So the shambling horde is pounding at your door and the TV newscaster is telling you that you must destroy their brains to stop them. The zombie apocalypse is here and you just sit back and smile. Everything is going to be fine — I can brew my own beer.
Can you though? You do know that your malt (or most extract) will be stale in about 8 months, right? The hops in your freezer will lose their bitterness and, unless you have a generator to keep them frozen, they will become cheesy. (Even if you do have a generator, the gas used to power it will gel in a few years.) Those liquid yeast cultures won’t last forever, either. Unless this is the sort of zombie apocalypse in which your local homebrew shop stays open and stocked, you may need an extended guide to brewing in the zombie apocalypse. This is that guide.
Location, Location, Location
First of all, pack your bags. Unless you live where barley and hops grow, you’re moving. Specifically, your moving to somewhere near 45° latitude, north or south. Around 45° latitude, barley and hops thrive, and you’re still close enough to the equator to grow enough other crops for food. In addition, cool springs and falls will let you brew without needing active temperature control. Dig or find a root cellar, and you may be able to brew year round. Probably your best bet to knowing where barley grows is to find an actual barley farm and camp there. If a crop is still in the field, you’ve got barley to malt and seeds for next season.
Municipal water sources will be depleted quickly, so hopefully the farm you occupy will have a hand-pumped well. If not, you’ll need to find a source of clean surface water nearby. You should know what the water is like in likely relocation sites before you head there, so the water matches the types of beer you most enjoy. If you live in the US, keep in mind that iron can be found in many sources in the eastern half of the country. This will ruin your beer, even at levels below which you can taste it. Scouting for a source of quality brewing water may occupy a few weeks of your time once you arrive at the right latitude.
Many of the minerals used to treat brewing liquor can be found in everyday items. For example, many antacids — such as Tums — are made primarily from chalk and can be used as a source of calcium carbonate. Read the label, though, as most contain other ingredients that may (or may not, at the quantities involved) affect your beer. Ironically, if you find some blackboard chalk, you may think you’ve found a nice source of chalk (calcium carbonate). However, today most “chalk” is made from calcium sulfate. This, of course, could be useful. And speaking of calcium sulfate, you potentially have a nearly endless supply all around you during the zombie apocalypse — drywall. Drywall is mostly gypsum, heated and pressed between two sheets of paper. Unfortunately, it is typically treated with various fibers, plasticizers, and mold inhibitors. You may want to experiment with dissolving the drywall, then letting it dry and crystalize to try to purify it somewhat. (Unless you’re going nuts with it, the additives might not do much. And, not to put too much of a point to it, but it’s the zombie apocalypse. Maybe you’d prefer to die from a nice, crisp, hoppy IPA.) Some moisture absorbers (such as Damp Rid) are mostly or entirely calcium chloride. Read the label. One sure bet is baking soda — if you need calcium bicarbonate, that’s what baking soda is.
The equipment and tools you brew with can be divided into two categories, permanent and temporary. Things like stainless steel vessels are permanent, and shouldn’t be hard to scrounge up. Other things, like tygon tubing and bottle caps need to be replaced on a regular basis. In the zombie apocalypse, the things that need replacing will be the problem. Arguably, the things that will be worth their weight in gold will be pressure vessels — bottles or kegs to hold the beer. You can perhaps use bottle caps a couple times if you’re careful, but eventually they will wear out. One solution is to find a cache of swingtop bottles. Although the rubber grommet on these won’t last forever, I’ve aged sour beers in swingtop bottles for over a decade and they still held pressure. Also, keep in mind that any glass bottle with a screw top could be used a pressure vessel. However, be aware that neither the bottle nor the cap may be able to sustain very much pressure; so use caution and keep potential bursting bottles where they can rupture safely.
Before the dead rise, it would be a good idea to assemble a portable brewing kit to bring with you. Keep in mind that batteries don’t last forever, so pack mechanical, “old school” equipment — liquid-enclosed thermometers instead of electronic ones, for example — for your journey. Your kit should also include a couple hop rhizomes, at least a couple pounds of fresh barley seed, and a few packets of dried yeast with an expiration date far in the future.
You’ll Need to Build a “Pizza” Oven
Growing barley is fairly easy. However, in order to be used for brewing, it must be malted. Malting is not overly complicated. Mostly, it involves steeping the barley seed in water, then draining the water away, and repeating a few times until the seeds sprout. Then, the grain is dried and the rootlets are removed. Finally, the malt is kilned. That last step is going to require that you build some sort of oven. Aside from assembling your brewhouse, this will be your biggest brewing project in the zombie apocalypse. Note that the oven you build can also serve as an oast (an oven that hops are dried in). Your best bet here is to go online and look at designs for wood-fired pizza ovens. If you understand how these work, you can easily construct your combination malt kiln and hop oast along similar principles.
Actually brewing in the zombie apocalypse should be very familiar. There will likely be some minor differences — for example, once the propane runs out, you’ll probably be heating your hot liquor tank and kettle over a hardwood fire. In the grand scheme of things, however, that will be a simple adjustment. Once you’re using your own home made malt, you’ll probably want to switch to decoction mashing. This is a good way to deal with malt that is likely to be modified to a varying extent. Other than that, brewing is brewing.
You should enter the zombie apocalypse with some dried yeast on hand. You will need to propagate this yeast until the crisis is over — or you’re torn limb from limb by ravenous ghouls. If you brew at least every few weeks, you can use the yeast from one batch to pitch the next. Keeping a few bottles from batches that turned out well will help if your yeast becomes contaminated. Just culture the good yeast from an old bottle and work from there. Obviously, cleanliness and sanitation will be very important. Heat is a very effective sanitizer, but you should read up on detergents and how they can be made from scratch. (It never hurts to learn how to make soap. either. Not so much for the beer, but in case you ever have guests.)
You can plan to succeed in the zombie apocalypse. You can grow hops at your house and barley in your garden, just for the experience . . . and a source of rhizomes and seed. Malt some home-grown barley each year for practice. Build a wood-fired pizza oven in you backyard. Do some brewdays in which you rely as little as possible on things that will be gone in the zombie apocalypse. That way, when the dead rise, you’ll be ready.