In The Studio With - Jonathan Brown of Cult Vinegar
Fermented foods are all the rage at the moment for their complex flavour and impressive health benefits. People everywhere are getting stuck in, learning about the age-old process of making them from scratch and trying their hand at baking sourdough, brewing kombucha and pickling kimchi.
But in the midst of all the hype, one of the more everyday live foods often gets overlooked. Vinegar, that beautifully acidic ingredient that’s a staple in every kitchen, is what Jonathan Brown became hooked on whilst hunting for wedding wines in Burgundy. It was love at first taste and it wasn’t long before Jonathan was making his own vinegar at home. What started as a hobby soon transformed into a business idea that has now materialised into Cult Vinegar.
We had a chat with Jonathan to hear about how this all happened…
What were you doing before you started Cult Vinegar?
I work in advertising during the day as a strategist and have done for 13 years. I also wrote a food blog called Around Britain with a Paunch. I got into fermentation about 8 years ago and started making my own sourdough bread and home made yoghurt. My passion for food has continued but I find the energy I once found for blogging is now taken up by spreading the love about live vinegar.
What sparked your interest in making vinegar?
It all started 6 years ago while Sarah and I were hunting for our wedding wines. We stayed at a friend’s lovely hunting lodge in Burgundy and discovered two fabulous stoneware crocks residing in his rustic kitchen. At the end of a meal you’d slosh in your leftover red or white wine and when you turned a tap out came this incredible vinegar. It was a fascinating ritual that seemed so old fashioned yet so modern at the same time. I’d never encountered a vinaigrier before and fell in love with the idea immediately. I did what any gallant husband would do and gave Sarah a pair of old fashioned French vinegar crocks as a present.
Three months passed, and then we got married in Somerset. Many months later my father in law commented that our leftover wedding cider had improved with age and was far less sweet. He was indeed right… it had become vinegar! We then used the mother that was floating on the top to incubate our own wine vinegar and have been using this culture ever since to turn wine, cider, sherry and sake into delicious vinegar.
At what point did you decide to start the business? Was it a hobby to begin with?
The idea of starting a business all about vinegar began as a whimsical notion and then slowly fermented into the kind of thing I couldn’t stop. I was surprised that more people weren’t aware that they could make their own vinegar and wanted to help the British public join in. The more I fermented my own vinegar and cultivated other probiotic microbes the more I felt that Cult Vinegar might have a chance of catching on.
I started by taking my two old-fashioned vinegar crocks to see Billy Lloyd who is a fabulously talented ceramicist based in Kennington. We hit it off immediately and before long we’d got each other revved up about the idea of con-temporising the old-fashioned vinegar crock with a radical makeover.
Once we’d decided on the design we got in touch with Daylesford about launching our Cult Vinegar Vase. The combination of Billy’s design aesthetic, the gut health qualities of live vinegar and the notion of using up leftovers really struck a chord. We really couldn’t have hoped for a better launch.
After that we went on to do a number of events during the summer including two festivals at Daylesford’s farm in Gloucestershire, the River Cottage Festival and also the Christmas market and various events at Soho Farmhouse and Shoreditch House.
Where do you make the vinegar? Do you do it from home or have a factory somewhere?
We make all our vinegar at home in Balham, which is a little bit cramped but it, works for the time being. We’d love to scale up in due course but because we are making our vinegars in small batches it is all fairly self-contained.
Do you work alone or with a group of people?
My wife and father help hugely both with bottling, labelling, collecting wines and assisting at shows. Billy has been a massive help too. His expertise and enthusiasm gave this endeavour a huge injection of skill and gravitas. Others have helped with everything including branding, design and photography. Without everyone’s support we would never be where we are now.
What are your favourite vinegars in your collection? What’s most popular?
Good question. I love our 1995 Mersault and Chassagne Montrachet– both have that buttery flavour you get from good white burgundy and they remind me of where the brand started – as a little spark of inspiration in a farmhouse kitchen outside Beaune.
I’ve got a serious soft spot for our Spanish Moscatel, as do our customers. It’s always the one that sells out fastest at any show we exhibit at and it converts any skeptics. Our Sardinian Cannonau (made from one of the healthiest red wines in the world) is another favourite and the Orange Georgian (made from one of the oldest wines in the world) is really fun too.
What are the health benefits of consuming live products?
I am delighted to see the discourse around gut health grow. Live microbes (probiotics) are thought to contribute towards the health of your microbiome – both in terms of the number of good microbes, but also the variety of your gut flora. In general terms, the greater the diversity of your gut flora the better. You also need to ensure your good bacteria are fed well with a range or prebiotic ingredients. The combination of the two helps to keep your gut healthy which can have a big impact on your overall health and wellbeing.
In terms of vinegar, there is evidence that live vinegar with the mother contributes towards controlling blood sugar levels and is also effective at reducing cholesterol. More anecdotally, apple cider vinegar is used by many as a tonic to soothe a variety of inflammatory conditions including gout, IBS and sore joints. There are numerous articles extolling the virtues of ACV and it has been used since the Greeks as a health elixir.
How do you use your vinegars? Are they good in cooking or can that damage the health giving properties?
Just like wine, each of our vinegars pairs well with certain foods, for example, the Champagne Cult Vinegar is stunning with seafood and our Ruby Port Cult Vinegar is ideal with game.
Our wine vinegars are fabulous for cooking with. They can be used in all sorts of recipes (see our recipe cards for inspiration) but some of my favourites are using them in a decadent hollandaise sauce or Caponata. It goes without saying that they’re all great in dressings and they also make a quick, tasty pickle: cucumber, chilli and sesame dunked in our sake vinegar is fabulous with salmon.
My advice is that it is fine to cook with the vinegar, simply spritz with more live vinegar before serving when the dish has cooled to eating temperature to ensure the live quality of the vinegar persists.
What is the purpose of the lovely ceramic vases?
The Cult Vinegar Vase has been specifically designed by Billy Lloyd to turn wine into live vinegar. Simply slosh in a bottle of wine and add the bottle of Cult Mother that comes with each Vinegar Vase, replace the lid and wait for between 6-10 weeks and you will have your own lovely live vinegar.
Once the vinegar is the strength you want it, you’ve got two options. You can either keep it going by feeding it with a glass of wine every now and again, creating your own house vinegar, or you can bottle it as a specific batch. If you go down this route, simply leave an inch or so in the bottom of the vase to act as your starter for the next batch along with whatever solids and mother you strain out as you bottle it.
How did you learn the process of making vinegar? Did you teach yourself?
Making vinegar is pretty straightforward. I have taught myself via various books and am learning along the way. Most of the time it goes well but inevitably, when you are dealing with a live product, the odd mistake can happen. The beauty of vinegar is that it is pretty much self-preserving – the clever microbes create such an acidic environment that only they can survive in it.
What were your first experiences when you started off? Were there some initial challenges?
The first challenge was to get my head around the world of manufacturing a beautiful crafted object in ceramics. As someone who has never done this, it was quite intimidating. Fortunately Billy is a star and has been amazing at leading this process. The meticulous detail that goes into each stage of making the Vinegar Vase is quite staggering.
The process of selecting colours of glaze and of creating the bespoke hexagonal packaging was another challenge – but a fun one too. In a time when everything seems to be about coding and all things digital, it is fascinating seeing an analogue, tactile product come to life.
Aside from navigating the manufacturing process, the main challenge has been how to fit in a fledgling business with a day job and an expanding family. Sarah has been incredibly supportive. I dread to think how many evenings and weekends we’ve spent bottling up and labelling our various vinegars, or packaging up Vinegar Vases for our different clients, and that’s before you get into the number of events and markets we do as well.
The vinegar making is the easy bit. It’s the logistics, admin, finance and business development that takes time – but that has its rewards too.
Can you explain how the process works for someone who it is new to?
Making your own vinegar is super simple. You need to start with a vessel and an alcoholic liquid of some sort – the better the quality of this alcohol the better the vinegar will be. Your wine (or other alcohol) needs to be between 6-14% ideally. Too weak and the vinegar won’t be very strong and too strong and the microbes won’t be able to operate. You then need a starter culture (AKA The Mother) that eats the alcohol and creates acetic acid, which is effectively vinegar.
How long does the process take, from start to finish?
If you are making around 1 litre of vinegar from a red wine, it should take about 6-10 weeks before it tastes vinegary. Leave it a little longer and the flavour will mellow and round out. After 4 weeks it will probably smell slightly of nail polish and other solvents but this goes after a while and then tastes delicious. The timings can vary depending on many factors including the temperature, amount of oxygen, the strength of the alcohol and also the level of sulphites and other compounds in the wine.
Do you have a long-term dream/ goal for your business or are you happy the way things are at the moment?
I love the excitement of where the business is right now. It offers a good balance of having a day job in advertising as well as allowing me to learn how to run a business in an area of culture that I am very passionate about.
In the future, I’d love to be able to run Cult full time so we can spread the love about live vinegar and live ingredients (ideally from a lovely location in the countryside but that’s some way off yet!).
Do you have any advice for anyone starting on their fermenting journey?
Fermentation is huge fun. It’s super tasty and healthy too. It can go spectacularly wrong when you start to grow odd molds but I think this just adds to the fun (and it rarely happens).
My first bit of advice is to buy Sandros Katz’s bible on the subject called Fermentation. Vinegar making is a good one to start with as it’s very stable and doesn’t take too long. Otherwise, I’d suggest making yoghurt as it’s so easy. Just buy a small tub of plain full fat yoghurt from the supermarket. Put one spoonful inside the tub of a yoghurt maker. Pour in 1 litre of full fat UHT long life milk. Turn the machine on. Go to bed. Wake up. Go down stairs. And then inspect your freshly made yoghurt. We make two batches a week – our toddler loves it.
And if you fancy getting to lacto fermenting my advice would be to start with either sauerkraut or kimchi as they’re relatively simple.
What advice would you give people about making vinegar at home?
Our mission is to spread the love about live vinegar. Our Vinegar Vase was our first product and it is designed specifically to allow people to make vinegar at home. It comes with a booklet explaining everything and a bottle of our mother culture. You’ll also want to invest in a pH probe and a wine thief to extract your vinegar and, if you really get into it, I’d suggest buying two books: Acid Trip and The Vinegar Revival.
My main bit of advice is to always use the best wine you can. The better the wine the better the vinegar.
We don’t know about you, but we’re ready to get fermenting…