Slow Food is a sense of place, fermented and bottled.
Interview and words by Vivian Whitney
Edited by Giselle Kennedy Lord
“That sense of place you get from a California wine or a New England beer or cider translates into a uniquely American craft vinegar… It’s all about the importance of place and how place translates into our human experience.“
When Rodrigo Vargas makes vinegar, it’s an expression of place. In 2019, Vargas launched a vinegar brand dedicated to high quality vinegars made from American alcohol, hence the name: American Vinegar Works. “That sense of place you get from a California wine or a New England beer or cider translates into a uniquely American craft vinegar.” Whether it’s his Porter Beer Malt Vinegar made from a Massachusetts craft porter, or his California Junmai Rice Wine Vinegar made with sake from California, Vargas’ vinegars demonstrate the depth and breadth of American alcohol producers and what can be done when traditional production methods are paired with local food sensibilities.
As it goes with wine and the French concept of terroir — how wine is affected by its unique, natural environment — the taste of vinegar is deeply driven by the alcohol with which it’s made. The Ultimate Red Wine Vinegar begins with California Shiraz and Vargas champions the one-of-a-kind flavor the vinegar draws from the California climate and grape growing conditions. “It’s a very concrete example of what space [tastes] like,” he says, “It’s all about the importance of place and how place translates into our human experience.” Vargas is based in Massachusetts, and reflects this important and often personal sense of place in using ingredients like Massachusetts-grown cranberries or wild blueberries from Maine, both of which he co-ferments in small batches with cider-based vinegars.
Vargas makes vinegar by way of ‘the drip method,’ a process initiated in the 1800s, and then ages and co-ferments particular flavors. The standard, industrial vinegar making process can now take as little as a few hours to produce vinegar, but Vargas chose to use the drip method because it produces better and more consistent vinegars. The way this drip method works, Vargas explains, is like a shower head in a chamber. The shower head sprays the chosen alcohol onto a bed of wood chips — a material where (good) bacteria can thrive — inside the chamber. The alcohol drips through the wood chips and is exposed to air. “Vinegar requires air and heat and time and bacteria,” so the bacteria eat away at the alcohol-soaked chips while the alcohol drips down to the bottom before it’s cycled back through to begin the drip process again.
After this first stage of processing, Vargas ages and co-ferments the vinegar, another process that sets his vinegar apart from industrialized vinegar producers; Instead of infusing flavors into a finished vinegar, he introduces ingredients while there’s still alcohol left, which allows for more nuanced, fermented flavors. “Take my Hot Apple Cider Vinegar, for instance — your first taste is going to be smoke, which is coming from smoked peppers. You’re going to get a note of savoriness, which is coming from a mix of fruit and spices. Then you’re going to get just a little bit of heat, lingering heat, that is coming from habanero pepper.”
For his IPA Beer Malt Vinegar, Vargas needed to find an IPA with just the right flavor profile to make the kind of vinegar he wanted, and landed on an IPA from Massachusetts after tasting a great many IPAs on a road trip through New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Maine. After tastings in New England, it was the porter beer from Mayflower Brewing in Plymouth, Massachusetts that he decided on for his Porter Beer Malt Vinegar. “The reason I picked them specifically is they make a classic porter. They don’t add coffee grounds or cacao nibs. They make a classic, well-balanced porter, and that’s what I wanted for my vinegar.”
Nuanced flavors like these are important to Vargas, especially as consumers are becoming more critical of heavily processed foods. “That’s where I think I fill a small spot in our food ecosystem, by helping people discover really well-made, accessible vinegar.”
In July, American Vinegar Works joined Slow Food USA as a small business supporter. “As I looked at Slow Food as an organization,” Vargas says, “it felt like it aligned incredibly well with American Vinegar Works and what we’re trying to do. I’m a tiny, tiny, tiny business, one guy, making vinegar in Massachusetts in a way that I think is really different and really unique. I need to stand on the shoulder of organizations like Slow Food to get my message out and to help other people who are interested in this type of food.”
Quick Pickle in Montmorency
Cherry Rice Wine Vinegar
All you need is a great tasting onion and your faovrite vinegar from American Vinegar Works for this very simple pickle that will add delicious flare to, well, just about any dish.
thinly sliced onion or shallot
AVW vinegar of your choice
Place thinly sliced onion or shallot in a small bowl or mug. Cover with vinegar. Let stand at least 20 minutes. Remove onions and use on salads, burgers or sandwiches. Reserve remaining vinegar for salad dressing!
Recommended Vinegars from American Vinegar Works: Ultimate Red Wine, Rose Wine, Cherry Rice Wine, Pear and Apple Cider