Brew Your Own Malt Vinegar

Vinegar is often a hushed subject amongst brewers. A veritable boogeyman, the bacteria (acetobacter) responsible for one of my favorite condiments and cooking ingredients can easily spoil a batch of beer. The thought of our carefully crafted libations (and their inherent ethanol content) being transformed into acetic acid sends shivers up many a brewer’s spine. Acetobacter must be respected, and never invited into our breweries…

Homebrewing your malt vinegar is a delicious off-shoot of homebrewing beer.

Homebrewing your own malt vinegar is a delicious off-shoot of homebrewing beer.

…or so we have been told. The truth of the matter is that acetobacter exists in every brewery. Its omnipresent existence is evidenced by the fact that nearly any liquid containing ethanol will spontaneously transform into vinegar provided it is left exposed to oxygen. Basic good sanitation practices and keeping your ‘funky’ equipment separate from your ‘clean’ brewing equipment will allow you the creative freedom to ferment outside the bounds of typical brewing.

Once I decided to begin producing my own malt vinegar, I was somewhat surprised to find the Internet nearly devoid of good information as it relates to producing malt vinegar. This is not to say that there isn’t a lot of information out there, but most of it is very basic in terms of real detail. By-and-large, the articles out there focus on the economy of producing vinegar. Their focus is on vinegar production as a means of transforming an unwanted alcoholic beverage into something of value – a happy byproduct for unwanted hooch. What is one to do with a half-consumed bottle of wine, decanted yeast starter wort, or a bad batch of beer? Turn it to vinegar (or so says the Internet). The problem with this approach is that it over-simplifies vinegar production. Will a haphazard approach to vinegar production produce a passable product? Probably so. My interests however are in producing a truly artisanal product with as much complexity and diversity as the alcoholic beverages that serve as their base.

Bragg unpasturized, unfiltered vinegar acts as a starter culture.

Bragg unpasteurized, unfiltered vinegar acts as a starter culture.

The pathway to vinegar production is very basic. All that is needed is an alcoholic liquid, a culture of acetobacter, and oxygen. Acetobacter will oxidize ethanol into acetic acid, transforming your alcoholic base into a non-alcoholic vinegar. Making vinegar is as simple as fermenting out a beer (or really any alcoholic beverage), pitching a acetobacter culture (this will occur spontaneously with enough time), and leaving the liquid open to oxygen. Eventually the ethanol in the liquid will be converted to acetic acid, and you’ll be left with vinegar.

Like beer production, your recipe formulation will have a profound effect on the final vinegar. Finding good information about how recipes for vinegar should be formulated was a challenge. My base assumption is that I can take much of what I understand about beer formulation and expect those same types of flavors to be carried through to the final vinegar. The biggest variable to account for is starting gravity. This variable impacts both the residual sweetness in the vinegar, as well as the final level of acidity in the vinegar. These two components affect the sweet/sour balance of the final vinegar. At the very least, it seems prudent to produce roughly an 8% ABV beer in order to achieve a final vinegar with approximately 8% acidity.

As brewer’s, we know that there is a tremendous diversity within the broad category of ‘beer’. A standard industrial lager and barrel-aged Russian Imperial Stout are both ‘beer’ but are world’s apart in terms of the impression they leave us with. This diversity can easily be applied to malt vinegar. Malt vinegar does not have to be a generic product. It can be equally as diverse and complex as the beer we produce. For my initial attempt at vinegar I wanted to try and produce something a bit richer than the industrial malt vinegars most of us are familiar with. With hints of dried fruit, a subtle sweetness, toasty malt character, and sharp acidity, my hope is to produce something closer to the fine aged balsamic vinegars of Modena.

Dark Malt Vinegar Recipe

Size: 1.25 gal
Efficiency: 80%
Attenuation: 63%

Original Gravity: 1.108
Terminal Gravity: 1.040
Color: 25.23 SRM
Alcohol: 9.08& ABV (before transformation into vinegar)
Bitterness: 0.0 IBU

Malt Bill:
3.75 lb (78.9%) Maris Otter (Muntons)
0.5 lb (10.5%) Special B Malt (Dingemans)
0.5 lb (10.5%) 2-Row Caramel Malt 60L (Briess)

Mash Regiment:
149 °F, 60 min

Kettle Additions:
0.25 Tablet Whirlfloc (Irish moss) – 15 m
0.25 tsp Wyeast Nutrient – 10 m

1/2 pack Safale S-04

The Process

  1. Approximately one-gallon of wort was produced using a brew-in-a-bag no sparge method.
  2. The initial beer was fermented out cleanly using Safale US-04 yeast for approximately 1.5 weeks at ambient room temperatures. Once fermentation was completed, the fermenter was chilled to compact the trub and yeast cake.
  3. The beer was carefully decanted off the initial yeast cake into a clean 1-gallon glass fermenter. The beer was purposefully allowed to splash into the secondary fermenter to allow for some oxygen pickup. 1/4 c. of Bragg unpasturized vinegar was added as a starter culture. 1/8 oz. heavy toast American Oak cubes were added to the liquid. A mesh bag was rubber-banded over the top of the secondary fermenter to allow for oxygen exchange.
  4. Vinegar was allowed to age and acidify for approximately 4-months at ambient temperatures. pH readings and tastings were taken at regular intervals:
  • After 2-weeks: pH 3.58
  • After 4-weeks: pH 3.14
  • After 8-weeks: pH 2.99
  • After 14-weeks: pH 2.81 – Bottled despite somewhat high pH. Taste is quite sour. Next time I will shoot for a pH of 2.4-2.7.


_DSC2096The vinegar is quite fruity on the nose, almost grape-like. There is a residual grainy character and a relatively sharp acetic acid note, although not quite as piquant as commercial vinegars. The flavor however is sharpely acidic. Once the initial burst of acidity subsides, there is a nice crackery malt finish with a faint hint of caramel and dark fruit. There is a low to moderate amount of residual body and sweetness that helps soften the sharp acidity, although this lacks the concentration and depth of flavor found in a good balsamic vinegar.

Jam is my Jam

Recently I made jam. I love jam. Homemade jam is especially great because you can use the best possible ingredients — in the case of my latest batch, red plums and raspberries from the neighborhood green market._DSC1930Jams can be made from pretty much any fruit. The key is understanding that there are fruits both high and low in pectin. Low pectin fruits will generally require the addition of a commercial pectin additive in order to set up properly. In the case of my plum-raspberry jam, I combined a fruit high in pectin (plums) with a low-pectin fruit (raspberries) to create a jam that managed to set correctly.

Making jam is all about ratios. For this particular recipe I used the following:

1 part fruit
1 part table sugar
A splash of lime juice

Different fruits and tastes call for different levels of sugar. The 1:1 ratio will generally produce a very sweet jam. I tend to use my jam sparingly, so 1:1 works well for me. The sugar will not only impact the sweetness of the product, but also has an impact on how well the gel sets up. If deviating from the 1:1 ratio, some experimentation may be required.

The process for making jam is pretty simple. All ingredients are boiled with a minimal amount of water in a pan until the fruit has broken down. I like to monitor the temperature of my mixture. As the mixture reduces, it will become supersaturated with sugar allowing temperature far beyond that of boiling water. Once the mixture hits 220°F I pull a sample and cool it with ice water. If it forms a nice gel, it is ready to be poured into hot mason jars that have been sanitized in boiling water.

From there I generally put a lid on the jar and let it cool. A vacuum will be created as the mixture cools, effectively sealing the mason jar. I generally do not further process my jams due to the high acidity and sugar content of my jams. You should always however consult the National Center for Home Food Preservation’s Guide to Home Canning which is a wonderful resource for understanding best practices to safely process and store food.

Fermented Pepper Rings and Chili Paste

It’s easy to forget the magic that lactic fermentation imbues upon some of our favorite foods. In particular, a wide variety of condiments are transformed through the alchemy of fermentation. Sriracha hot sauce? Fermented. Tabasco? Fermented (for years). Soy sauce, fish sauce, many types of chili paste? All fermented. When you start looking at the various sauces and pickles we love, you soon realize that most have their roots firmly grounded in the world of preservation and fermentation.

Jalepeno slices and chili paste ready to be transformed through fermentation.

Jalapeno slices and chili paste ready to be transformed through fermentation. Modifying mason jars with rubber grommets and airlocks is a cheap and easy way to prevent any undesired growth in your ferment.

Chilies are an excellent candidate to preserve via fermentation. As summer starts to become a memory and fall begins to whisper in our ears, the local NYC farmers markets begin to be filled with a variety of locally grown chilies. I’m a major fan of hot food, so my natural inclination is to capture as many of these fresh chilies as possible and preserve them for use throughout the winter. Chili paste and fermented jalepeno slices are an excellent means to do this.

Fermented Chili Paste

My chili paste consists of a blend of jalepenos, serranos, poblanos, and habaneros. Striking the right blend is key to obtaining your preferred heat level.

My chili paste consists of a blend of jalapenos, serranos, poblanos, and habaneros. Striking the right blend is key to obtaining your preferred heat level.

Fermented chili paste is not only a great condiment, but also a versatile addition to many recipes. It’s great because you can make it with any blend of peppers you wish, resulting in either a fruity/tangy sauce, or one that will burn off your taste buds. I ended up shooting for something in between the two. Using a blend of sweet and hot peppers will strike a nice balance. There really is no right or wrong blend. I like to add an entire head of garlic to the mix for a nice garlicky kick. Really the only rule I stick to is to include 2% by weight kosher salt. For example, if I have 500 grams of raw chopped up peppers, I’ll include 10 grams of kosher salt in the mix. This level of salt is key to encouraging good bacteria growth while inhibiting molds or other undesired microbiological activity.

 Fermented Jalapeno Slices

Another great way to preserve chilies is fermenting slices in a brine solution. The recipe couldn’t be easier. For this batch I sliced enough jalapenos to pack a pint sized mason jar to the brim. I then topped the jar with a brine solution consisting of filtered water and 5-6% by weight kosher salt. The mason jar was fitted with a lid and airlock and allowed to ferment for approximately a week. Again, taste should be your guide. Once the peppers fit your taste, refrigerator to slow further fermentation.

The pepper rings will take on a lovely tart acidic quality as well as some earthy funk. Texturally they retain a nice snap and are a great topping to many dishes.

A Few Words About Safety

  1. Smell and looks should be your guide. I don’t eat anything that grows mold or smells off.
  2. Wear gloves when handling chilies. The oils can and will burn you.
  3. Be careful when sealing ferments. Fermentation can produce CO2 gas. If this builds up in a sealed container, it can result in dangerous levels of pressure, which can cause vessels to burst. Frequently vent any sealed ferments, or ferment with an airlock.

Fun with Fermented Veggies – Sauerkraut

Sauerkraut, pork sausage, German potato salad, with some grainy mustard.

Sauerkraut is a great accompaniment to many different dishes. I like it best as a traditional side served with pork sausage, German potato salad, and some grainy mustard. Serve it with a stein of Munich Helles and you’ll be good-to-go.

Making sauerkraut seems like something that should be difficult. In reality, it is just about as easy as it gets in terms of food fermentation. I was inspired to begin fermenting vegetables after reading Sandor Katz’s book The Art of Fermentation. Sauerkraut is an excellent introduction and foray into the rabbit hole that is food fermentation.

Cabbage and salt. About as simple as it gets.

Sauerkraut ingredients ready to go.

Sauerkraut is shredded cabbage and salt that is mixed and allowed to ferment using the natural microflora present on the cabbage. There are a million variations which typically include the addition of different spices and perhaps other vegetables. You can go nuts trying different styles of kraut, but a simple version with just cabbage and salt is pretty delicious in its own right. The key, like most fermentation, is setting an environment that is conducive to producing a good, lactic fermentation, and not spoilage.

The first step is to take a head of washed cabbage and shred it finely. It is then mixed in a bowl with an ample amount of salt. I prefer coarse Kosher salt, but the type doesn’t really matter. Typically the amount of salt should equal approximately 1.5 – 2% of the cabbage’s weight. This is a general rule of thumb; experiment to see what best suits your taste. I generally don’t weigh the salt and instead sprinkle salt in between alternating layers of cabbage.

Once the salt and cabbage is mixed I manually compress and crunch the cabbage to allow the salt to draw water out of the cabbage. It is very important to draw out enough moisture so that it completely submerges the cabbage.

Once the cabbage begins giving up its moisture, it is time to pack it into a jar or bowl. I’ve found the easiest thing to do is pack it into a stainless steel mixing bowl. I then lay plastic wrap right on top of the cabbage and push out any air pockets. Your goal is to encourage lactic acid bacteria to ferment the cabbage by denying other microbes access to oxygen. The moisture in the cabbage mixture and plastic wrap seal should keep out most oxygen. On top of the plastic wrap I set a plate with a couple cans on top in order to further compress the cabbage and keep it submerged. Lastly, I cover the entire top with a piece of cheese cloth to keep out any fruit flies.

After amount a week, I like to taste the kraut. It should have picked up a nice tartness and be relatively clean tasting. If there is dark or oddly colored mold or putrid off-smells, it may have gone-off and should be tossed. That being said, I’ve never had a batch of kraut go off. Common sense should dictate your decisions. If it smells off, then you probably don’t want to eat it.

The final product ready to eat.

The final product–ready to eat after a week or so.

With a week of fermentation, the kraut will still be pretty crunchy and only mildly sour. The more time you give it at room temp, the tarter it will become. Once it is at a level you like, it is best to refrigerate it to retard any further fermentation. Once in the fridge, it should stay good for at least a couple months.

Cochon 555 Comes to NYC

Finding a foodie that is into pork is kind of like spotting a pair of skinny jeans in Williamsburg. Both can exist without the other, but when coupled, an easy synergy arises. It’s natural and comfortable. The popular ramblings of foodie gurus like Bourdain and Chang have placed the pig on a pedestal—and spawned more than a handful of pig-related tattoos. In spite of all that, I must admit that I, too, have consumed the pork-flavored Kool-Aid. Case in point, the plethora of pork posts I’ve written over the past year. It’s becoming a bit of a ‘thing’ for me so deciding whether or not to attend the pork-centric Cochon 555 was a no-brainer.


Participating Chefs (L-R): Frank Langello (Babbo Ristorante e Enoteca), Michael Toscano (Perla), Lauren Hirschberg (Craftbar), Seamus Mullen (Tertulia), and David Standridge (Market Table)

What is Cochon 555?

Cochon 555’s website bills itself as:

A one-of-a-kind traveling culinary competition and tasting event – five chefs, five pigs, five winemakers – to promote sustainable farming of heritage breed pigs.

Promote is the key word and their approach isn’t all that different from what you’d see from a music label promoting the next big thing. Just substitute “rock star” with “rock star chef.” Promoting sustainable farming is a lofty goal, but a bit of a red herring in this case. At the end of the day, this is a for-profit venture with a steep price. This event is really about promoting some kick-ass restaurants and other delicious products (while making a buck) by giving attendees the opportunity to try high-end food and drink and experiment with their own pairings all within a convivial festival format. Appreciating both parts of the equation sets the table for a good time.

What Worked

Walking into the space, there was an energy in the air. You could tell that people were excited to be there. While the floor was very crowded, there was a precious handful of standing tables and small, out-of-the-way niches where you could stow away and focus on the star of the event. The restaurants on display were well-chosen and diverse, offering a spectrum of food and a variety of styles. The flow of the evening was smooth — differing from other festivals by offering a variety of scheduled events throughout the evening, keeping things fresh.


Why yes, they did butcher an entire pig on the festival floor. The cuts were then individually auctioned off to benefit the CIA (Culinary Institute of America). There was something kinda bad-ass watching Sara Bigelow from The Meathook methodically break down an entire pig.

What Didn’t Work

Criticism is an important part of my writing and Cochon 555 left me with a number of critiques. I don’t like to dwell on the negatives, but when people are spending $125 for a general admission ticket ($200 for a VIP ticket), the bar is raised and things should be near flawless.

First off, it was crowded. Fighting your way through a sea of people only to be greeted by another wait to get food was a big letdown. I understand the need for a swanky event to have an equally swanky venue (Cochon 555 NYC was hosted at the Ritz-Carlton). Perhaps moving to a less expensive and more spacious venue would improve this without taking anything away from the event’s reputation. Even more disappointing is coming to a table with no food. Service for the majority of restaurants ended early — running out of food at an event of this caliber is unacceptable. Additionally, of the menus posted by each restaurant, I was only able to try about half of the dishes listed.

The majority of the pork dishes I tasted left me, quite frankly, a bit underwhelmed. The number of outrageously salty dishes was astonishing. Nearly all the pork felt overly fussy, complicated, and intense (and not always in a good way). I understand the urge to migrate towards bold flavors, but much of the food sacrificed nuance in the name of extremity. The pornographic amounts of truffle being thrown about was not only excessive, but felt somewhat desperate. In the end, two of my three favorite bites were swine-free.

What I was Looking For

Criticism aside, coming into this event, I had a clear vision of what I wanted to get out of it. Most of the culinary world (including this event) is enamored with pairing food and wine, and rightfully so. It’s easy. Wine’s typically dry nature, acidity, and tannic content make pairing it with food easy. A bit more challenging, and equally rewarding, is pairing food and beer. I’ve always thought that the diversity within beer style taxonomy offers an amazing spectrum of pairing opportunities. Goose Island’s choice to prominently sponsor a food event that mentions ‘wine’ in it’s tagline (and not beer) seemed a bit idiosyncratic. Talking with their representatives and learning about their goal of promoting beer and food helped resolve this seemingly odd match of brand and event.

Over the course of the evening, I ate and drank in a manner that would cause Elvis to blush. At the end of the night, three pairings stuck in my mind.

Pairing #1: Beef Tartare with Lolita


Rib Eye Tartare with Truffle on Pork Cracklin’ from Del Posto – Paired with Lolita. My first bite of the night, and one of the best. The aged rib eye tartare had a sweetness and subtle fruitiness that was complementary to the sour (but not puckering) Lolita. Lolita has a big ripe raspberry nose with a mildly earthy component that worked really well with the truffle. Putting the tartare on a crispy pork cracklin’ was an excellent textural counterpoint to the beef.

Pairing #2: Pork Paella with Matilda


Paella de Cerdo From Tertulia – Paired with Matilda. Yes, this was an intensely salty dish. Somehow though, the intensely salty pork worked with the nice char on the outside of the meat, and was kept in reign when paired with Matilda. The best thing about Matilda is that it features a pleasant Belgian yeast profile while retaining a nice round body and malt component. The maillard-heavy toasted malt flavors worked really well with the charred pork. The pork was quite fatty and decadent, which the effervescent nature of Matilda cleaned up with ease. The almost dirty-rice-esque ‘paella’ was loaded with bits of organ meat giving it a mineral-rich character that worked well with the peppery yeast character in the beer. A touch more dryness in the beer would have made the pairing even better.

Pairing #3: Duck Charcuterie with Sofie


Duck Charcuterie (Torchone de Foie Gras, Rillete, Salami, Smoked Breast)  from Hudson Valley Foie Gras – Paired with Sofie. I have a soft spot for duck, especially duck charcuterie. The products offered up from Hudson Valley Foie Gras were top notch and I especially enjoyed the Foie Gras. Smeared on a simple slice of baguette and washed down with Sofie, the pairing was divine. Sofie, with it’s somewhat austere dryness and prickly carbonation, cut through the fatty foie like a knife, daring you to consume another bite. The earthy and luscious liver worked extremely well with the slightly fruity and somewhat peppery yeast character in the beer. The malt in Sophie is minimal, but has a subtle pilsner malt sweetness that complemented the inherent sweetness in the foie without dominating it.

Cheers to Goose Island

I would be remiss to not thank Goose Island for the complementary media badges they offered my wife and I enabling us to attend the event. Goose Island has taken a lot of flack in the past couple years after they were purchased by AB InBev. I tend to withhold judegment to their beer and their actions. The beers they brought to the event were well made and tasty. Equally as impressive was what appeared to be a genuine want to elevate food and beer pairings to the point that they are on par with wine in the culinary circles.

I would be remiss to not thank Goose Island for the complimentary media badges they offered my wife and myself allowing us to attend the event. Goose Island has taken a lot of flack in the past couple of years following their purchase by AB InBev. I tend to limit my judgment to their beer and their actions in regard to their customers and brewing peers. The beers they brought to the event were well-made and tasty. Equally as impressive was what appeared to be a genuine eagerness to elevate food and beer pairings to the point that they are on par with wine in the culinary circles.

Multi-knife hip holster, one super-enthusiastic dude, and a Colicchio photo bomb all in one photo.

A multi-knife hip-holstered butcher, a dude really digging said butchery, and a Tom Colicchio cameo all in one. Photo by Jessie Quan.

Gratuitous food porn outtakes.