Sons of the moonshiners talk biofuel

Future Tense for Jun. 4, 2007

By Steve Welker

Last week’s column about making ethanol into auto fuel brought an outpouring of information, tall tales and low humor from more than a handful (probably how their wives describe them, too) of men who, though they’re spread across northwest North Carolina and southwest Virginia, all seem to have the same father.

Mr. No-Last-Name’s “sons” include Harve, Chick, Bobby, Hiram, Jimmy, Nack (sp?) and Darko in North Carolina. I also heard from some Virginians with foreign-sounding names, such as Billy d’ Oth’rside-o’-Lambsburg and Bill — “I’ve already got one Bill. How do I identify you?” — von Stuart d’or Franklin.

E-mails, letters and two phone calls led to some enlightening conversations about ‘shine. I admitted I know little about moonshining; today, I’m ready to sprout some barley, grind some corn, lay in a stock of sugar, order my Turbo yeast and buy a few cases of Mason jars. They should teach this stuff on the Food Network, TLC or The History Channel. It’s science in a still, fermentation in a forest, history in a hollow.

Forgive me for mentioning things you already may know, but I learned how to tell good moonshine from bad. Light it and white lightnin’ burns blue. Yellow signals impurities. And “red and you’re dead,” because the liquor contains lead.

I have heard the relative merits of filtering distillate through crushed coal; oak, hickory and cornstalk charcoal; and Brita water filters. We use Brita-filtered water at home for making sun tea. Nack says I can recharge one after 10 uses by running boiling water through it. Handy to know, considering how much the things cost.

Speaking of cost, no one of the above gentlemen believes many people will make moonshine for auto fuel unless the price of gas goes sky high, though a couple admitted “the old boys” sometimes poured stuff too foul to drink into their gas tanks, rather than waste it.

“Say what you will, moonshiners weren’t lazy,” I was told. “Making ’shine was hard work — cutting wood, grinding corn, hauling water, stirring and tending the wash” — he said “wash,” not “mash;” maybe it’s a Virginia thing — “and everything else. It was hard work, long hours, dangerous, too, if you got sloppy. Never mind being caught. A lot of moonshiners didn’t make corn liquor because they liked doing it. They made it because they needed money and corn was worth more in the bottle than the bin.”

Several people mentioned seeing an article about Dogwood Energy and one sent a copy of the story by Bill Poovey of The Associated Press in Tennessee.

Dogwood Energy in Tullahoma, Tenn., makes stills that produce 190 proof grain alcohol (ethanol) out of fermented starches from corn, rye or barley or sugars from apples, other fruits and sugar cane. Buyers need a federal permit and must denature the alcohol so no one can drink it.

The company started out pelletizing fuel for wood stoves, but its resident inventor and mechanic, Bill Sasher, designed a still that caught people’s attention because it cooks the mash at precisely the right temperature — something my local sources said is crucial in making good corn liqour. Dogwood Energy has added 10 employees to make the devices and can’t keep up with demand that’s grown rapidly since September. Small businesses and thrifty individuals currently have 45 on back-order.

According to Poovey, “A bushel of the fermented starch crop, mixed with yeast, water and sugar, and allowed to sit for about 2.5 days, then strained and heated to boiling, makes about 2.6 gallons of ethanol, which is then added to gasoline to produce a blended fuel.

“Dogwood Energy says it costs about 75 cents per gallon to make ethanol at home. Adding 15 percent ethanol to $3 gasoline reduces the cost of a fill-up to $2.40 per gallon. A blend with 85 percent ethanol cuts the cost to $1.09 for a blended gallon....

“Sasher’s stills, which stand about 6 feet tall and easily fit in an airy garage corner, sell for about $1,400 each. Blueprints each sell for about $45 and buyers who are good salvagers can build themselves for less than $1,000.”

(Note to my boss: One buyer is a newspaper in Dublin, Ga, that ordered a Dogwood still to help offset delivery costs.)

Sasher told Poovey that any modern-day car can run on a mixture of 15 percent ethanol and 85 percent gasoline and claims most vehicle engines can use blends of up to 25 percent ethanol without modification.

His daughter said most of Dogwood’s customers go to the gas pump “fill up 80 percent full and fill up the rest with alcohol.”

Poovey asked the American Petroleum Institute, which represents the oil industry, about mixing ethanol with gasoline. A spokesman said API favors use of ethanol to reduce dependence on oil, but questions the wisdom of mixing it yourself.

“Normally when people fill up with gasoline with ethanol in it, it is blended by professionals,” API spokesman Bill Bush said. “If we are talking about doing something other than that, by people who don’t normally blend their own gasoline, that raises safety considerations.”

Poovey’s sources, like mine, don’t expect many people to make alcohol for personal use in their vehicles.

“The only ethanol I know being made at home is still the beverage,” a spokesman for the Renewable Fuels Association told Poovey.

But then again, no one who contacted me admitted making any moonshine, despite their ever-clear descriptions of how it’s done. Perhaps they don’t; perhaps they did; possibly they do.

At least they’re preserving knowledge someone may tap to fuel my Ford ... in the future.


On the Web: Dogwood Energy:

Renewable Fuels Association:

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