Vinegar is among those products that were not invented but rather discovered by chance. As long as alcoholic drinks like beer and wine have existed, vinegar has formed—at first on its own, purely inadvertently—when these drinks were left standing. With no knowledge of how to preserve beer and wine, storing them long-term inevitably produces vinegar.
It is therefore no surprise that vinegar was already known to the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Indians. The Babylonians produced a vinegar from dates that they used primarily for food preservation. The Egyptians drank hequa, a beer brewed from barley that was allowed to turn sour.
Legionaries of the Roman Empire often drank posca, a water-diluted wine vinegar. Hippocrates wrote a work on the medicinal uses and production of vinegar. In this era, vinegar was a very important preservative. It allowed meat, fish, fruit, and vegetables to last longer and to be transported.
There were various herbal vinegars during the Middle Ages. Hildegard of Bingen and Nostradamus researched the effects of the different medicinal plants extracted into vinegar.
The Modern Era of Vinegar Making Begins
Around 1400 in France, vinegar was produced in a “factory” by means of the Orleans method for the first time. The vinegar trade was also centered on France. Jugs and barrels were transported by the cartful. In addition to preservation and pickling, vinegar served as a disinfectant and was already being used in cosmetics in ancient times.
The Frenchman Antoine Lavoisier discovered in the eighteenth century that vinegar fermentation can only take place with the help of oxygen. Because of Sir Humphry Davy’s experiments, in 1822 Johann Wolfgang Döbereiner was able to postulate a fermentation equation for the first time. In 1837 Friedrich Traugott Kützing was the first to recognize under the microscope the living matter responsible for fermentation. However, little notice was taken of this vitalistic fermentation theory. It wasn’t until 1864 that Louis Pasteur succeeded in confirming the theory through definitive experimentation. Johann Karl Woldemar von Knieriem and Adolf Eduard Mayer finally determined in 1873 that acetic acid production took place due to bacteria. Shortly thereafter, vinegar was bottled for the first time.
In the early twentieth century, synthetic vinegar was first produced via wood distillation. A short time later came the first large-scale synthesis of acetic acid.
Today, vinegar is a popular condiment and taste enhancer, but it is also used as a preservative and for cleaning, and it has even found use (once again) in medicine.
This was excerpted from The Artisanal Vinegar Maker’s Handbook (more information).