In the last few months the fermentation space has really started to edge over into the mainstream, with NPD teams from the likes of Marks & Spencer and KFC becoming progressively more excited by the emerging possibilities with the potential new flavours and on-trend gut health properties.
Experimentation is rife in fermentation, with vinegar (high quality, raw vinegar, that is) one of several fermented products starting to benefit from the increase of interest across foodservice and retail.
While apple cider vinegar arguably got the ball rolling a few years ago in terms of championing health benefits, raw vinegars in general are now being recognised as being full of vitamins, minerals and good bacteria that can help maintain a healthy gut.
With fermentation ticking multiple consumer trend boxes, Sam Britten, founder and brewer of Orkney Craft Vinegar, tells Food Spark that things can go a whole lot further than apple cider vinegar in terms of health benefits as the vinegar category develops nicely.
Slowly does it
Orkney Craft Vinegar produce vinegar from four different homemade wines (honey, rosehip, rhubarb or seaweed) and from a beer (malt), with each of his products raw and unfiltered for maximum flavour and nutrition.
For the malt vinegar, Britten uses bere barley, an ancient grain unique to Orkney that yields a dark, liquorice-flavoured vinegar. And for his seaweed vinegar, he uses iodine-rich sugar kelp, which grows abundantly in the clear waters around Orkney and has a slightly sweet taste.
Much has been made of the nutritional and flavour benefits of seaweed over the past few years, with Britten saying that the healthier the ingredient used in raw vinegar production, the healthier the end product will be.
“A lot has been made of the health benefits of apple cider vinegar, but I don’t see the difference between that and any other vinegar that’s unpasteurised and made from living bacteria,” says Britten.
“With our sugar kelp, for example, there’s massive health benefits to seaweed, and if there’s a probiotic vinegar made from that as opposed to apples, it’s got to be something even better.”
The process of making all the vinegars in the Orkney range is a long one (between three and six months) but former chef Britten says taking any shortcuts would compromise flavour.
“For the sugar kelp vinegar, we make a mash which is an amount of seaweed, sugar, water and yeast and it gets left for a month so it’s always on the seaweed as a liquid,” explains Britten.
“Further to that, because the flavour we get from that is pronounced but not quite enough for what we want, the vinegar then sits on a dried sugar kelp for a further two months to get more flavour and more nutrients – it’s a very, very long process.
“My advice to anyone making vinegar is to keep it on the mash for a long time – or constantly throughout the whole process. What you don’t want is an acidic tasting liquid that tastes of nothing else.”
Britten uses a hybrid of two fermentation techniques to create his vinegars: the generator method and the Orleans method.
“The generator method is circulating the alcohol over stones that hold the mother bacteria, all encased in a Highland Park whisky barrel to get flavour from the barrel. It’s on a repeat spray schedule, filtering the liquid through the stones which converts it to acetic acid,” explains Britten.
For the Orleans part of the process, alcohol and a fraction of the vinegar containing the mother bacteria (which has been seeded from an apple cider vinegar) are put in a barrel and left to ferment naturally.
“That would normally take about seven months. The purist would prefer a straight Orleans method, but it only needs to spend so much time in the barrel for our purposes. We just give it a kickstart, so it takes three months for our vinegar to mature,” continues Britten.
Britten says the biggest challenge to anyone making a vinegar like his is that it takes such a long time. He says that he’s perpetually out of stock because his products are so popular and it’s a struggle to keep up with demand.
However, he’s got a new piece of equipment – a “vinegar fermenter” – coming soon which will enable him to use a faster process called the “submerged method” alongside the generator and Orleans methods.
“It involves pumping oxygen into a vat which turns it over really quickly – three days as opposed to three-to-seven months. As long as there’s no diminution of flavour, if something is quicker then we will do it,” explains Britten.
Britten is constantly looking at the island’s produce to see what else he can use to make vinegars. He’s currently working on a smoked red dulse version whereby the dulse seaweed is smoked over whisky cask chips.
“It’s got a smoked bacon flavour, so if you can imagine a smoked bacon vinegar that’s not come from a pig, that’s what we’re trialling at the moment,” he says.
Aside from the interesting flavours and the health benefits you can get from vinegar, Britten believes that fermenting and preserving ingredients is the right way forward, environmentally speaking.
“In this current climate, with the state of the planet as it is, we need to preserve things that come into season,” says Britten.
“We need to lock them away and ferment them for the winter months, and then it negates food waste. That’s something I’m very, very interested in.”