield the maximum benefits from spices, herbs, and other additions you’ve made to the beer.

So with that stipulation, let’s (re)define “beer”:

An alcoholic beverage made from any starch or sugar source that is boiled and fermented with yeast.

That’s it. Simplicity. We will make no assumptions about what ingredients will be available, what equipment we’ll have to brew it with, who’s going to be drinking it, and we certainly won’t argue about “styles”—but that beer absolutely better have been boiled.

Within this new definition we have a lot of flexibility in our Apocalypse Beer:

  • Any viable sugar source can be used (assuming you can extract the sugars).
  • Hops (if you can find them), spices, herbs, or any similar additions are optional but not strictly necessary.
  • The final brew may or may not be carbonated.
  • Depending on the yeast used, as well as the amount of sugars in the wort, it may range in alcohol content from almost none to very high (15-20% by volume is the likely upper end).
  • It can be aged or young, and stored in any viable, non-contaminating vessel.

This new definition is remarkably freeing: we’re not limited to malted grains, hops, and a particular yeast strain when we brew anymore. But at the same time, it is also surprisingly constraining: “traditional” brewing adheres to a known and very well-documented series of steps on how to get the optimum desired result, and those aren’t available to us anymore.

In other words, now that we’ve redefined “beer”, now we have to reinvent it.

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