In today's episode, I'm talking to Rodrigo from American Vinegar Works. If you ever use vinegar in your kitchen for anything, you want to listen to this episode all the way through. Learn how they actually had to create equipment to make vinegar the way they want it to.
You can listen to this podcast episode below or listen on any of these podcast players - Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music, Google Podcasts. If you would prefer to read the text, you will find a transcript below.
Here is a transcript of the interview with Rodrigo from American Vinegar Works.
Eric: Hey everybody, welcome to the Eat Shop Waste Not Podcast. I'm excited again to have a guest on for this episode here, and I have Rodrigo from American Vinegar Works on here and we're going to talk about vinegar today. So welcome to the podcast.
Rodrigo: Eric, thank you very much for having me. I'm glad to be here.
📜 How American Vinegar Works Started
Eric: All right. So let's just get right into things here. Um, what is American vinegar works?
Rodrigo: So we are the makers of small batch American vinegars, uh, that are used for cooking and for cocktails.
Eric: How'd you guys, get started in the vinegar business?
Rodrigo: Yeah, so, part of it is just, I love vinegar. I grew up with vinegar. My family is actually originally from Portugal. And, uh, we cook a lot with vinegar, with olive oils. Um, and growing up in the U. S., I've just kind of seen... the evolution of the American food culture. Like people are really into ingredients now.
Folks are really sort of manic about finding the best coffee, the best vinegar, the best yogurt. Whatever the case is, there's an appreciation of craft and food. So I was looking around the supermarket shelf and I thought, if I can get a great beer, why can't I get a great beer vinegar? Vinegar comes from alcohol.
Uh, so I set out literally to teach myself, even though I used a lot of vinegar and know how to make vinegar. So I set out to teach myself to make vinegar and say, is this something that I would love? Uh, and after several years of experimenting in that direction, I came up with a really great vinegar making process.
Um, and that kind of took us to farmer's markets, which eventually took us to supermarkets.
Eric: Yeah. People don't realize, you know, a lot of these small businesses really start at farmer's markets, you know, so it's really fun to kind of like, you get out and explore your local farmer's market. Cause you may never know. You may be in the early stages of someone's big dream. And so it's, I always, you know, recommend, recommend getting to a farmers market and finding those unique products, cause you're the people that kind of help someone get launched. And so like, you know, people use that as a good launching part.
Rodrigo: No, I absolutely agree. Farmer's markets are a lot of fun. They're also full of like crazy people like me who are like, yep, I think what I'm going to do is leave a corporate job, set up a tent in the rain, and convince people taste straight shots of vinegar that should be used in cooking. So there's a, there's a lot of crazy folks out there that have these very very specific, uh, and, and I think are very passionate about the ideas and the products that, that they're bringing.
Um, and it always strikes me even now. When we sell, I sell over email from our website as well as in stores, but I send people personal emails, we interact back and forth like I put my name on the product in the email and it sometimes strikes me sort of funny that people are surprised that there is a person like a real person behind the product because in a way we've been trained by very large companies to think it's just everything is a smokestack in a corporation. So, There isn't an individual making a product, and I think a lot of value in recognizing the individual, not just from a company's perspective, but from a consumer's perspective. Like, I take my vinegar really personally. Like, we work really hard to make it a very good product. And to talk to our customers about the product and take feedback and have a conversation, not a survey. but like a conversation.
Um, and I, and I think you see that a lot more at farmer's markets, uh, than you do just about any other place. So I'm a big fan of farmer's market as, it sounds like you are as well.
Eric: Absolutely. And it's fun to have an actual person behind that. Cause if I think right now, I think of a big company, like let's, let's say Kraft foods, I won't have any idea of what anybody looks like that works at that company whatsoever, like not even a clue about any. So, you know, its neat to see that you put your name on there and just kind of like, you know, saying, Hey, it's a real person. You're doing something.
Rodrigo: Yes. Yeah, absolutely. And usually those people care more about the product and the ingredient. It's not to bash bigger companies. I think they have a role for sure. It's just like, I know the person who made the vinegar and like the folks who come in and hand bottle, like it is down to like specific people, but then also specific points of pride. Like our, our vinegars are bottled by adults with developmental disabilities. They're really proud of like writing the batch number on the bottle and seeing it on a shelf and going to like Whole Foods and say, I did that. Um. And I think, you know, obviously the most important thing is the taste of the product.
And I think we have the best vinegars that are made in the U. S. Without hyperbole, I really believe that. But, uh, it's kind of cool to be a business owner because you could say, yeah, these are the folks I want to employ. This is how I want to operate. This is where I want to source the product. And this is the trade off I want to make so that I can say without any hesitation that I believe I make the best vinegars because I'm doing them the best way possible.
It's much harder when you're in a corporation and people are making financial tradeoffs on and and other tradeoffs to get their product into a bottle.
🚜 What They Started With
Eric: Sure. Absolutely. So when you started the farmer's market, what was some of your first vinegars you had there?
Rodrigo: Yeah, so I started at the farmer's market. I started first with an apple cider vinegar. Uh, because we're based in New England and we're actually, uh, very close to the home of Johnny Appleseed, like where he was born. Uh, so I was like, okay, this is appropriate. We're going to start with a New England apple cider because one of the things that makes our product different as well is we try to make vinegars that have, what we call, a sense of place.
So vinegar starts with alcohol. We only use craft American alcohols. So it made sense for us that we would start with apple cider since those orchards are in New England and our cider makers in New England. We kind of started there. So it's first apple cider. We actually have a couple of different varieties of apple cider
So that was one and red wine was, was the other vinegar that we started off with because people really use Red wine vinegar quite frequently, uh, and our red wine vinegar, the, the Shiraz comes from California, but we ferment everything here. So it was those two, uh, specific vinegars that we started with.
Eric: Yeah. I think it's a good thing. You kind of start with something familiar and then do that really well. Um, you know, apple cider vinegar has definitely been, you know, has grown in popularity for different reasons over the last, you know, 10, 20 years. So you can hear a lot more about that. So it's good that you guys kind of started somewhere and you know, like, Hey, we're from a great apple.
New England's a great place for apples. I've been in new England, uh, two years ago, went up in New England area and, you know, we enjoyed all the apples and fruits and stuff up there. So, you love vinegar, but didn't know how to make it.
❔ How Vinegar is Made
Eric: Um, let's kind of go through the process of making vinegar for those that may not know and kind of incorporate, like, how you guys may do stuff different than some of the, like, the, the big manufacturers.
Rodrigo: Yeah, absolutely. So vinegar at a high, very high level. Uh, what you need for vinegar is alcohol, bacteria, heat, oxygen, and time. So those five things, right? So, uh, vinegar is sometimes thought of as a double fermentation process. Uh, so if you were to start, let's say grapes, if you take grapes, you squeeze them, turn them into juice.
There's a yeast based fermentation, which turns those grapes into wine. Um, and then after the grapes or wine, there's a bacterial fermentation called a bacteria called acetobacteria that convert the alcohol into acid, uh, and turn the wine into vinegar. So at a very high level. What we do is we source all of our alcohol from different producers because we think there are great craft producers out there. So if you're asking one of the things that made us different to your question is, if you're using better quality alcohol ingredients, then you're going to produce better vinegars because there aren't many ingredients in vinegar.
So you have process as a leverage and you have ingredients as a lever. So we drink, like, you know, micro brews, like we have a Mayflower Brewing is our porter here down in Plymouth. We use Harpoon's IPA to make our IPA beer malt. That's two examples. Literally, those are things that, in this area, are on tap at really nice bars.
We take those and ferment them into our beer malt. So, the ingredients is a big difference. A second part that is a big difference is the production style we use. So you can think of vinegar as having three large buckets. There's a,put it literally in a bucket and set it aside. Sometimes it's called the Orleans method when it's made in barrels.
Uh, and that could take six months to a year of fermentation, but it's kind of just sitting there. It's pretty passive. Uh, then there's, uh, a method called it's an aeration based method. You can think of a fish bubbler stone kind of just pushing oxygen and bacteria into the alcohol. That's actually how commercial vinegars are made now, and you literally can make vinegar in two hours to two days.
It's using methodology, and then there's a middle level, and that's the level that we use, uh, which is called the drip or the German method, uh, and it takes us several weeks to several months to ferment the alcohol, and then we age them in rye barrels after that as well. So when I first started, I decided the industrial method was not something I was interested in because I didn't like the vinegars that those were producing on the supermarket shelves.
Uh, but I created mini versions of like the Orleans method as well as the drip method. I think like in the basement of my apartment building, like, you know, for folks who may be familiar with Massachusetts, Cambridge is a bit of, sometimes it's called the People's Republic of Cambridge, a little bit hippie esque, uh, sort of nutty professor land.
So we had a, living in an old building, had a basement storage unit. I literally created these little machines and fermentations going. And what I did was I put through each of the processes, the exact same alcohol, and I let it ferment and I compared the flavor profiles. And I ended up with, I really thought that the strip method, which is from 1823, uh, and was considered high tech then, was the best way to make vinegar. It produced the best flavors, it was most consistent, it allowed me to do a process called co fermentation, which we can talk about later. And I was like, this is it, I want to do this. The problem is, those were the industrial ways to make vinegar, and now those machines don't exist.
So then I had to go and say, okay, take my little acrylic plastic thing, And I went to local universities and took old sketches and I was like, okay, I want to make this, but I need it to be food grade so I can sell it and I need it to be at scale and I need you to help me fix all these problems. So we actually partnered first with Boston University and then the University of Maine, and we literally recreated off of these old etchings, uh, these machines from the early 1800s to make our, to make our vinegar, you know, it really is a revival, uh, of a process of vinegar making.
So in that sense, uh, our vinegar production is exceptionally unique in that we literally have to kind of recreate this whole process ourselves. Um, and anyway, those are two big differences, but the most important difference is the vinegar just tastes great. So most vinegars in the supermarket, you're going to taste it.
And mostly what you're going to taste is acid. Because of the quality of the alcohol they used to make it and because they rushed it through production, right? So vinegar should be cheap. Vinegar should be low end. Vinegar is this commodity that you kind of toss in there. It's might as well like toss rock salt onto your tomato salad.
It's just a commodity. Who cares, right? If you actually start making vinegar well, All of a sudden you're like, actually vinegar is this like crazy secret ingredient that has zero calories, has tons of nuanced flavors, and really transforms your cooking in ways way beyond just salad dressing. So those are, those are sort of like our main differences.
We have a lot of other differences in terms of how we operate, but, um, I think that that kind of gives you a highlight of some of the differences.
Eric: Thank you for sharing that here. I love the history of that. I love that you guys, you kind of reinvented the wheel. I mean, literally! And I think, you know, you point out too, about like the, the nuances is what's lost on these mass things.
I mean, like, you know, if you buy like the cheapest bottle of, you know, distilled vinegar in the store, I mean, that doesn't taste like, absolutely anything. You're, you're just adding acid, you know? And so that's what we're getting here is when you do something, the best way for flavor, you, you see that there's gonna be way more to it than just acid, just, you know, adding acid to some dishes.
Yeah. you wanna have some acid into it. You wanna, have that complex flavor, but, but you're missing out on different notes of that too. So. And it's like, you know, we've done episodes of this podcast before talking about salt. So there's a episode we talked about real salt from, uh, Utah and comparing their salt to this regular salt in the store.
It's like, again, you're getting that kind of like more complex flavors instead of just the stripped away basic white salt that doesn't have as much to it. Um, so yeah, I think that's real, really important in your cooking to be able to seek out and use these types of ingredients. Um, so you guys, uh, so you started with the, um, The apple cider vinegar and the red wine vinegar.
And you've expanded since then here. So what are some of the kind of unique ones, um, that you guys are making, you know, nowadays?
🍷 Types of Vinegar
Rodrigo: Totally. So we make over 15 different vinegars and we're always releasing new ones. Um, so we make vinegars from several base alcohols. So rice wine sake, grape wine based vinegars, apple cider based vinegars, beer based vinegars, and actually mead based vinegars, so honey vinegars. So right now we have two different honey vinegars, one of which I think you're familiar with is a collaboration with Burlap Barrel, and we're using their hibiscus to do a co fermentation process.
Um, with them. So those are part of our sweet and tangy lines. Uh, we have a really fun vinegar called the Hot Apple Cider Vinegar, uh, which is actually made by co fermenting. So, when you still have hard apple cider, You put in a bunch of fruit and spices, and as the bacteria eat away at the alcohol, they interact with the fruit and spices and create a layered approach, uh, to the vinegar at the end.
So when you taste our hot vinegar, you actually almost, you taste it in almost in three steps. You'll get smoked in the beginning from smoked red serranos, middle savory note from pineapple and coriander and bay, and then you add with just a little bit of heat from habanero. Super interesting, super unique, and really showcases the process for us as well.
Then we have seasonal things like ramps. We forage for ramps in the Catskills of New York, slow fermented barrel aged. We have, we only released one barrel every year. Uh, and we have that barrel aging right now before the end of the year. When we're well outside of the ramp season, we will release it so that people can have the flavor of ramps, again, outside of the season.
So we like to do some fun things like that, which are much more limited release. Grab them while you can. They only sell out, sort of.
Eric: Yeah, and those are really fun too, for like really big fans to have those kind of special things that come out. And I like, you know, you're bringing, I'm really all about seasonal eating, you know, and so that's another way to kind of like do seasonal eating, but you're going to get to chase that flavor at a time you would, you know, ramps are very far away.
Rodrigo: Totally. And we try to make it fun, too, for folks when they are trying to do gifts, as well. So that, uh, so we have little four pack gift boxes with fun little sayings. We have mini samplers that come in the custom. Uh, we've recently launched our first non vinegar product, uh, which is our own blend of a family estate California organic olive oil.
So two different olive varieties that we've blended. And they're really, again, showcase the idea of what crafts people and growers are doing in the U. S. The sense of place is super important for us. So that's out there as well from, uh, more of a gift set as well as just home use perspective.
Eric: I think that, yeah, I think that makes a wonderful gift. You know, vinegar, obviously, you know, is something's gonna last a while here. And I think that's, you know, a much better gift than sending someone some, like, cheap box of chocolate or something . You know, I really appreciate those kind of food gifts, too.
The ones that you're gonna, like, you know, you're gonna use that. You know, over and over again, and you're gonna have it for a while, so I, I always love those kind of things. So I guess, you know guys, it's a little early for Christmas right now, but maybe start thinking about it!
🥄 How to Use Vinegar
Rodrigo: Totally. And they, they come with recipe cards. Cause that's actually the biggest question I got in farmers markets and other places, you have 15 different vinegars. How are you using all of these vinegars? And all of them are great for vinaigrettes. The malt vinegars are fantastic for things like fish and chips.
Uh, we actually have cocktail recipes on our website. So we make a killer bees knees using those honey vinegars. You can make a Manhattan with our red wine vinegar. Uh, our porter is incredible. I know it's early, it's hot up here, but like our porter is awesome in a fondue. It really, really works really well.
So I always look forward to, to the fall, uh, for, uh, fall and winter for, for those recipes. So we do try to give people inspiration, so they think of vinegar for much more than just salads, because it really does transform your soups, your sauces, just a dash. You don't want vinegar soup, but that little bit of brightness, that's, a lot of times people will try to add salt.
And they think there's something missing from their meal, and instead, you should be adding acid because, one, you don't want to load up on salt, and two, that's actually the flavor profile that you're looking for, so the acid flavor helps to offset the need for some of the salt and really balances your dish a little bit.
Eric: Yeah, that's a very good point. I think people, a lot of times will add lemon for that. Lemon works great for that here. But I always don't have, you know, fresh lemons on hand. I'm like, oh, I need lemon. I don't have a lemon with me, you know.
Eric: So, you know, good to have a good vinegar on hand to do that same thing.
That's something you don't have to worry about. Let's go spoil or forget to buy at the store or have
Rodrigo: Totally. And vinegar is also nice because it doesn't, uh, if you're careful with it, it doesn't cause curdling. So especially with cream sauces, we actually do have, I say that and I will say we have a ricotta recipe. Uh, using our vinegar, uh, where you can actually force the curdling. But in general, vinegar is much easier to add.
And when it's heated, uh, sometimes when you heat lemon, it could cause bitterness. Beyond sour, it can cause bitterness. Whereas when you add vinegars, even when heated, there is no bitter flavor. You're just getting the acid as well as the undertones of the actual vinegar. So I love, I love lemon. Uh, but there are different uses and some extra versatility in cooking.
🛒 Where to Buy
Eric: So before I let you go here, uh, where can people find your vinegars?
Rodrigo: Yeah, so the best way to find us is AmericanVinegarWorks.com. Now we've been chatting and I haven't even given the company name. I need to be a better salesperson. AmericanVinegarWorks.com is where you can find us. And, uh, you can order everything from our website, but there's also a find us button. Uh, we are carried in specialty shops throughout the country.
And if you have a favorite gourmet shop, if they don't carry us, just let them know about us, uh, and have them reach out and we'll, we'll get some vinegar on shelves close to you, but you can order anything from our site. We do order free shipping. Um, Above 45, as well as a 7. 99 flat shipping rate anywhere in the contiguous U.S., so the lower 48. Uh, so we try to make our vinegars very accessible for folks, and hopefully change some eating habits.
Eric: All right, well, thanks for coming on the podcast today. And I hope you guys are now excited to try some vinegars.
Rodrigo: Thank you, Eric.