When Did Vinegar Get So Cool? – Aliza Abarbanel

These are the fancy-ish vinegar brands taking our pantries on an acid trip

Our pantries are in the middle of an acid trip. Shelves are crammed with vinegars from around the world, from gently sweet Filipino sugarcane vinegar to aromatic black Chinkiang vinegar made from fermenting sticky rice. It’s an ever-expanding condiment kaleidoscope — and thanks to increased interest in fermentation from chefs and home cooks bolstered by pandemic-era cooking, North America’s artisanal vinegar industry has only begun to bloom.

New wave vinegar is instantly recognizable. Its sleek packaging is designed to pop out in Instagram pantry tours, tricked out with lush illustrations and loopy lettered labels like “raw,” “unfiltered,” and “living.” Unlike that distilled white vinegar probably stashed beneath your sink, these vinegars sell the fact that they’re packed with probiotics, suggesting a slew of health benefits that come along with.

Like other food-world trends, the hype is bolstered by collaborations with respected farms, pop-ups at popular restaurants, and on-point merch. But one sip of vinegar made from oro blanco grapefruit or funky-floral jasmine kombucha proves this trend isn’t just about aesthetics.

Is this explosion of small-batch vinegar brands the inevitable evolution of a customer base obsessed with gut health and fermented flavors? A response to cookbooks, like Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, that highlight acid’s ability to unlock a new level of flavor? When did vinegar get so cool?

Before probiotic apple cider vinegar shots dominated the refrigerated beverage aisles at Whole Foods and Erewhon, there was Katz. The Napa Valley farm and food producer helped pioneer California’s olive oil industry in the 1990s, and began making artisanal unfiltered vinegars with grapes from nearby vineyards in the early 2000s. Instead of hiding behind the vague title of “red wine vinegar,” Katz highlights specific grape varietals like pinot noir and late-harvest zinfandel. The laser-focused flavors weren’t just uncommon — they were unheard of.

“It took a while even for restaurants to build up a real desire to work with other things besides red vinegar, white vinegar, and fake balsamic,” says co-owner Albert Katz. “I used to have to search out people to try our vinegar, but I haven’t been able to keep up with production for years. It’s been extraordinary.”

Katz says he hasn’t needed to market his vinegars for the past eight years as customers have grown more knowledgeable about the importance of good ingredients, largely thanks to the internet and the long-simmering influence of food visionaries like James Beard and Alice Waters. Shoutouts in the pantry sections of cookbooks like Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat and Joshua McFadden’s Six Seasons helped raise the brand’s profile, too. Then the pandemic turbocharged interest. Customers who used to spend money dining out shifted their budgets to invest in higher-quality ingredients for home cooking, and the versatile, shelf-stable nature of vinegar was a perfect fit.

Demand has grown so high, Katz has largely stopped selling wholesale vinegar to restaurants to focus on selling directly to consumers online. These sales have a significantly higher profit margin and surged in the beginning of the pandemic, as people shifted their grocery shopping from crowded store aisles to online.

Katz says that along with increased interest, customers have increased knowledge about artisanal vinegar, specifically the presence of a “mother,” or strands of beneficial bacteria called ​​Acetobacter aceti that turn alcohol into vinegar. “I used to get calls and emails about ‘what is this stuff growing in the bottom of my bottle?’ Many people would want their money back,” he says. “Now people get a bottle and often they’re wondering why they can’t see the mother [if one isn’t visible]. The sophistication level in general has grown exponentially.”

Tart Vinegar founder Chris Crawford counts Katz as her gateway into the world of farm-direct vinegar. After 20 years working in restaurants, she launched the Brooklyn-based brand in September 2019. Her first product was an intensely vegetal celery vinegar designed to evoke a sugar-free Cel-Ray soda. Crawford added other vinegars as she encountered farmers with single-origin products worth preserving, like wild-harvested kombu seaweed and floral (but not overly perfumed) lavender.

“For me, it’s about fostering those relationships directly from farmer to consumer to make a product that reflects time, soil, and harvest,” says Crawford. “I’m looking for raw, natural flavors with very distinct palettes. There’s so much vinegar I don’t sell because it ends up tasting only like vinegar.”

Crawford’s warehouse overflows with fermentation experiments, often using ingredients from other local artisans. She’s currently playing around with peach wine from Brooklyn distillery Forthave Spirits and wild juniper berries foraged by Masha Tea founder Maria Geyman in Wyoming. These ultrasmall runs are frequently funneled into Tart’s Vinegar Club: a quarterly subscription of core products and limited-run bottles capped at 50 members. It’s meant for true vinegarheads, who also proudly rep Tart Vinegar tote bags and show up for the brand’s periodic pop-ups. Earlier this summer, Superiority Burger chef Brooks Headley churned celery vinegar into sorbet. Crawford topped the scoops with Topo Chico for a tangy spin on the classic soda float, served alongside vegan focaccia sandwiches from Susan Kim’s pop-up Doshi.

Vinegar-making is a time-intensive process, and Crawford is her brand’s sole full-time employee. The limits of production on this scale shrink even further when considering the brand’s ethos of working with small-scale farms with greenmarket cult followings of their own, like Pennsylvania’s Campo Rosso and Lavender By The Bay in Long Island: The brand’s iconic celery vinegar can only be made for the length of the celery season. As a result, Tart Vinegar’s products are usually sold out online, and this scarcity inevitably breeds cachet as customers await Instagram announcements for the next drop.

On the other end of the spectrum, Acid League is going big. The “living vinegar” brand began when Scott Friedmann, a food innovation consultant who created legume pasta brand Tolerant Foods, began brewing vinegar at home with his teenage son. He saw the business potential for unfiltered vinegar with turbocharged flavors and brought in designer Rae Drake and food scientists Cole Pearsall and Allan Mai to bring the brand to life.

Last August, Acid League launched a direct-to-consumer site while simultaneously rolling out in Whole Foods nationwide. Their clear bottles showcase vibrantly hued vinegars like juicy strawberry rosé, while the labels lure customers with sans serif fonts and hazy color gradients that nod to aura photography and spore prints. The brand also sells sippable vinegar tonics bolstered with manuka honey and chaga mushrooms, and there’s even the first edition of an Acid League magazine with deep dives on the science behind fermentation and an ode to Goan pork sorpotel.

“The recent apple cider vinegar wave drove a lot of category growth, because people wanted a healthy tonic for their skin, hair, and gut,” says Friedmann. Apple cider vinegar has become a wellness mainstay over the past few years, buoyed by purported benefits like boosting gut health or helping regulate blood sugar. Consumers can buy apple cider vinegar everything, from iconic bottles of Bragg to capsules and “wellness shots,” and this interest is spilling over into raw vinegars of all flavors.

It’s undeniable that surging Western interest in fermented foods like kombucha, sauerkraut, and miso has pushed the flavor and health benefits of probiotics into the mainstream. “Gut health” is a popular wellness topic, and pandemic shutdowns encouraged fermentation projects like sourdough baking. Probiotic-rich products have a proven market, and raw vinegars are rising to meet the moment.

Troy, New York, distillery Yesfolk Tonics has been quietly fermenting vinegar alongside its kombucha for years, with some batches dating back to 2017. “We’d never heard of kombucha vinegar before; we just realized it was really delicious ourselves,” says co-founder Yiyi Mendoza. “It also helps with the ecosystem of our fermentation room. When we get a fresh barrel [for brewing], we’ll fill it with vinegar to inoculate it with microorganisms, and get the fermentation going.”

Mendoza and co-founder Adam Elabd would also cook with the barrel-aged kombucha vinegar at their home, deploying a few dashes to lift a pot of beans or meaty braise. And around three years ago, they began selling some wholesale to chefs and bartenders. It wasn’t until July 2020 that they added vinegar to their online store. “People have been digging it, so now we’re intentionally making more to meet demand,” says Elabd.

Ultimately, the new wave vinegar explosion is right on time. After years of building interest in fermentation and chasing gut health, burnt-out home cooks are seeking new ways to supercharge flavors. Sure, any decent bottle of red wine vinegar can make a good salad dressing. But a great vinegar elevates the everyday into something bright, bold, and unforgettable. Why settle for the routine? There’s a brave new world of vinegar to explore.

Aliza Abarbanel is a freelance writer and editor living in Brooklyn. She loves compost, em dashes, and eating too many plums.

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