Take 3,000 litres of craft beer, destined to be dumped thanks to pandemic-related pub closures, add in a resourceful Welsh distillery and top it all off with an award-winning Orkney vinegar.
The result? A business start-up recipe that could only really have emerged from the unique circumstances of a national lockdown.
When the In The Welsh Wind distillery in Cardigan heard that their friends at North Pembrokeshire’s Bluestone Brewing Company were facing the unhappy task of pouring a huge quantity of their beer down the drain, they thought they should step in and offer a possible solution – malt vinegar.
As an ingredient, malt vinegar – the really good quality craft variety – has been experiencing a big rise in popularity. But turning beer into malt vinegar is not for the uninitiated – it takes several months and you need a decent ‘seed’ to get the process underway.
Whilst the brewery were more than happy to get involved and see their surplus beer put to good use, the team at In The Welsh Wind knew their limitations – their expertise is in craft spirits.
That’s when they looked north to get some specialist advice from Sam and Tom Britten, the brothers behind the enormously successful Orkney Craft Vinegar.
A favourite of TV chef James Martin, amongst many others, Orkney Craft Vinegar was created by Sam in 2017. Since then, the Kirkwall based venture has gone from strength to strength, with demand often outstripping production capacity.
One of the key elements in Orkney Craft Vinegar’s success story has been their use of that most traditional of Orcadian ingredients - bere barley. This hyper-local approach to business, plus their established reputation in the vinegar world, made them an immediate first choice for the Welsh entrepreneurs.
“This guy called us from a Welsh distillery to talk about their vinegar plan for 3,000 litres of beer they’d obtained,” says Tom Britten. “The biggest challenge when converting beer into vinegar is the need for a suitable seed. It has to be a malt seed, but there aren’t a lot of malt vinegar producers in the country, so they came to us first.
“Their business is very similar to ours in the fact they’re growing their own barley and doing everything from grain to glass for their whisky,” Tom continues. “It was clear they had an affinity with our approach and our use of local ingredients.”
Although initially taken aback by the sheer quantity of beer the distillery was seeking to convert – Tom says brother Sam “blew his cheeks out” when he heard it was 3,000 litres – the Orkney guys agreed to help their Celtic cousins.
“You need quite a lot of raw vinegar, complete with the ‘mother’ - a substance composed of cellulose and acetic acid bacteria that converts alcohol into vinegar – and that’s quite hard to get hold of,” explains Tom. “Fortunately, we had a 220-litre batch of our Highland Park malt vinegar sitting around that we hadn’t used. Although the taste and quality was fine, the colour wasn’t quite right for us, so we weren’t sure what we were going to do with it. It was the obvious solution for the Welsh guys.
“The beauty for them is they’re getting a very good vinegar stock,” he adds. “It’s almost like horse breeding. If you get a good seed, you get a good quality and finish to your vinegar. We were very happy to help them out, and Sam will be mentoring them through the whole process too.”
Although it could be a least six months before the first batches of the new Welsh craft vinegar appear, potential customers in Cardigan will be getting their appetites whetted with bottles of the Orkney version.
“We sent down some wholesale stock of our vinegars with the barrel so the distillery is going to get that out to local farm shops and retailers, acting as a mini-wholesaler for us,” says Tom. “They think the Orkney vinegar will do quite well down there and it’ll show people what they can expect from the distillery’s version using Welsh beer. It’s also a big help to us right now as, whilst our online sales are going well, our wholesale business has been badly affected by the pandemic and lockdown.”
Tom added: “We’re really delighted to be helping the team at In The Welsh Wind, and their partners at the Bluestone Brewing Company. They’re very passionate and have such a great attitude.”
Alex Jungmayr, co-owner and director of In the Welsh Wind, said: “We’re really excited at this Celtic collaboration. Our inspiration setting up In the Welsh Wind distillery came from visiting craft distilleries when we travelled the North Coast 500 a few years ago so it’s great to be renewing those Scottish connections working with Orkney Craft Vinegar. Using their expertise and the ‘seed’ gives us a unique opportunity to turn Bluestone Brewing Company’s great beer into what we anticipate will be a quality vinegar – it’s a brilliant result for all of us.”
The Promoting Orkney project has been part financed by the Scottish Government and the European Community Orkney LEADER 2014-2020