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The Discovery & History of Vinegar

Updated on January 14, 2019
Apple vinegar
Apple vinegar | Source

The Ancient Vinegar Era

Humankind did not invent this sour-tasting and pickling condiment called vinegar, it was actually discovered. The ancient people had to figure out how and where to use vinegar. This sour liquid forms naturally where ethanol is fully dissolved in water, and then the acetic acid bacteria oxidizes ethanol which forms later into vinegar. Acetic acid bacteria is an early life form which was already in the process of evolution way before humans habituated on earth. One of the most simplest process in the historical evolution was carbon oxidation and that shows that vinegar was always around before humankind.

The discovery of vinegar is not limited to just one person in ancient times and no one can say where and who it was discovered by. From another point of view in history, humans have already learned how to produce vinegar for thousands of years especially in Biblical times, and this also includes alcohol production. Such evidence lies in religious texts such as the Talmud, a book of Judaism, where it states a vast quantity of wine transformed to vinegar while the people of Jewish descent were transporting it to the Promised Land (Ancient Canaan) from Mesopotamia, a land between Tigris and the Euphrates river in the Middle East.

Vinegar was used for food conservation in early 5000 BC by the Babylonians. However, in Babylon, vinegar was produced from the juice extracts of date palms instead of alcohol like wine and beer. Even apples were used to produce vinegar traditionally by the Phoenicians in the Mediterranean civilization.

Date palms or date honey
Date palms or date honey | Source

The first religious texts, especially written in Hebrew was proof enough that people acknowledged the make and use of vinegar. Wine was left in barrels to ferment in wine-producing areas in Palestine around the 7th century, even though an accurate understanding of the production was not available at that certain period. Despite that, vinegar was a vital condiment and people also diluted it like wine for consumption. They also started to use it as a preservative and trading in vinegar probably may have begun around the Middle East and Mediterranean regions. On today's assumption, it is assumed that unexpected quantities of vinegar resulted from a lack of familiarity with the wine conserving process. Compared to the present time, people consumed high amounts of vinegar at that time, therefore it was not unnatural or difficult for people in them times to consume vinegar at that level.

In the Classical Age (between 8th century BC and 5/6th century AD), the production of wine was extensive in Ancient Greece and Egypt. It was also widespread during the Roman Empire. Experts knew how to make vinegar from wine. Vinegar was filled and transported in tall ancient jars or jugs with handles and with a narrow neck called amphorae. The amphorae were usually made by the Greeks and Romans. According to ancient Latin sources, it states that the slaves were provided with a mixture of boiled water, wine and vinegar for drinking. Romans with a high class status were also given a better quality of drink for them to drink. The Roman army of Julius Caesar were given a mixture of water, eggs and vinegar for consumption, and it is believed that this sort of drink was their most favourable. The tonic drink kept Caesar's army healthy and energized for battle.

When the Roman Empire declined, homemade vinegar was common in Europe towards the beginning of the Middle Ages, and vinegar was no longer a commercial purpose. However, the vinegar trade did eventually return around the 14 century in France where business started to develop and industries rising. Near the Loire River, Orleans, people made vinegar from beer and wine mash, and half of which was made up of sediments. The basic ingredients were stored in barrels and left out into the open air. The acetic bacteria could double or triple in the standing liquid, which turned it into oxidized alcohol.

Vinegar storage in wooden barrels
Vinegar storage in wooden barrels | Source


Vinegar was not only used as a preservative in the Middle Ages. Nor was it just for drinking or a seasoning. In fact, it was also used for healing due to the nature of the vinegar's healing power as believed. When the plague or Black Death Pandemic was happening in Europe, people started to rub vinegar on their hands and other parts of their skin to prevent infections during goods and money exchanges. People also had to be careful what they touch, or when handling objects, so vinegar gave them some assurance for protection.

The Discovery of Acetic Acids in Vinegar

Whether people desired to produce vinegar for personal or commercial use in ancient times, they were unaware of the processes that were taking place to produce it. Scientists did indeed find an explanation of this process. In the late 18th century, a French chemical researcher named Antoine Laurent de Lavoisier, said that the production of acetic acid could be an oxidation process, which involves the evolution and aging of some of the compounds still present in the sour-tasting vinegar.

In the 19th century, a German pharmacist and botanist named Friedrich Traugott Kutzing, put forward an idea or theory for around 50 years suggesting that microbes were mostly part of the formation of vinegar. The good news was that a French biologist named Louise Pasteur, confirmed and proved Kutzing's idea by actually discovering the microbes contained in vinegar.

Therefore, around the 19th century, vinegar mixed or diluted with water was a popular drink in the hot summer for thirsty drinkers. The acidic water was refined with a tiny amount of natron, a type of mineral salt in association with baking soda. The vinegar then forced the carbonic acid to dissolve and disappear from the natron, resulting in a fizzy drink.

Medicinal Use of Vinegar in Ancient Times

According to historic sources, vinegar was used as a medicine by the Romans and Egyptians. Even Hippocrates, a famous physician of ancient Greece prescribed vinegar for protection against several diseases to his patients. In his book named Hippocrates and Corpus Hippocraticum, he describes the healing effects of vinegar. His family, the Asclepiads, were thought to be related to the demigod Asclepius (aka Asklepios or Hepius), Apollo's son and a god of healing in ancient Greek times.

According to their traditional beliefs, Hippocrates father taught him about the effects and use of vinegar when he was a young child. In his treks through Greece and the Anatolian Peninsula (Asia Minor), he put his medical skills to practice as a doctor travelling aimlessly from one place to another place. He gained a lot of respect and admiration for his work, and finally returned to the Dodecanese Island of Kos to write, teach and practice medicine at his own institution.

In the Middle Ages, health was mainly a huge subject of the monasteries. Vinegar was considered as a special medicine. During the time of the Black Death (the plague) as mentioned earlier, people believed that applying vinegar into the body would fight off infection.

Asclepius, the Greek god of healing, portrayed with a beard, holding a rod with a snake entwined round it.
Asclepius, the Greek god of healing, portrayed with a beard, holding a rod with a snake entwined round it. | Source

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