Like most vinegars, the starting point of malt vinegar is alcohol. The specific type of alcohol is somewhat different from the wines used to make most other European vinegars. It was made with ale instead of wine.
Early malt vinegar was termed alegar as a result. The first use of the term alegar was in a cookbook from the 15th century. Another important difference is the fact that malt vinegar was made from a cereal grain, which is unusual among Western options. Eventually, it would evolve into a product separate from ale. Malt vinegar would be made from unhopped ale that more often than not came from malted barley.
Like French wine vinegars, malt vinegar was fermented in barrels. Unlike wine vinegar, the barrels were kept outdoors. After first showing up in the 15th century, malt vinegar would grow in popularity. In the 17th century, the British government began to tax it. The taxation suggests that malt vinegar production had become a sizable industry by that time.
In the 19th century, malt vinegar was made darker with the addition of caramel coloring. This was an effort to compete with cheap imported vinegars made from molasses. Customers were accustomed to the dark color, so its makers darkened the product from an amber color to the deep brown that we know today.
It was still being sold by the barrel up to the late 19th century. Grocers would buy these barrels and customers would bring their own containers to have them filled. Restaurants and hotels bought vinegar by the barrel as well. It was around this time that vinegar-makers began bottling their product.
This period would see the rise of malt vinegar empires such as the Beaufoys. Mark Beaufoy took up vinegar making after first being a gin distiller’s apprentice in Bristol. He had a change of heart about being in the liquor business and traveled to the Netherlands to learn vinegar-making.
He leased a brewery in London in the mid-18th century. Beaufoy would go on to earn a contract with the British Navy to supply vinegar. Along with Beaufoy, there were other companies such as Swan & Company and Sarson’s that became famous for its production.
Malt vinegar flavor profile
It’s known for having a toasted, nutty flavor profile to go with its mellow acidity. Some people detect a mild caramel note as well.
Generally speaking, malt vinegar is not a good source of any nutrients, but some makers claim that their version contains valuable compounds. Those compounds include:
- Vitamins: While most malt vinegars do not claim to contain any vitamins, some varieties do list vitamin C as one of the nutrients on their label.
- Minerals: Some makers list potassium as being present in their product.
- Diabetes: Researchers have found that malt vinegar can improve insulin uptake in muscle tissue.
- Heart disease: Its effect on low-density lipoprotein — also known as bad cholesterol — could lower your risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Malt vinegar is commonly associated with the classic British fish and chip meal. It is sprinkled over it as a condiment. Beyond that application, its nutty flavor profile makes it a popular addition to any potato dish, including roasted potatoes. It is also a useful vinegar for making vinaigrettes, and other salad dressings.