The secret ingredient in the best homemade vinegar we've ever made? Beer. —INGRAIN, Winter/Spring 2020
Why did it take everyone so long to get (back) into the ancient art of making vinegar? Well, glad you finally made it to the party. Now on to our favorite base for making live vinegars brimming with active cultures and layered flavors: BEER.
Live vinegars, or those that have not been heated or processed after fermentation, retain active microbes that some folks say are good for us. You can make one with almost any alcohol or liquid with residual sugars (fresh fruit juice, honey-infused water).
We like to start with a well-made beer with qualities that mimic the vinegar profile we’re aiming to create. A yeasty, Champagne-like farmhouse ale; an earthy, nuanced porter; maybe a bracing and fruity sour? Or throw caution aside and try a bold, in-your-face, no-excuses barrel-aged stout in with that vinegar mother and see what happens.
CALL YOUR MOTHER!
In theory, you can make vinegar, or acetic acid, from scratch simply by including a little live, unfiltered vinegar with your base liquid and letting nature work its course. (Most commercial vinegar is processed and won’t work; Bragg’s Organic Apple Cider Vinegar is a good-quality, widely available option.) Simply exposing the base liquid to oxygen can cause the growth of Acetobacter bacteria; these little guys do all the hard work by consuming any available sugars and converting the liquid into acetic acid. Those tiny fruit flies zooming in and out of the jar also encourage good bacteria growth. BUT the process isn’t foolproof.
With a live vinegar mother, your chances of making a great batch of vinegar skyrockets. Any vinegar mother will work, but darker red wine versions will also make your vinegar darker in color (do we really care?). If that bothers you, go with white wine or our favorite, a cider vinegar mother. Aim for a large mother; we’ve had good luck with those sold by Cottage Lane, so you can cut the mother in half to make two batches at once. Each should grow substantially and cover the surface area of your jar.
And remember, the mother is like sourdough starter: It’s meant to be reused—and shared with friends—after each batch. The squishy, slippery orbs need to be covered with enough active vinegar to stay alive, which is how they are stored and sold.
Raw organic apple cider vinegar with mother (Cottage Lane), $14.95
A yeasty, Belgian-style farmhouse ale with citrusy notes like Goose Island Sofie (barrel-aged with fresh orange peel) will produce a lighter, brighter vinegar.
A jammy, fruit-aged wild ale like Juliet (wine barrel-aged with fresh blackberries for up to twelve months) or Lolita (tart Michigan cherries/up to eight months) will produce a richer, more nuanced fruit-forward vinegar.
Even a dark ale or stout like Guinness works; you’ll get a rich, brown vinegar with vanilla, oaky, or even smoky qualities, depending on the beer you choose.
And let’s not forget cider, a traditional beverage category that has recently been revitalized by craft producers using only the best heirloom apples. A dry cider like Virtue Cider’s Brut (aged in French oak barrels) will lean toward the white wine vinegar realm, while those on the sweeter side (think Virtue Cider Michigan Honey, a tribute to the bees that local apple farmers rely on to pollinate their trees) will exhibit characteristics more akin to a fruit vinegar.
One beer style to avoid is a heavily hopped IPA or DIPA (Double IPA); the bitterness in hops that makes it so appealing in a beer becomes overpowering during the vinegar-aging process.
Beer, about 50 ounces per batch
Sugar, as needed
Large vinegar mother, halved if large (to make 2 batches)
Citrus peel, fresh fruit, or spices, as desired
½ gallon wide-mouth jars
2 750ml (25.4 ounces) bottles Juliet + fresh blackberries + ¼ cup sugar
4 12-ounce bottles Sofie + zest ½ orange + ¼ cup sugar
4 12-ounce bottles Virtue Michigan Honey cider
2 500ml (16.9 ounces) bottles Bourbon County Stout*
*If you want to toss more bottles of BCS into a vinegar jar, go for it. But we’re saving at least 1 bottle from last year’s Vertical Pack for ourselves.
1. FIND A GOOD MOTHER AND CHOOSE YOUR BEER BASE. Grab a mother, or mycoderma aceti, from an old batch, ask a friend, or order one. What style of beer are you feeling like today? (Read: What’s in your fridge?)
–Consider including complementary flavor additions to the beer base.
Citrus zest (a few strips of fresh orange peel with Sofie)
Fresh fruit (fresh blackberries or cherries with Juliet or Lolita)
Spices (star anise with a stout)
Any can bring out even more of the beer’s best qualities.
2. PUT EVERYTHING INTO A NON-METALLIC CONTAINER WITH A LARGE SURFACE AREA. Wide-mouth glass or plastic jars work well and are typically inexpensive. Oxygen needs to reach the liquid, so forgo the lid; use a kitchen towel secured with a rubber band.
–A little sugar goes a long way. We sometimes add a small amount of granulated sugar (about ¼ cup) to jump-start the process. Beers that are already on the sweeter side, like a barrel-aged stout and most ciders, typically do not need more sugar; a farmhouse ale or lager, though, we tend to sweeten up a bit.
3. STORE FERMENTING VINEGAR IN A MODERATELY TEMPERATE PLACE. Enlist the Goldilocks principle: not too hot and not too cold but just right. A batch we left out one summer in our kitchen window went way, way too far to the dark side (the acetic acid will eventually break down and allow mold and other bacteria to take over).
4. BE PATIENT AND TASTE YOUR CREATION AS IT FERMENTS. Fermentation times vary, but generally will take three to five weeks. If aged too little, the vinegar will still taste faintly like alcohol; too long and the acidity level will begin to decline.* Robust and vinegary is the end game. (Fortunately, the ancient art of vinegar making is not an exact science; if you let the vinegar go a week or two too long, it will likely be fine.)
*If the vinegar is funky looking, full of stringy bits and globs that look like they are from a bad science experiment, it’s probably gone too far.
5. REMOVE THE MOTHER. Don’t discard her! Keep your mother stored in a glass or plastic container with enough of the live vinegar you just made to cover. She’ll be happy in moderate temperatures for several months or longer.
6. FILTER THER VINEGAR, IF YOU'D LIKE. We like to leave the sediment in our vinegar; it deepens the aromas and flavors over time. If you’re not keen on cloudy sediment, filter the vinegar a few times through cheesecloth or coffee filters into a sterilized container, but keep in mind that vinegars naturally change colors and develop sediment as they age.
7. BOTTLE THE VINEGAR ASAP. Once the alcohol has been consumed, oxygen now becomes the enemy (the reason many vinegars are sealed with wax and why many commercial manufacturers process the vinegar by heating it, which kills the live cultures). Bottle the vinegar in small narrow-neck bottles, fill to the top, seal securely, and store at moderate room temperature.
8. STORE THE MOTHER. When your vinegar is ready, transfer the mother into a glass jar or plastic container. Pour enough live vinegar (yours or store-bought, like Bragg’s) into the container to completely cover the mother and lay a piece of plastic wrap on the surface of the liquid (to eliminate as much air as possible). Seal the container airtight; the mother will become dormant and store at room temperature indefinitely.
9. AGE THAT GOOD SAUCE. Bottle aging the vinegar for a few months, with or without wood (wood chips or other), allows the aroma and flavor nuances to really shine.
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