Vinegar Origins

A look at the history of vinegar production.

Vinegar has a rich history. Traces of vinegar have been found in Egyptian urns from around 3000 B.C. Babylonian scrolls mention the use of vinegar even earlier, around 5000 B.C. Babylonians used it as a condiment and a preservative, because vinegar enabled food to be transported on long journeys. Mixed with water, it was used in ancient times by farmers and travelers to quench thirst.

Vinegar was popular historically as a beverage. The most common drink in ancient Greece was called “oxycrat”. It was created by mixing water, vinegar and honey and was kept in special vases called oxydes. Similarly, the Romans used to drink “posca”, a mix of water and vinegar that was sold in the streets. The Bible notes that Roman soldiers offered vinegar to Christ at the Crucifixion. A bowl of vinegar, known as an “acetabulum”, was always present on the table at Roman banquets for people to soak small pieces of bread.

Roman acetabulum, 1st century

In China, many royal households during the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 B.C.) had a Vinegar Maker as a specialized position. Chinese vinegars served both culinary and medicinal purposes.

In the 5th-15th centuries, vinegar making became popular in Europe, with the French city of Orléans becoming particularly famous for the quality of its vinegars. They used a fermentation and aging process which became known as the Orléans process. Balsamic vinegar also began its evolution in the Duchy of Modena in Italy. By the Renaissance era, vinegar-making was a profitable business in France, with the country producing close to 150 flavored vinegars. Production of vinegar was also developing in Great Britain. During this time, malt vinegar began to develop in England where it was first known as “alegar”.

Fermentation barrel for balsamic vinegar, 12th century

The 19th century brought dramatic changes for vinegar production with rapid industrialization. The first large-scale industrial process for vinegar production was invented in the Kingdom of Baden (part of modern Germany) in 1823. This process reduced fermentation times from several months to 1–2 weeks. Japan also began industrializing vinegar production during the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1600 to 1868), helping to provide an ample supply of vinegar for sushi in Japan.

In the 20th century, vinegar production was revolutionized again by the invention of the submerged fermentation process that cut production times down to 1–2 days. In the early days of the United States, the production of cider vinegar was an important part of the domestic economy. Brightland’s new fruit-forward vinegars are made on a family-run farm in California’s Central Coast. Champagne and Zinfandel grapes, Navel and Valencia oranges, and ripe Triple Crown blackberries are grown in nutrient-dense soil, selected with care, and double fermented in stainless steel.

Reginald Smith, Vinegar, the Eternal Condiment: Unearthing the Science, Business and Sometimes Rollicking Story of Vinegar, Spikehorn Press, 2019