Sam Britten and Keith Harrison brew small-batch vinegars using bere, an ancient grain which has been grown on the Scottish island of Orkney since neolithic times. Locavore caught up with Sam to ask him how Orkney Craft Vinegar began.
How did you get started in making vinegar?
It all started with a combination of two things. Firstly, I started working at Barony Mill – a historic watermill that’s famous for grinding bere – as a Historic Environment Scotland craft fellow miller/millwright. Obviously, that was my introduction to bere malt, kilned using traditional solid fuel methods. This got the creative wheels in motion and I began to think about innovative ways to use it.
Secondly, I bought a home-brewing kit for my father in law, Keith, for his birthday. He was delighted with it and we both started churning out some rather tasty brews, with the occasional disaster. Things developed from there. We tried different styles, yeast strains, additional foraged flavours. The great thing about home-brewing is that there aren’t any limitations. You can achieve just as good a quality as a big high-tech brewery, and if you do have a disaster it’s not going to cost a huge amount in wasted ingredients. Eventually we came to a conclusion about maybe brewing in a smaller-than-micro setup. I really wanted to explore the wild flavours that are in abundance up here, such as meadowsweet, rosehips, wild raspberries, sea buckthorn, gorse, and pineapple weed. We did a bit of research into microbreweries, and it became apparent that all advice was pretty negative, due to the competitive nature of this field.
I was at work, grinding some malted flour for a chef in Edinburgh, when the thought of vinegar came to me. I thought that vinegar would be a great medium for carrying the flavours available to us on the island. The first flavour had to be the bere malt as far as I was concerned. I consulted Keith about the idea to see if he was up for doing it with me. I didn’t expect him to be positive about such an unorthodox idea, but I was pleasantly surprised. After that, the long rocky road to producing vinegar in 100-litre batches commenced.
You brew using bere. Can you tell us a bit more about it?
Bere is Orkney’s ubiquitous landrace barley. It’s been around for 5000 years, or maybe even longer. To Orcadians, bere is ‘corn’ because it would have been the most prevalent grain before modern strains of barley with better yields and plump uniformed grains appeared. It is a six row spring barley, adapted to short growing seasons, with high protein levels, variable grain sizes, and it’s relatively high in nitrogen, which reduces the sugar extraction from the malt.
There aren’t many benefits to using bere instead of a modern cultivar. It’s more than quadruple the cost of maris otter pale malt. I was quoted £5600 to malt two tonnes of bere, without carriage, as opposed to paying £800 for two tonnes of pale malt, delivered. However, we are happy with the flavour it has. We use large quantities in the mash so that we have the gravity of a barley wine. Once fermented into beer it has a dandelion and burdock taste to it. We haven’t got the same taste from similar ratios of regular barley, and we’d rather be partly responsible for keeping this landrace going.
Peter Martin is the head of the Agronomy Institute at the University of the Highlands and Islands, and he is mainly responsible for the continuation of bere as a commercial crop. It’s sold to the likes of Bruichladdich Distillery on Islay, and Swannay Brewery on Orkney. More and more places seem to grow it off the island too. It used to be almost exclusive to Orkney, with a small amount in Shetland, but now it’s growing in Caithness, Uist, and even northern Norway.
What vinegars do you currently make?
Our current product range is the ‘Bere Malt Vinegar’, and ‘Honey and Meadowsweet’, which is made from a high-grade organic honey mash to brew, essentially, mead, than fermented and infused with meadowsweet from Hobbister Farm, also an organic farm. We have lots of ideas for new flavours and potential products, but it’s just an issue of time to experiment.
You have to be a jack of all trades to do what we do. My millwright apprenticeship certainly helped, but most of the credit has to go to Keith. He engineered the generators that we’re using for the malt vinegar, and built two separate spaces – one for beer and the other for vinegar fermentation. We’ve had lots of disasters, lots of re-thinking and questioning our methods, but we’re constantly learning. We both have full time jobs, too, but I suspect that at least one of us will have to go full-time vinegar soon.
Ancient grains are ‘in’ at the moment. As with all ‘fads’ there is criticism that there is little science to support the claims, and it is more driven by marketing. Do you think this is justified?
That’s a loaded question, and I will answer honestly because there is too much over-embellishment of products for marketing reasons. There’s no denying there is a unique selling point, but it all started for us when I was personally grinding and malting the grain, therefore I have a special connection, and was determined to use bere. Our whole ethos is to use ingredients that grow here, in a farmed or a wild capacity, so that we can offer a genuine taste of the island. I know it sounds a bit corny but that is genuinely what we offer – brewed, acidulated, aged in wood, and bottled.
You’ve said that you’re not interested in expanding, or selling into supermarkets. What are your plans for the future?
I hope we will have a future with Orkney Craft Vinegar. I’m constantly thinking of new products such as pickled peri-winkles, which are in abundance but get shipped off to Spain and France. When the spring tides come around you will see locals foraging around for the ‘whelks’ as they call them here. Sadly the appetite is for cash, not gastropods. I quite like them and I think they should be embraced.
I don’t understand the concept of constant growth for a business. Not to get too political, but big corporations and capitalism aren’t for us. The demand for endless growth in businesses is bad news for the planet. We’re not interested in selling to supermarkets because that would totally compromise our principles and ethics. We live in such a naturally beautiful part of the world and it can’t help but inspire us to do our bit, personally and as a business.
You are plastic free, both in production and your product packaging. Was this a challenge, in a world with ubiquitous plastic containers and equipment?
We’re definitely trying to ‘be the change we wish to see in the world’, and absolutely not as a marketing tactic, either. If we don’t make the effort nobody else will. Yvon Chouinard, the founder and owner of Patagonia Inc, is a great example of how to run a business and question not only his own ethics and principles, but also of suppliers. I want to have a pragmatic approach to the way we operate as a business, with solutions to environmentally detrimental materials. It isn’t easy, and I would be a complete hypocrite if I said we haven’t taken delivery of new equipment wrapped in layers of plastic. We don’t use plastic in our packaging, and will try and limit the amount coming in from grain merchants and other suppliers.
How does the landscape of the island influence you and your ideas?
Of course the landscape is an influence ton us, because we’re creating flavours out of it throughout the seasons. Take the honey and meadowsweet, for example. The honey in the summer, when the meadowsweet is in bloom, actually tastes faintly of meadowsweet because of the sheer abundance. It’s not a weird and wacky flavour when you consider the connection, it makes sense – an old Viking tipple was mead with meadowsweet.
I get inspiration when taking our three dogs for long walks, and I see all the flavours around us. I try to live off the land as much as possible, so I hunt wildfowl from September to February, pick shellfish such as spoots, cockles, and periwinkles, with the occasional squat lobster when we get the big spring tides. From March to September is the fly fishing season. I’m hugely enthusiastic about fly fishing the Orkney lochs, and the surf for sea-trout.
I’m very interested in keeping bees, but know absolutely nothing. It would be fantastic to setup an apiary in and amongst the meadowsweet on the farm.
Orkney is particularly good for the bere, it being an ancient landrace. There are reports that seed from Orkney doesn’t produce good quality elsewhere. It certainly wouldn’t do so well in the South of England for example.
Finally, why do you do what you do?
I do this for a creative outlet. Having been a chef for 16 years previously I like to think I have something to give as a producer. If we can do it with environmental issues in mind, the better for it.
For more about Orkney Craft Vinegar, click here.
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Photography: John Welburn