|Vinegar: Sour Grapes or Sweet Success
Rabbi Tzvi Rosen, Star-K Kashrus Administrator; Editor, Kashrus Kurrents
Vinegar is one of nature’s most unique and versatile products. Folklore maintains that vinegar was discovered quite by accident, when wine was inadvertently left to sour. This resulted in the first batch of full-bodied wine vinegar. Indeed, the word vinegar is derived from the French word vinagere, which means sour wine. Euphemistically, the Talmud refers to a ne'er do well son of a righteous father as a Chōmetz Ben Yayin, "vinegar son of wine."
Folklore aside, vinegar was well known in the time of Tanach. The Torah forbids a Nazarite to drink wine vinegar or eat other grape and wine products. In Tehillim, Kind David asked to drink vinegar when he said, “Ultzami Yishkuni Chōmetz”. In Megillas Rus, Boaz's workers dipped their bread in vinegar.
The Hebrew term for vinegar, chometz (pronounced ch-oh-metz), is very much akin to the word chametz (pronounced ch-aw-maitz), leavened bread products. This etymological similarity underscores a close similarity between the production of vinegar and the leavening of bread. The chemical process that allows wine to "sour" into vinegar, and effects the leavening of flour and water, is known as fermentation. Fermentation is a natural conversion process by which yeast, a fungus found in nature, converts sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. In wine or bread, the natural sugar found in malted grains such as barley or corn, or in fruit juices such as grape juice or apple cider, undergo this chemical transformation.
To create vinegar, a second fermentation process has to take place. In this process, bacteria converts the alcohol into acetic acid, the sour element of vinegar. There are two methods used for vinegar fermentation: the traditional vat method, and the high volume acetobactor generator process.
In traditional vinegar fermentation, the alcoholic liquid - usually wine - is placed in specially made oak barrel casks with plenty of air holes to allow for ample aeration. The alcohol in the wine is slowly converted into acetic acid until the proper level is reached. Once this takes place, the vinegar is ready. A classic Italian favorite, balsamic vinegar, is an excellent example of a traditionally aged vinegar. Whereas regular wine vinegar takes one or two years to ferment, the grape (juice) of balsamic vinegar requires 12 years to age.
The long balsamic vinegar process requires great care to produce. The grapes have to be carefully crushed and are aged in special chestnut or mulberry barrels, where fermentation and oxidation occur simultaneously. As the vinegar ages and evaporates, the vinegar is transferred to smaller cherry and mulberry barrels for further conversion. After 12 years, the balsamic vinegar is thick, full-bodied and almost condiment-like in consistency. Authentic balsamic requires at least 12 years of aging; however, some of the mother balsamics used in this process are much older. In Modena, Italy, mother balsamic vinegars can be traced back 400 years. Due to the complex task of tracing balsamic vinegar through the matrix of time, authentic kosher balsamic would be nearly impossible to trace.
A prized bottle of authentic balsamic vinegar can cost in excess of $75.00 for a 3 1/2 oz. bottle! Today, the mass produced balsamic vinegar sold in the United States is not authentic balsamic. In reality, it is regular vinegar with balsamic wine flavoring and coloring that captures the taste and appearance of authentic balsamic. The cheapest imitations are hardly aged; medium grades are aged two years, a fraction of the time balsamic vinegar is aged. Of course, this is reflected in the price tag.
Modern day vinegar companies use the acetobactor generator system to convert large amounts of vinegar quickly and efficiently. These generators range in size from 6,000 to 18,000 gallons. The word acetobactor is a contraction of two Italian words: Aceto (vinegar) and bactor (bacteria). Bactor refers to the bacteria used in these generators to convert the alcohol into acetic acid. In lieu of fermentation, 190 proof alcohol is brought in from outside sources to be converted. The generators are filled with a solution of water, alcohol and vinegar
from previous processing, bacteria, bacteria food nutrients, and beechwood shavings. The generator is kept at a constant 85°F. The alcohol circulates through the generator and is converted into acetic acid. After being drawn off from the generator, the vinegar is filtered and standardized with water to its desired strength.
The strength of the vinegar, known as grain, is determined by the percent of acetic acid in the blend. 40 grain vinegar means that there is 4% acidity, 50 grain means that there is 5% acidity, etc. These are typically consumer strength vinegars. Industrial strength vinegar can go upwards to 200 grain acidity. Industrial strength vinegar is generally 12% acidity, or 120 grain. The raw materials used for the fermentation process play a fundamental role in the taste, color and fragrance of the vinegar variety. White distilled vinegar is made from petroleum or grains, such as corn and wheat; it is clear and tastes bitter. Apple cider vinegar is much more mellow and has an amber color; red wine vinegar has a much deeper red color.
The Halachic Issues
There are many halachic differences between wine and vinegar. The brocha one makes on wine is Borei Pri Hagafen; the brocha on vinegar is Shehakol. Obviously, wine vinegar that was processed from non-kosher wine or non-kosher grape juice would also be non-kosher. If an akum (non-Jew) touches non-mevushel, non-pasteurized wine it would become stam yayin, and would be forbidden. Yet, kosher wine vinegar that was fermented from non-mevushel wine does not become forbidden if touched by an akum.
According to the halacha, vinegar is considered to be a product that is both sharp and pungent. It is of halachic significance whether a kosher product was soaked or mixed into sharp vinegar or mild juices. If a kosher product, such as a cucumber, was soaked in non-kosher wine vinegar it would become non-kosher in the time needed to boil the product. If the cucumber would be soaked in non-kosher grape juice, the cucumber would become non-kosher in 24 hours because of a principle known as Kavush Kemevushel. This principle states that it takes 24 hours for a kosher product soaking in a mild non-kosher liquid to imbibe the liquid's non-kosher properties.
If non-kosher wine was inadvertently mixed into a kosher blend of fruit juices, the non-kosher wine would be nullified if the percentage of non-kosher wine was less than a 1 part to 6 part ratio. This is the halachic ratio needed to nullify non-kosher wine when it mixes with kosher liquids. However, the sharp tasting pungency of vinegar would not allow the wine vinegar to become nullified in the mixture, even in minute amounts of less than 1 to 60 ratio. This is because vinegar is a product that is avid l’itama, added for taste.
Kosher Vinegar Manufacturing
As is the case with any manufactured product, there are basic kashrus issues that must be addressed when producing kosher vinegar. In the traditional method of vinegar fermentation, the obvious requirement is that the wine be kosher and mevushel, pasteurized or made by Torah observant workers. Any additional ingredients must be kosher, as well. Furthermore, the casks used to ferment kosher vinegar may not have been previously used to ferment non-kosher vinegar or wines.
In the acetobactor generator process, a wide array of alcohols can be used for the conversion process. These alcohols may be derived from a variety of sources. It is possible that the alcohol is imported from foreign countries. If the country of origin is a heavy producer of wine or grapes, there is a reasonable assumption that the imported alcohol could be derived from grapes. In that case, if the vinegar company uses grape-derived alcohol as their base product, all the subsequent vinegar productions generated from this grape alcohol would be non-kosher! The repercussions of using non-kosher alcohol would be devastating. As previously mentioned, vinegar is considered a davar charif product that is very sharp and pungent. Since a davar charif will not be nullified in a mixture of a 1 to 60 ratio, all of the product’s condiments or sauces that were flavored or mixed with the non-kosher vinegar may also be forbidden.
Of similar concern, some foreign countries such as New Zealand, a large producer of milk products, produce alcohol from fermented whey. If the company imported whey alcohol, the vinegar produced from whey alcohol would be dairy!
Kosher For Pesach Concerns
Pesach, of course, presents a new host of kosher issues. All of the fermentation ingredients have to be kosher for Pesach. Typically, apple cider or petroleum derived alcohol or wine alcohol are used for Kosher L'Pesach vinegar. If the grain alcohol source comes from barley, rye, oat, wheat or spelt, the grain alcohol would also be considered chametz. However, if the grain alcohol is derived from leguminous sources such as corn, rice or milo (a corn derivative), the vinegar is not considered chametz but is considered kitniyos, a leguminous product. This vinegar would not be permitted for use by Ashkenazic Jews on Pesach. It may be used by Sefardic Jews, who eat kitniyos products on Pesach, if the other ingredients such as the nutrients are Kosher for Pesach, as well.
Use For After Pesach
The halacha is clear that it is forbidden for a Jew to possess chametz on Pesach. Chametz products must be consumed or destroyed before Pesach. In the event that the volume of Jewish owned chametz is too great to be consumed or destroyed, or it is worth a substantial amount of money, it may be sold to a non-Jew in a bona fide sale. This will ensure that the chametz will be fully transferred out of Jewish ownership. Failing to do so will render the unsold chametz forbidden for Jewish consumption even after Pesach.
Today, in the case of alcohol used to produce vinegar, the major sources of domestic grain alcohol are predominantly derived from corn and milo. A small percentage of the raw materials for grain alcohol comes from wheat. Since there is a reasonable doubt as to whether the grain vinegar has been derived from kitniyos, halacha allows us to follow the majority ruling if the amount of alcohol cannot be determined. Hence, grain vinegar would not be considered pure chametz, only safek chametz, and could be sold before Pesach without worry. Furthermore, grain vinegar would not be subject to chametz sheavar alov hapesach restrictions by virtue of this majority ruling. Therefore, vinegar and products containing vinegar may be purchased immediately after Pesach if you cannot trace the source.
The last step of vinegar production is filtration through diatomaceous earth and/or mechanical filters to remove any impurities. Vinegar filtration is needed to remove unwelcome residents of vinegar production, known as vinegar eels.
What are vinegar eels? Vinegar eels are tiny worms that live in vinegar. They are usually found in vinegar barrels and feed off the bacteria that produce the vinegar. Vinegar eels are slender and grow to a length of 1/16" to 3/8". Filtration would generally alleviate any chashash of vinegar eels.
Glacial Acetic Acid
Today, a product known as glacial acetic acid is used in industrial food production. What is meant by this term? Are glacial acetic acid and vinegar synonymous, and are there kashrus concerns?
Acetic acid is vinegar's sour component. Acetic acid can be concentrated into different strengths. When the acetic acid is concentrated to a strength of 12% or 120 grain level, the acetic acid will freeze at 16.7°C (62°F). Acetic acid that possesses this property is commonly known as glacial acetic acid. The term “glacial” indicates a product that reaches this high freezing point.
Does the term "acetic acid" imply that this is derived from vinegar? In the United States, the answer is NO! It is a known fact that in the United States, industrial acetic acid can be derived through chemical engineering more efficiently and economically than a vinegar derivation. Typically, acetic acid is derived through a chemical reaction of methanol (a petroleum derivative) and carbon monoxide, or through oxidation methods of synthetic acetaldehyde. In the United States, glacial acetic acid generally refers to acetic acid that is chemically engineered and would not present kashrus concerns.
It is indeed amazing to uncover the niflaos haboreh, Hashem's wonders, and how they manifest themselves in so many commonplace areas. Just as vinegar enhances food, it also enhances our appreciation of Hashem's bounty and the gifts provided by nature.