Building A Better Vinegar

Four Thieves introduces the first local artisanal malt vinegar made with Kelso beers.

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“To go from really good beer to really good vinegar takes three to four months,” said Matt Monahan.

Yes, beer. Malt vinegar, that piquant stuff you associate with fish and chips, is derived from the stuff in your pint glass. So Monahan, who works as a brewer at Kelso, has partnered with chef Andrew Burman to make an artisan version—the first in a new line of Cobble Hill–made vinegars called Four Thieves.

After chatting with Monahan, one comes to feel that standard American-made bottles are to real vinegar as Entenmann’s cakes are to fine French pastries. “They’re usually made in 48 hours,” he said disdainfully of the domestic supermarket vinegars. “The acidification takes place really quickly and they’re really harsh. The nice stuff you’re getting from France, they’re a lot softer and aromatic; they have sweet qualities to them.” That’s because the French employ something called the “Orleans Method,” an age-old technique in which alcohol is allowed to ferment into vinegar in an open-top wine barrel. Of course, this process takes a lot longer.

Naturally this brewer-by-day will produce variations drawn from stout, pilsner and other styles of brew. But the original idea, hatched in wine country out east, began with wine. The two men met while doing private chef servitude on Long Island. “We realized we grew up a mile away from each other,” said Burman. “He went to college with my brother.”

“He dragged me out to the guesthouse garage,” said Monahan, picking up the story. “On top of the boiler room he had a bunch of red-wine bottles full of different vinegars.” An idea and partner- ship was born.

Given Monahan’s day job, malt vinegar was a natural first focus. “I’m not a good beer brewer, so I partnered with someone who’s really good at it,” said Burman—who succinctly encapsulates vinegar creation as “sugar-yeast-alcohol-acetic acid-vinegar.”

“The goal is to use as much stuff as close to home as possible,” said Monahan. Indeed the duo draw some of their malt from nearby Valley Malt in Hadley, Massachusetts, and are lining up local ingredients for their next lines, too: New Jersey- and Connecticut-grown apples for their cider vinegar, and they’re talking with East End vintners about collaborating on red- and white-wine vinegars. Every vinegar will be barrel-aged for three to four months, and at press time the first batch was finishing in a storage space on Court Street. The plan is to sell Four Thieves at the Brooklyn Flea this summer.

As for the curious name, here’s the wives’ tale: During the plague, a quartet of thieves looted the homes of victims and never caught so much as a cold. When the authorities caught up with them, they offered a Hobson’s choice: reveal the secret to their health or go to the gallows. The robbers claimed they had wrapped their faces in rags soaked in spice-infused vinegar. “We will have that vinegar as well,” said Monahan.

Artisan acid. “The goal is to use as much stuff as close to home as possible,” said Matt Monahan, who is collaborating with Andrew Burman to craft fine, barrel-aged vinegar from local ingredients.

Photo credit:  Michael Harlan Turkell.

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Robert Simonson writes about cocktails, spirits and bars for the New York Times. His book "The Old-Fashioned: The World's First Classic Cocktail" was published by Ten Speed Press in May. With his visit to Van Brunt Stillhouse, he thinks he's finally seen every Brooklyn micro-distillery. But he's not sure.