Tavern Vinegar Co. may change the way you use vinegar

Tavern Vinegar Co. may change the way you use vinegar

A few years ago, Middle West Spirits issued a challenge to a group of Ohio State students: How could the sustainability-focused distillery get one more use out of its spent materials?

"What they found is we have enough residual sugar in our batches that we could repurpose it to create vinegar," says co-founder Ryan Lang, explaining making vinegar is the next fermentation process beyond creating alcohol.

What they didn't know then was that a faithful Middle West client-Cleveland chef Jonathon Sawyer of the notable Greenhouse Tavern-had long been making vinegar in his basement and lacked the space to bring production full scale.

Two years ago, these likeminded business owners connected the dots, teaming up to create Tavern Vinegar Co., a line of craft-made, barrel-aged vinegars designed with the professional chef in mind. Last fall, they released six beer and wine varieties that are a far cry from the acidic versions you'll find on grocery store shelves. These are mild, flavorful vinegars suitable for replacing citrusy ingredients in cocktails or food, Lang says.

An old-school process gives Tavern Vinegar its edge, he adds. Here's how they make their beer vinegar.

Step 1: Gather spent materials

"When beer is produced, there's a big grain bed that they usually drag out and give to farmers," says Lang, who sources spent grain for beer vinegar from Rockmill Brewery. What most people don't know, he adds, is that Rockmill's Belgian-style beers are so heavy with sugar that it's easy to create another beer with the same batch of grain. So, after Rockmill brews a tripel or saison, a secondary beer is brewed and sent to Middle West in 250-gallon totes to become stout and ale vinegars.

Step 2: Remove the alcohol

Open up one of those totes, and you'll see a very thin film on top. "That's the acetobacter (a naturally occurring bacteria that, when exposed to air, eats the ethanol in alcohol, turning it into acetic acid) starting to form," Lang says. To naturally speed up the process, Lang heads to the back corner of the Short North distillery where, hidden from view, are glass jugs and plastic buckets filled with "mother"-a concentrated, jellyfish-like collection of acetobacter that Sawyer has saved from previous batches of vinegar.

Though not pretty to look at, this is what speeds up the process and ensures consistency in all the Tavern Vinegars. Lang dumps a full quart into the huge bin and, over the next week, that little film on top thickens, he says. Once the mother consumes all the alcohol in the beer, the contents become heavily acidic.

Step 3: Mellowing

In a few months, this big vat will be siphoned into spent barrels (another example of a reused part of their waste stream), where it will go through the same process as Middle West's whiskey, mellowing for nine months to a year.

"Over time, they will mellow down to where they are really palatable," Lang says. "It's not like the vinegars you buy at a grocery store-red wine or an apple cider that's really sharp vinegar. It's real meaty, real soft and can be used for a lot of different things."

Step 4: Ready for Market

A small hole cut in the side of the barrel is covered with thin cloth, through which you can smell the vinegar losing its sting. When the acidic smell grows soft, Lang knows it's nearly ready. Before it's bottled, they run tests to make sure residual sugars and alcohol have been removed.

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Why use craft vinegar?

"Vinegar is a pure substitute for any citrus base," Lang says. Consider subbing culinary vinegar for lemon in a cocktail or lime in a dish. Around town, you can find Tavern Vinegar in dishes and cocktails at Brothers Drake Meadery, Curio and The Table.

Why not distill vinegar?

First, distilled vinegars are boring, Lang says. "They are intended for vinegar purposes. I don't think they play well into culinary vinegars." Second, it's not necessary. "Vinegar production is so old," he says. "And it's not changed. We're not going to mess with that."