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Brewing after the apocalypse

From CNET Magazine: One brewery's quest to keep the beer flowing -- even after the end of civilization.

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Michael Muller

Apocalypse Brew Works isn't your typical boutique brewery. Tucked away in Butchertown, an industrial corridor of Louisville, Kentucky, that's home to the city's meat processing plants, this pint-size watering hole doesn't do cutesy. You won't find mason jar glasses, and don't expect a gift shop with handmade wares.

Instead, the property is surrounded by a rusty barbed-wire fence, and the taproom, known as the "fallout shelter," is made of stacked concrete blocks. The apocalyptic theme is played to the hilt, from the two scrappy rescue cats called Hiro and Saki -- named after the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- that patrol the grounds to the brewery's logo showing a mushroom cloud exploding out of a glass of beer.

But don't be put off by its unassuming, and rather forbidding, exterior. Inside, high-tech gadgetry helps it run a sustainable business, all the while brewing excellent beer.

A recycled brewery

Apocalypse's roof is lined with solar panels and tidy rows of glass tubes resembling organ pipes. Both are integral parts of Apocalypse's solar hot-water system: The solar panels power pumps that carry water from the taproom up to the glass tubes where it is heated with glycol (a heat transfer agent) and cycled back down into the equipment for brewing.

Leah Dienes, a national home brew competition award-winning hobbyist brewer turned Apocalypse owner/partner, says this setup didn't work perfectly in the beginning. "It blew apart like three times because the water was so hot," she tells me. "It [the temperature gauge] went over 300 degrees, so now we heat the water, return it to the storage tanks and cycle it back up onto the roof at night to cool it off."

Apocalypse's solar setup

Chris Monroe/CNET

Dienes and her two founding partners, Bill Krauth and Paul Grignon, also built their brewery with things no one else wanted. The bar is made from reclaimed wood; they repurposed some of their brew equipment from used storage containers; and Dienes snagged their old wood-framed walk-in freezer from someone happy to get rid of it. They even brewed a beer made from local creek water last April.

The plastic cups Apocalypse uses in the tasting room are a more curious touch -- reusable glassware would be a more obvious choice for a business trying to be sustainable -- but they're the result of a deal with the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness to let visitors bring their pets inside. And anyways, the plastic cups are recycled.

But the team doesn't just take; they also give back. Grain left over from brewing, for example, goes to local farms. "Pigs love this stuff. People can eat it, too," Dienes says as she reaches into a pile of grain, tastes it and promptly spits it out. With that glowing endorsement, I grab some too -- it tastes mostly edible, like a mix of cooked and uncooked brown rice with a hint of added sweetness.

Apocalypse Brew Works owner Leah Dienes shows us around.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Saving the Earth and the bottom line

For Dienes, sustainability was more of a financial necessity than a deliberate plan to do good: "To be honest, it's probably sort of a happy accident, although I look for it in my own life," she says. "I'm not going to go be like that one guy on Netflix -- the No Impact Man -- but I'm always thinking about it."

Even so, sustainability isn't an effortless endeavor for Apocalypse. Managing water use is especially difficult. (It takes roughly 4 to over 15 barrels of water for one barrel of beer.) "You have to use water for cooling; you have to use water for brewing, so if you can reclaim some of that water...we try," Dienes says. "I know what we could do on paper, but sometimes it's just not feasible to do it on this level."

Apocalypse Brew Works isn't the only brewery championing resource conservation, recycling and other energy-and-cost-saving efforts. Katie Wallace, assistant director of Sustainability at Fort Collins, Colorado-based New Belgium Brewing Company, says the company's co-founders, Kim Jordan and Jeff Lebesch, focused on sustainability from Day 1, "before they even filled their first beer."

New Belgium employees even gave up profit-sharing checks one year so the company could invest in wind power for their community. "It was a big defining moment for us because it said this isn't just something our founders care about," Wallace says. "This is something every single person who works here cares about."

Saki patrolling the brewery's perimeter.

Chris Monroe/CNET

But Apocalypse and New Belgium are just two of the roughly 4,400 US breweries currently in operation. So, how is the industry handling sustainability as a whole?

Julia Herz, Craft Beer program director at the Brewers Association, says that sustainability is a focus of many small breweries, which make up 99 percent of the US brewing market. "Based on comparable industries for small businesses, small breweries come up a lot for their sustainability efforts," she says. "Any brewery that has their way [is] trying to tackle standard business practices and instead evolve them to smart business practices when it comes to sustainability."

But for Apocalypse at least, there's another benefit to sustainability. And not surprisingly, it's about the end of the world. "When the zombies come and we lock the gates, as long as there's water pressure, we'll have hot water," Dienes says.

Good business strategy, perhaps, but it also helps me decide where I'll run to in the event of a zombie apocalypse. I'll have hot water, two cats and gallons of tasty beer.

This story appears in the fall 2016 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.