I’ve had some success with brewing my own ‘Hedgerow Red’ Elderberry & Blackberry wine for the past couple of years, but a few months ago I wondered whether it is possible to easily produce your own vinegar at home. Of course, this being the age of Google – I found the answer very quickly… basically – yes. But before I tell you how I did it, let’s start at the beginning. You might save yourself some Googling…
What exactly is vinegar? Well, it’s acetic acid – usually about 5% (the minimum strength required for pickling) and water and a few other trace elements. You probably know that alcohol is produced by encouraging yeast to convert sugar into alcohol, well vinegar is produced by converting ethanol (alcohol) into acetic acid using another handy micro-organism. Acetobacter in this case. This bacteria, like its fungal co-dependant yeast, occurs naturally in the wild and can be airborne – or carried by insects like the nemesis of homebrewers – the fruit or vinegar fly.
There are many different types of vinegar, but the word comes from the French “Vin aigre” which basically means “sour wine”. So in addition to Red and White Wine Vinegar, you can also find or make:
- Cider Vinegar – made with apple cider
- Malt Vinegar – made with ale
- Spirit Vinegar – distilled vinegar
- Balsamic Vinegar – made form grape must & aged for 12 years unless you buy mass produced fake balsamic
- Herb vinegar – any vinegar infused with strong herbs such as Tarragon, Rosemary, Sage, Thyme etc
And quite a few others…
In this post I’m going to focus on Red Wine Vinegar, but the basic principle is the same for producing most vinegars. There are basically two easy ways to do this at home, here’s the simplest of all:
The One Batch Method
- A bottle of red wine
- Mother of Vinegar
- A glass, or preferably ceramic container
- A tea towel or piece of muslin
- An elastic band
I used my own ‘Hedgerow Red’ but any red wine should do it. Avoid sulphates if at all possible, as this slows down the process.
I got my ‘Mother’ from a bottle of French un-filtered, un-pasturised Apple Cider Vinegar my daughter brought back from a school trip, but if you hunt around health food shops or good supermarkets you may find some. It may be labelled as ‘Raw Cider Vinegar with Mother’ or similar. Most shop-bought vinegar has been pasteurised to prolong the shelf life and to prevent an unsightly scum developing, which would put shoppers off their fish & chips. That’s what we’re after though 🙂
It’s also worth popping in to your local homebrew shop to see if they sell it. If you’re really lucky – you will have a friend who can pass a ‘Mother’ on to you.
I’ve seen differing reports on what the actual ‘Mother’ is. Some people say it’s the leathery cellulose deposit that forms on the surface, while others say that’s just a side-effect that comes from the Acetobacter at work below the surface. If you look into a clear jar of vinegar in production with a torch, you can see the strands of Acetobacter – so I’ll go with the latter I think, but for the purposes of vinegar making at home – either will probably work as the ‘Mother’. The leathery bit will contain traces of active bacteria needed to kickstart your vinegar factory.
For a container, I used a kilner jar with the lid taken off. You could use anything really – preferably opaque though, as light also slows down the process. The bigger the mouth the better in this case – like a goldfish, Acetobacter needs air. My kilner jar is clear, but I used a big tea-towel to cover most of it up. The tea-towel is secured to the mouth of the container to prevent bugs and dust falling in, but also to let air in.
- Clean the jar thoroughly, always worth finishing off with some boiling water
- Add the ‘Mother’ to the container
- Add the wine to the container – pour it like the Spanish pour cider – from a height making lots of bubbles, add an equal amount of water also poured from a height (unless you want to try making extra strong vinegar in which case do not dilute it – N.B. I’ve not tried this) make sure you don’t fill your container to the brim – about two thirds full will be about right
- Cover with your cloth and secure with your elastic band
- Put the container in a warm, airy, preferably dark (but definitely not bright) place for 2-3 months – the only easy way to tell if it is ready is to taste it. I used a straw with my finger over the end to steal a little sample. Top vinegar tasting tip: don’t breath in while you sip!
- You should see a greyish film develop on the surface after a few days – if it doesn’t appear after a few weeks – you might have started with a dead Acetobacter culture, and will need to find a live one from somewhere
- Once it is ready – you can either keep it ‘raw’ or you can pasteurise it. Pasteurising will kill the Acetobacter and any other micro-organisms and will can stay bottled for a year or more. You should try to use your unpasteurised vinegar up in a month or two if possible. To pasteurise – filter it through coffee paper or a fine mesh into a stainless steel or glass/ceramic/enamelled pan & bring up to around 65C for 30 mins (the acetic acid will start to evaporate if you go over 70C). You could try heating it for longer to reduce it down and intensify the flavours, or you could add some sprigs of herbs to the pan to infuse your vinegar
- Don’t forget to save some raw vinegar or piece of mother to start off your next batch!