Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Making Malt/Beer Vinegar

Acetobacter is my arch-nemesis when it comes to brewing sour beers. Luckily it isn't too hard to deal with because it has a weakness, acetobacter is aerobic meaning it need oxygen to convert ethanol (alcohol) into acetic acid (which makes vinegar taste like vinegar).  I don't care for it, but there are a couple sour beer styles where a twinge of acetic acid is acceptable (Flanders Red most notably), but for the most part they are sour because they contain lactic acid produced by Lactobacillus and Pediococcus.  I can tell acetic acid from lactic because its flavor is sharper/harsher and it has the distinct aroma of vinegar.

Mother Floating in Shery VinegarA couple of months back I noticed that a vinegar mother had formed in an old bottle of sherry vinegar.  A mother is a colony of acetobacter cells that are bound together with secreted cellulose.  To free it from the bottle I simply pulled out the plastic insert from the neck of the bottle with a pair of pliers. If you don't have a mother on hand you can buy one from the internet or a homebrew store, or just add some unpasteurized store bought vinegar (even is you don't see a mother, there will be acetobacter cells).  Acetobacter is also a common enough microbe that exposure to the air should be enough to start the conversion to vinegar.

Vinegar can be made from just about any alcoholic liquid under 18% ABV (high levels of alcohol inhibit acetobacter which is why fortified wines and distilled spirits are shelf-stable even after being exposed to the air).  The most common types of vinegar are made from wine (both red and white), rice wine, and hard cider.  Distilled vinegar can be based on any alcoholic base, after the acetobacter does its work the acetic acid is distilled and then diluted with water to remove the impurities (flavor).  Malt vinegar is produced from unhopped beer, so that seemed like a good place to start for me.

Acetobacter MotherFor the "alcoholic liquid" I decided to use my Flanders Pale Ale, since it had a low hopping rate (18 IBUs, 30 months ago), and has a mild off aroma as a result of being blended with my first batch of lambic (so I didn't mind sacrificing a few bottles).  The malt character is pretty mild so it should make for a versatile vinegar.  The moderate alcohol level (~5%) means that this batch may not have as much acetic acid as commercial vinegar, as a results it may take awhile for me to figure out exactly how to swap it into recipes.

Vinegar FermentationI poured five bottles of the beer into an old Southampton growler, making sure to leave the fill low enough that there is plenty of surface area for the acetobacter to contact the head-space.  I capped the growler loosely with aluminum foil to allow some oxygen in, but prevent any insects that might want to gain access. I placed the jug in the back of one of my kitchen cabinets (where it will be warm and far away from my fermenters).  After a few minutes the mother ascended to the surface where the bacteria can begin to take in oxygen from the atmosphere.  After all of the alcohol is converted the mother will sink back down to the bottom of the fermenter, to wait for her next meal.

When this batch is complete in a few weeks I'll transfer the vinegar back into capped 12 oz bottles to await use (fish and chips etc...).  The next stop for the mother will be apple cider vinegar production, then a cheap bottle of wine, between those batches I'll probably have enough vinegar to last me the next couple years.

Update:  The initial mother didn't do much, but my friend Matt gave me a culture to add and within a few months I had vinegar.


Ivan Privaci said...

One project I've been hoping to undertake is to develop a culture collection of geographically-defined "wild" food-fermentation microbes.

The flowers should be blooming down here in the next month or so, so I'm hoping to collect some Gluconobacter or Acetobacter cultures for vinegar at that point.

Are you planning to do anything in particular to keep the oxygen availability up besides leaving the foil cap loose?

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

Sounds like an interesting project. Not planning on doing anything else special, something you suggest?

Alyss said...

I have made vinegar from old commercial wine (organic works best), homebrewed mead and a homebrewed scrap cider made with cores and peels along with some white sugar. All three are delicious and take well to infusions of herbs or fruit (the mead vinegar infused with blueberries is out of this world). I like to cover the cap of the wide mouthed fermenting vessel - usually a wide mouth mason jar - with a coffee filter. This allows some oxygen but keeps bugs and dust out. I really want to try malt vinegar next.

Unknown said...

You mentioned that low hopped beers were best, is it because the hops inhibit the growth of the mother or that a vinegar from a high hopped beer isn't too tasty? Also what's the ideal advertising to convert to a vinegar?

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

Bitterness and acidity aren't usually a pleasant flavor combination. Hops are inhibitory for Lactobacillus, Acetobacter isn't as far as I'm aware.

rjs3273 said...

I had exactly the same experience. Mother harvested from an old vinegar failed. Weirdly it grew enthusiastically and became a huge solid colony, but little acetic acid. Second attempt used a working mother from someone else and worked wonderfully. I just titrated against NaOH today and it shows 5% acidity. Apparently free range acetobacter are not always best.