As a chef, Justin Dean is no stranger to the flavor vinegar can bring to dishes like salad dressings or sauces. But despite his intimate familiarity with the ingredient, the 50-year-old never thought he would be making his own craft vinegars from leftover or unusable wine, mint, persimmon, basil and even beer.
"I just did it out of love and respect of an ingredient, and it kind of just turned into a business that I didn't think it would turn into," said Dean, who first started making vinegar in his basement nearly a decade ago before handing it out to local chefs. "They were like 'Holy s---. This is not vinegar at all, like nothing I've ever tasted before.' And that was kind of when the light went off and I was like, 'There might be something here.' "
Today, as co-owners of The MadHouse Vinegar Co., Dean and business partner Richard Stewart churn out hundreds of gallons of vinegar each year from a 300-acre farm about 15 miles from Cincinnati, by using inputs that otherwise would be wasted. The slow process of making their vinegar, which can take a few months to as much as a year, allows for the end product to have a richer flavor that doesn't overpower the recipe with a sharp, acidic taste that often occurs with more mainstream varieties, he said.
When area demand for sweet corn faded last summer, a local farmer gave Dean some of the crop it had picked from the field just two hours before. After a forklift broke two bottles of wine from North Carolina and stained the entire pallet, Dean trucked in the Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Riesling and Chardonnay that was deemed unusable for restaurants or retail. Even broken candy canes were turned into peppermint vinegar, though Dean said it hasn't sold well.
"I had 25 pounds of candy canes I had no idea what to do with it," he said. "I just figured I would turn into vinegar and see what happened."
Increasingly, small operations like MadHouse, Acid League and Lindera Farms are among the companies breathing new life into vinegar. The global vinegar market is forecast to rise to $2.62 billion by 2027 from $2.27 billion a year ago as custom blends provide further momentum to the category, according to data from IMARC Group.
"They were like 'Holy s***. This is not vinegar at all, like nothing I've ever tasted before. And that was kind of when the light went off and I was like, 'There might be something here.' "
Co-owner, The MadHouse Vinegar Co.
Despite its new-found popularity, vinegar, which is created by fermenting alcohol, dates back thousands of years. Babylonian scrolls recorded the use of the liquid around 5000 B.C., and traces of it were found in Egyptian urns 2,000 years later. Known as “poor man’s wine,” the bible says Jesus was offered vinegar at the Crucifixion.
Today, vinegar is benefiting from a surge in ready-to-eat food offerings, with the ingredient playing a prominent role in curtailing the growth of bacteria and preventing spoilage, in addition to its use as a flavoring. Stryve Foods, a maker of air-dried meat products known as biltong, gives its slabs a vinegar bath that acts as a natural preservative while also adding bold and intense flavor.
Kemin Industries, a maker of specialty ingredients, has turned to vinegar as it prioritizes natural preservatives amid a push among consumers toward healthier eating and premium brands. Courtney Schwartz, marketing director of the company's Kemin Food Technologies division, said in an October interview that the company not only looks to vinegar to maintain freshness but also as an option to preserve color and flavor.
Vinegar also is sometimes used in place of salt to provide flavor, and it has thrived as consumers search for new tastes and varieties. Similar to other ingredients, with more people cooking at home during the pandemic and looking to experiment, vinegar has been one option they have turned to in the kitchen.
For years, vinegar has been associated with the large jugs of white distilled and apple cider varieties found on grocery store shelves. But now, coconut, cane, lemon and fig have become some of the other more common flavors of vinegar available in the market, according to IMARC.
Wesley McWhorter, an assistant professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston School of Public Health, teaches cooking classes where he encourages the use of vinegar to add flavor.
"A decade ago, it really was like you had to search far and wide for anything beyond red wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar, or any of the apple cider classical ones," said McWhorter, who also has a background as a chef. "It's been present but always kind of in the background really.
Susan Pritchett, brand director at vinegar maker Mizkan America, said offerings focused on food such as wine vinegar, rice vinegar, and balsamic vinegar are among those varieties growing the fastest in popularity.
In the U.S., vinegar sales rose 4.6% in 2021 to $654 million, compared to $625 million in 2018, according to data from NielsenIQ. Sales, however, are down sharply from $722 million in 2020 when the onset of COVID-19 closed down restaurants and other venues, and consumers spent much of their time that year cooking at home.
Pritchett said despite the longer-term increase in vinegar consumption, the segment's growth is being held back by "a lack of understanding" among shoppers on how the acid is made and the flavor impact it can have on their dishes. Currently, she estimated household penetration for vinegar at 10%.
"As stewards of the category, it's not only an opportunity but a responsibility to educate and increase that understanding," she said. "Sales are increasing, household penetration is increasing, all these metrics are on the up, but my point is that there's still a lot of room. I only have to look at the category to know it's not where it could be."
In an effort to increase sales at Mizkan America, the company is turning to social media and other influencers to educate consumers about vinegar and how to use it. Newer innovations lean into consumer demand for different flavor options, such as its Mizkan Sweet Chili and Toasted Sesame varieties, and organic through its Holland House Organic Wine Vinegars.
"There's a health halo around it. People are drinking vinegar. People are putting it on their smoothies," Pritchett added. "The markets and the trends support more premium products, so it's up to us to figure out what those opportunities are."