Red Wine (L), Pear (R)

Concord grape wine vinegar on the left, pear cider vinegar on the right. Both in recycled whiskey bottles.

Vinegar, if you believe the natural living information feeds, can be used for everything from killing weeds to cleaning your windows to pickling your cucumbers to dressing your salad (all true). They also claim it can help you lose weight, kill heartburn, and remove warts (more hit and miss), and the true believers will tell you it kills cancer cells (well, in a test tube). Regardless, it’s a fantastic substance to have on hand. I generally buy it by the gallon during canning season, and have used it as a natural cleaner for years.

As I started making fruit wines and ciders, it occurred to me that I should also be able to make my own vinegar. I’d seen “vinegar starter” for sale on the brewing supply websites, and thought, why not. How hard could it be, right? Most brewers spend a lot of time trying to make sure their wines DON’T turn into vinegar.

Why make your own vinegar?

  • Well, the better the wine the better the vinegar, so you can probably make a better vinegar out of left over wine than what you can buy in the store.
  • It’s fun and cool and weird and wonderful, all at the same time.
  • It’s a great project for kids (hello science: sugars, yeast – a fungus, learning that not all bacteria are bad, the fact that it is a living thing you have to take care of…what’s not to love).
  • Because you can, and its good to know these things. Plus, it’s really useful and tasty stuff.

So a few years ago, I had a bunch of apple juice on hand, and my local very well supplied grocery had a vinegar starter (vinegar mother) available. So I dumped the mother into the juice and waited. And…well, nothing happened.

Pear Cider with Mother

The lava lamp “mother”. This was an early stage of the pear cider vinegar, from more than a year ago.

I don’t know what I was thinking. Turns out making vinegar is a two-step process. In the first step, yeast turns the sugars in fruit juice to alcohol (just like when you make cider or wine or beer). During the SECOND step, the acetobacter bacteria turn that alcohol into acetic acid, which is the type of acid that vinegar contains. It’s what gives vinegar an acidic pH (5% vinegar, which is what store-bought apple cider and white vinegar are standardized to, have a pH of 2.4). So, in order to make your own vinegar, you either need to start with wine, or make wine first.

OK, I know how to do that. So I turned some grape juice from our grape arbor into red wine (not, mind you, very good red wine – the grapes are mostly concord, which are not wine grapes). I also had some left over pear cider on hand that I didn’t think we were going to get around to drinking. Now I was ready. But wait. That well stocked grocery store? They no longer carried the vinegar starter. And I didn’t want to pay $15 plus shipping for a vinegar starter onlineBraggs. So the project was on hold for a bit. And then I started to think about it. Wasn’t vinegar starter just vinegar mother? And didn’t Braggs Apple Cider Vinegar proclaim on their label “with the mother”? So couldn’t I use Braggs as my vinegar starter? Google is my friend. Google said yes (the original blog post is here).

So, one small bottle of Braggs Apple Cider Vinegar, and I was on my way. I followed the blog post directions, which indicated that I should dilute one cup of my wine in one cup water, and pour into a very clean glass jar with 1/4 cup Braggs. Cover with cheese cloth so it could breathe, and let sit in a cool dark place. Every two weeks, I added another cup of undiluted wine until I was out of wine. I did two versions. One with my concord grape red wine and one with my perry (pear cider). The cider doesn’t have to be diluted to start, as its less alcoholic. It helps to start with a fairly large container, as you are going to keep adding liquid and will quickly run out of room otherwise. A 2 quart canning jar or a pickling crock work well. I used an old jelly straining bag as my cover, held on with a rubber band.

The Mother

The remnants of the last bit of mother filtered out today. In my original batch of red wine vinegar, it was probably 1/4 inch thick.

Pretty soon, I had a visible mother. The mother is this weird gelatinous looking thing (remember the movie “The Blob”?) which is actually a raft of acetobacter bacteria. (I took a great picture of this last year, but have migrated computers, and inexplicably, some of my photos have been lost in the process). Your mother will raise and sink like a very slow lava lamp over time, depending on the temperature and the strength of the alcohol to acid, and who knows, maybe the phase of the moon. You many end up forming multiple mothers, as one forms on the surface, sinks, and a new one forms on the surface. Depending on the wine used (you can also make vinegar out of beer), your mother will get really really thick, or be kind of thin and delicate. Remember that oxygen is critical to this process, so don’t seal your jars.

Once your mother has been doing its thing for a couple of months, your vinegar should be done. You’ll know because of the smell, and the taste. Note that you should not use this vinegar for canning unless you have a pH meter and can test the strength. Canning recipes are standardized to use 5% strength vinegar. This ensures that your food ends up at the right pH, which is critical to prevent food spoilage and botulism. Don’t cheap out and use your own and risk it. Vinegar by the gallon is cheap.

Filter for Homemade Vinegar

How I filter my vinegar (and a lot of other things – this reusable coffee filter is GREAT). The resulting filtered vinegar will still have mother in it, and may over time, form another “raft” even though the original mother was filtered out.

It’s OK to leave your vinegar in with the mother. It gets better over time. Just don’t let it dry out. Some people just keep taking some vinegar out as needed and adding more wine (you know, that last 1/4 of the bottle that didn’t get consumed at the last dinner party…). I strain mine into glass beer growler jugs and let it sit on top of the fridge, capped, to be use as needed. I save some of the mother to start a new batch (keep your different types of mothers separated – don’t add your red wine mother to your white wine etc.) and feed the rest to the chickens. There is probably a better way to store this, but I don’t have room in my normal vinegar cupboard for the bottles. Your taste buds and your salads will thank you! Plus, seriously, it’s just COOL!

Miles Away Farm Blog © 2015, where we have enough homemade vinegar to last us a while, and are going to focus on brewing beer for a bit.