Sarson's vinegar: a history

Sharp minds: behind the scenes at Sarson's vinegar

by Great British Chefs 28 September 2016

It's known as the go-to vinegar for sprinkling over chips, but as Sarson's embraces its pickling heritage we take a look at the company to find out what makes this malt vinegar so special.

Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews.

Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews as well as access to some of Britain’s greatest chefs. Our posts cover everything we are excited about from the latest openings and hottest food trends to brilliant new producers and exclusive chef interviews.

Over the past few years it seems we’ve gone pickling mad. Preserved vegetables are being used in all sorts of Michelin-starred restaurants (perhaps a result of New Nordic cuisine sweeping the world), we’re making our own jars of onions, cucumbers and carrots instead of buying them in the shops and a whole host of exotic spices are being used to flavour pickling liquors. But not all vinegars are the same and various varieties produce different flavours. Malt vinegar might not be the first choice for preservers, but its unique characteristics make it an ingredient not to be overlooked when pickling at home.

Sarson’s is the name everyone associates with malt vinegar and for good reason – the company has over 200 years of heritage making the product and is the only traditional malt vinegar producer in the UK (and possibly the world) still using wooden vats to gently age and develop its taste; just as they do for world-class whisky. A world away from ‘non-brewed condiment’ – produced via a petrochemical route – which is often the choice in fish and chip shops, Sarson’s’ vinegar is all natural with a much more pronounced intensity and depth of flavour.

Sarson's was bought by Japanese vinegar producer Mizkan in 2012, and now produces six million litres of malt vinegar a year
Teardrop bottle
The iconic teardrop bottle was produced in the 1980s, and quickly became a British store cupboard staple

Preserving the past

Pickling has been around for thousands of years, and there’s evidence it was a common preservation technique in ancient Egypt. Whatever alcohol is consumed in a certain area becomes the base for the local vinegar – Asia has rice wine vinegar, vodka drinking regions have spirit vinegar and wine producing countries have wine vinegar. With the Anglo Saxons and beer came malt vinegar, which continues to be the most popular variety in the UK today, and is where the Sarson’s story started.

‘We can trace the Sarson’s family back to the 1750s,’ says engineering manager Paul Vickers, ‘when they had nothing to do with vinegar. Originally Suffolk farmers, they moved into the haulage business and only founded a vinegar brewery when another vinegar producer stopped using their services – we believe they basically opened it to spite them! By the 1930s lots of these small family-owned vinegar producers were lost to the history books, but Sarsons survived and grew, which saw the factory here gain its own railway, with tennis courts and bowling greens for the workers.’

Today, six million litres of Sarson’s is made every year (enough to fill two Olympic-sized swimming pools) and the company is owned by Mizkan, a Japanese food producer and the number one sushi seasoning supplier in the world, with similar family roots. We all know it tastes great on chips, but with the rising trend of home pickling keen cooks are turning to malt vinegar for their preserving needs and discovering new flavours to play around with.

Originally Suffolk farmers, they moved into the haulage business and only founded a vinegar brewery when another vinegar producer stopped using their services – we believe they basically opened it to spite them!

Paul Vickers

Vinegar production
The vinegar making process is tightly controlled, with each stage measured, tested and monitored by the Sarson's team
Barley mill
The barley is turned into grist or flour on-site in a 1960s mill, ready to be used to make vinegar

How it's made

On a simple level, malt vinegar is very easy to produce – leave a beer out in the elements and eventually it will turn into vinegar. But to produce the amount needed to meet demand, Paul and the team at Sarson’s need to help things along a bit. ‘The primary source of sugar that's needed to make our vinegar is British malted barley. We ‘crack’ and ‘mash’ these grains in hot water to extract the sugars, before cooling the liquid down and adding yeast in a fermenter. It’s virtually identical to brewing beer, except without hops. After six days the yeast will have converted the sugars to alcohol and is removed. We then introduce a naturally 'good' bacteria called acetobacter which turns the alcohol into acetic acid and gives vinegar its sharp flavour and 'pave'.’

While most vinegars are made in this way, the team at Sarson’s takes a little more time to ensure their product is as good as it can be. The malt vinegar is left to mature for a full seven days (compared to other vinegars which are given less than twenty-four hours), resulting in an unparalleled depth of flavour. ‘We introduce the acetobacter in giant pine vats full of ‘wood wool’, which is made from larch trees from the Vale of Evesham,’ says Paul. ‘This means the liquid can trickle down while air can flow upwards. It takes longer than other methods of producing vinegar, but results in a much more rounded, complex and unique flavour.’

Sarson's is now returning to its pickling roots, letting people know what a unique flavour malt vinegar imparts onto vegetables
Pine vats
Some of the pine vats at Sarson's are over 100 years old and still in use today

It’s these gigantic wooden vats – some of which are over 100 years old – that sets Sarson’s apart, making the factory feel more like a whisky distillery than a vinegar plant. Paul believes the company is the only one in the UK (if not the world) that uses this process – everyone else uses stainless steel, which results in a very sharp, single-layered taste.

The rounded, aged flavour of Sarson’s means it offers a point of difference from the traditional spirit- or wine-based varieties more commonly used in pickling. Preserving was the reason Sarson’s started – before refrigeration things needed to be either salted, sugared, smoked or pickled to make them last longer, particularly on long sea voyages, which was why so many vinegar factories were traditionally based near ports. Today, we love pickling because of the health benefits and intense flavours it can create, including spices from all over the world and all sorts of foods in our jars which are then put proudly on display in our kitchens. Malt vinegar is one of those truly British ingredients which is hard to find anywhere else, so next time you feel the urge to preserve give it a go – the flavour it imparts is like no other.