The Care and Feeding of Great Artisan Vinegar

The Art of Artisan Vinegar – Part I

by Eliza Ward

I’m in the fortunate position of getting to try new foods frequently. Sometimes I’m blown away and sometimes I’m disappointed. I guess it goes with the territory. But there are some things – like real balsamic vinegar and good artisan-produced wine vinegar – that never cease to intrigue and amaze me.

Vinegar is a unique creature of its own – it’s usually the result of multiple fermentations – all of which can result in something delicious in its own right. Not to mention that food wouldn’t be nearly as interesting without bacterial fermentation (Imagine life without salami, cheese, wine?), which is why it’s worth it to take a closer look every now and again and see what it is that we are eating. But that’s a bigger topic – now back to vinegar…

Because real vinegar takes time

If you have ever had the chance to try a true traditional balsamic, you would know that that impostor often found on super-market shelves is a far cry from the real stuff. The traditional Balsamic is smooth and sweet, deep and rich, and has just enough acid to tickle the tongue and make your mouth salivate for more; there is no comparison! But what’s the big difference, really?

Well, bear with me, and I’ll explain …

Making delicious vinegar is both a deceptively simple AND deceptively complex process – both at the same time. Simply put, vinegar is a composition of acetic acid and water – simple enough, right? Perhaps you’ve experienced this simple process on an occasion or two when your lovely bottle of wine was left out for a few too many days on the kitchen counter, and it turns to vinegar….? But, if you ever ventured to taste your table-top vinegar, you’d know that there is a big difference between that, and those tasty vinegars produced by experienced producers.

In fact, if you have ever compared commercially-produced vinegar with small-batch, artisan-produced vinegar, you know that how the vinegar is made, which raw ingredients are used, how much time and effort are focused on making everything happen just right, and how the vinegar is aged and in what, drastically changes the taste and quality of the end product. So let’s take a closer look…

Anything that can ferment into alcohol can become vinegar: fruits (grapes, apples, pears, … this list goes on and on…), grains (rice, barley, malt), tubers (potatoes) – you name it. The basic process is this: sugars are fermented into ethanol (alcohol) with the help of added natural or artificial (anaerobic) yeasts, and then acetic acid is produced through the fermentation of ethanol into acetic acid by (aerobic) bacteria called acetobacter. The acetobacter is called a bacterial ‘mother,’ or the starter bacteria – sort of like a sour dough starter or kombucha tea – because it’s what initiates the fermentation process. If you have ever seen a murky cloudiness growing at the bottom of your vinegar bottle – that’s the ‘mother’.


A quick note about mothers

I think we can all agree that ‘mothers‘ are good – just ask Bragg apple cider vinegar users. Commercial wine vinegar producers always filter the mother out of their vinegar before the product is bottled – not good. The main reasons are because Americans in particular get a little queasy about seeing a mother floating around in their vinegar bottle – they think it has gone moldy – so filtering out the mother looks better. But also, if the vinegar is not pasteurized and the mother is still alive, the mother will continue to convert any residual alcohol (most vinegars still contain .5-1% ethanol) left in the vinegar to acidic acid, making the vinegar more acidic over time – because a mother’s work is never done! So, filtering out the mother leads to a “cleaner” looking, more shelf-stable, and consistent-tasting product – sort of like a McDonald’s hamburgers, you know exactly how it’s going to taste … Most unfortunate, really.

Artisan producers sometimes filter the mother away, and sometimes they don’t. The mother won’t hurt you – in fact, it’s a pro-biotic and very healthy for you – but many producers prefer a clean looking product – and so do their customers, as noted above. Some producers are also concerned that other vinegar producers will “steal” their ‘mother’ if they leave it in the bottle for anyone to buy. The mother starter is part of what contributes to the vinegar’s unique flavor, and therefore it’s considered a proprietary vinegar ingredient – the vinegar producer’s “secret sauce”, as it were. 

The conversion of ethanol into acetic acid can be a quick process when forced, but traditionally it’s not, and nor should it be; allowing the vinegar to ferment naturally over a longer period of time results in a deeper, smoother, and more complex flavor – especially if that aging process takes place in wood barrels, as described in the next article about the Solera method and Orlean method of vinegar fermentation and aging. Depending on the method and desired quality, the production of good vinegar should take months, if not decades – because real food takes time – always.


About shelf-stability and storage

Although vinegars do not technically “go bad” with time, they do change once opened and exposed to air. The mother in un-filtered vinegars will not only grow and get “bigger”, but the flavor of the vinegar will slowly change – usually becoming more acidic as the residual alcohol continues to be converted to acidic acid. Although the increase in mother size can be a little disconcerting, it’s not a bad or dangerous. But, if you desire consistency, store your vinegar in the refrigerator. Cooler temperatures will slow the mother’s growth, and help ensure a consistent acidity and flavor over time.

Click here to see our selection of Artisan Wine Vinegars

Click here to see our selection of Traditional Balsamic Vinegars

Click here to read: Art of Artisan Vinegar Part II

(c), 2021