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Thursday, August 27, 2015

Trade Goods: Alcohol

David mentioned precious metal in yesterday's post, and that set off some discussion on our Facebook page about trade goods. As far as precious metals go, I believe that silver is better than gold for the simple fact that most transactions that take place face-to-face are worth less than an ounce of gold. Having a Krugerrand on a chain around your neck might be enough to get you a plane ticket home, but what if all you need is a hot meal and a place to sleep? Making change is easier with silver.

One of the topics that got brought up was trade goods. Food, medicine, clothing, tobacco, and ammunition were all mentioned, but I got a few questions about alcohol. Useful as a fuel, antiseptic, for recreational use, or just as a way to store value, alcohol can be a handy thing to have around. It can be even more handy to know how to make it.

First things first: Fuel alcohol is not and cannot be made safe to drink. Drinking alcohol may be usable as fuel, but it doesn't go the other direction. Fuel alcohol is made using materials and methods that can contaminate it with poisonous chemicals, and by law it then has to be denatured by adding a poisonous substance. Laws like this are written to make sure the “proper” amount of tax is paid on the alcohol, depending on how it is to be used. Fuel alcohol is taxed at a much lower rate than the fun kind.

Drinking Alcohol
Unless you're a moonshiner with a still hidden in the woods, it's cheaper and easier to buy your drinking goods and store them. I don't drink hard liquor, but I keep a few bottles on hand for guests and as potential trade goods. Small bottles fit my needs best, since they take up little space and, like silver, make for good “small denominations” when making change. Even a few of the airline-sized bottles would come in handy for cleaning a wound or trading for small items. This is obviously a “bugging in” or cache item. Every once of weight in a backpack will make itself known once you start to carry it.

Making safe-to-drink alcoholic beverages is an old art that predates science and agriculture and isn't hard -- if bread, water, and fruit can be turned into contraband wine in prisons, how hard can it be? -- but it takes time, equipment, and money. Since 1978, the Federal Government has allowed people the privilege of producing up to 100 gallons of beer or wine per adult per year for personal consumption without paying taxes on it. State laws vary, but at least you don't have to worry about the BATFE as long as you stay under their limits. Drinking alcohol comes in two types, fermented and distilled.

Fermented Alcohol
Beer, wine, cider, and mead are the main fermented forms of alcohol.

Beer is the result of fermentation of cereal grains followed by the addition of hops, which act as a preservative.
  • Since the sugar content of grains is fairly low, and the “malting” process of converting starches to sugars is dependent on the enzymes available, most beer yeasts produce 4-6% alcohol. This is not quite enough alcohol to kill off other microbes, so hops are added as a preservative. 
  • Barley, oats, rice and wheat are the main grains used in making beer around the world. 
  • Simple beer is nothing more than barley, water, yeast and hops. 
  • Beer doesn't store well, and should be consumed within a few months of being made.
Wine is the result of fermentation of fruits.
  • Since the sugar content of fruit is higher than that of grains, it is possible to get a higher alcohol content in wine (generally around 10%), which is high enough to be self-preserving as long as the container stays sealed. 
  • Wine, if properly stored, can last for centuries. 
  • I helped put up 60 gallons of Elderberry wine in recycled liquor bottles (free from a bar) about 40 years ago. As long as the lid sealed tight, the wine is still fit to drink and may have actually improved a bit with age. The ones that didn't seal are pretty nasty.
Cider, or Hard Cider, is fermented apple juice, and usually has an alcohol content around 7%.
  • Often made using wild or native yeast, the taste and quality can vary from batch to batch.
  • Like beer, it doesn't store well.
Mead is fermented honey.
  • Since honey has strong anti-microbial properties, making mead involves a few more steps than making beer or wine. Normally, the addition of nutrients and water is required to allow the activity of the yeast. 
  • Meads run from 8-20% alcohol, and should store at least as well as wine.

Distilled Alcohol
Distillation is the process of removing water from a fermented liquid in order to raise the alcohol content. The main difference between distilling drinking alcohol vs. fuel alcohol is the equipment construction: you cannot use any lead, zinc, or other heavy metals in the construction of a still that is going to produce drinking alcohol, as the metals will leach out into the alcohol and poison the person drinking it. Dead customers don't come back, so save car radiators and galvanized pipe for the fuel still. If you use copper, use only lead-free solder or welds on joints.
  • Distilled drinks include whiskeys, brandies, vodka, schnapps, and other “hard” liquors. 
  • You can take a wine at 10-12 % alcohol and convert it into a brandy at 35% alcohol by distillation. Instructions for home distilling can be found here
  • Hard liquor is useful as as disinfectant, and if the alcohol content is over 60%, it can be used as a fuel in engines and lamps. 
  • At roughly 50% it will hold a flame, which is how moon-shiners tested, or “proofed”, their batches: if it would hold a flame, it was 100 Proof. That's how we got the silly “80 Proof” on the labels of our rum, which is 40% alcohol. (Sorry, the chemist in me detests arbitrary measuring systems, and alcohol production is so old that it is full of arbitrary measuring systems.)

Fuel Alcohol (Ethanol)
In order to make alcohol that will run an internal combustion engine, you'll need to be able to get the alcohol content above 80% and you'll have to make some modifications to the fuel system in order to allow more ethanol into the cylinder. Ethanol (grain alcohol) has about 65% of the energy that gasoline does, so it takes more of it to get the same amount of work out of an engine. On a carbureted engine, increasing the fuel jet size by 30-40% will do it. If you have a newer engine that is fuel injected, you will have to either replace the injectors with ones that will allow more flow or reprogram your cars computer to hold the injectors open longer. The new “Flex Fuel” cars have their computers programmed to run on either gas or ethanol (or any blend of the two).

I've worked on small engines for years, and lawnmowers, chainsaws, motorcycles, etc. don't like ethanol. Ethanol tends to degrade some of the synthetic rubber compounds used in small engine fuel systems, and can also corrode the really cheap alloys used in older carburetor bodies. Two-strokes are a bit more forgiving, due to the oil mixed with the fuel, but you may still have problems feeding them ethanol. Make sure you have parts on hand to repair your small engines if you plan on running a generator or pump on ethanol!

Most of my reference books were written in the 70s and 80s. Back then there was serious concern about “peak oil” and the environmental damage being caused by burning petroleum. Peak oil has been shown to be a myth, and auto makers have made great strides in reducing the pollutants coming out of their cars. The alternative energy push back then laid the groundwork for the ethanol industry we have today, and the research and experimentation is still valid. My main source of information is a loose-bound book printed by the old Mother Earth News (MEN) as a handout for a seminar on home production of fuel ethanol. The book cost $25 in 1980, and I can't find it on their website, so I have to say it is out of print. MEN has gone through several management changes over the years, and they keep coming back to simple, do-it-yourself projects. The late 70s and early 80s were the “prime time” for the magazine; self-sufficiency was a big, new phenomenon that had an eager audience. Most of the information from that era is now available on their website, and I suggest you go there for details and actual plans for building a small-scale ethanol production plant, since I cannot do it justice in a blog post.

Fuel alcohol is taxed and controlled by the federal government, but they have created a “small-scale producer” permit that is fairly easy to obtain. It will allow you to produce up to 5000 gallons of pure alcohol per year, which should be enough for your daily driving.

How To Make It
Making fuel ethanol is fairly simple:
  1. Find a source of sugars or starches, be it grain, fruit, or whatever you have at hand that can contribute sugars. There are special tools that will tell you how much sugar is in a solution (measured in Brix).
  2. Find the enzymes you'll need to break the starches into sugars.“Malting” is simply wetting the grain to allow it to sprout. This releases enzymes that break down the starches for the plant to use. Heating the malted grain stops the sprouting and gets it ready for the yeast. 
  3. Add yeast to start the fermentation. Brewers yeast is best, since it has been bred to be efficient at producing alcohol, but any yeast (even wild yeast floating through the air) will work. 
  4. Keep the yeast happy (manage nutrients, temperature, etc.). This is where you get to control the heat and air. Fermentation is an anaerobic process and must be done in an environment free of oxygen. 
  5. Once the yeast are done converting the sugars to alcohol, run the liquid through a distillation column. Done-ness is normally indicated by the reduction of CO2 being produced by the yeast. Testing the density (specific gravity) of the liquid will tell you how much of it is alcohol. Design of columns is a science, and there are many kits and plans available. A good column will result in 90-95% alcohol, which is good enough to use as fuel. Plans for a 6 inch column can be found here, and it is rated at 6-8 gallons of alcohol per hour. 
  6. Separate the solids for use as high-protein animal feed. You don't lose the grain, just the sugars and starches. It is common to rinse the solids and use the rinsate for the next batch, thereby reusing some of the nutrients. Contrary to claims on the internet, alcohol production does not take grain out of the mouths of children and animals. The Distillers Dry Grain Solids (DDGS) is a great animal feed, and is actually sold to feed-lots and feed producers. Cows, pigs, and chickens love it. 

I didn't give you complete instructions on how to build your own still, nor did I tell you what you need to stock in your larder. That's not my place. I am here to point you towards information and help explain things that some folks may not understand. As always, I welcome questions and comments here and on our Facebook page.

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