Being a blogger throws up many a good opportunity, but some are slightly more memorable than others. Like the time I got a behind-the-scenes at Sarsons (yes, them of the stuff you chuck on your fish and chips), a lab coat AND a bottle of vinegar with my name on it, and the chance to chill with Jimmy Doherty off the telly. Not to mention the slap-up lunch that went with it. Not bad as blogging days out go!
In a food world that’s oh-so-focused on ‘artisan’, ‘homemade’ and the product of one-man-bands or small producers, it’s easy to forget about the old favourites that have been lining the supermarket shelves and sitting in our cupboards or on our tables for years. That’s why Sarsons are keen to remind people of its story. It may be owned by a big multinational now, but the way its famous malt vinegar is made is pretty much unchanged and the product of a process that’s still, in many ways, artisanal.
Going into any food or drink factory is pretty exciting – for me anyway. Seeing how it’s made, how the processed work and how, despite the basics being the same, it’s scaled up to industrial levels. Sarsons’ factory is in Middleton in Manchester in an unassuming industrial building that you can smell before you see it.
Venturing inside isn’t as simple as just wandering in. Once you make it through security there’s a rigorous hygiene process – no nail varnish, no jewellery, special shoes, hair net and yes, for me, a lab coat WITH MY NAME ON IT. You’ll be pleased to know I’ve since been marching around the house wearing said lab coat for any household task.
As if that wasn’t exciting enough, our tour was with Jimmy Doherty, who is the new brand ambassador for Sarsons as part of the company’s effort to spread the word about this old fave. Needless to say, Jimmy is pretty enthused about it – embracing what he insists is still a fairly artisanal approach, despite the fact Sarsons turns out 15 million bottles of malt vinegar a year (that’s 200 a minute on the production line). For him, while it may have been industrialised, it’s still a romantic tale of turning the Brits’ love of barley into something that can be used for far more than your fish and chips.
A tour around Sarsons, watching its two-stage fermentation process that’s been pretty much unchanged for 200 years, is a pretty fascinating trip. From the mashing of the barley (a bit like beer, if you’re into brewing) to the first fermentation and then onto the second step inside huge ‘acetifiers’, where millions of bacteria are deliberately introduced to turn the alcohol into vinegar. I imagined it to be a bit like Gru and his millions of minions, beavering away inside.
Everything’s on a huge scale – a bit of a necessity when you’re turning out a household name. But there’s a certain element of romance to it as well. The huge vats are made of wood that’s nearly a century old – smoothened over time and oozing all the charm that history can bring. The acetifiers are watched 365 days a year by passionate workers who manually adjust the levels of alcohol, temperature, humidity to make sure the bacteria inside are doing exactly what they should be doing.
It’s a tale of perfectionism that time-honoured tradition that you’ll dismiss as marketing spiel unless you have the chance to taste the difference between the vinegar that’s produced by this two-week long process compared to others that take just a day to make. Like anything, you don’t tend to notice the nuanced taste until you really focus on it and then you kind of get why they’re so proud of something that’s stayed at the top of its game for decades and decade.
To illustrate this, we were treated to lunch nearby that consisted of recipes dreamed up by Jimmy and executed by his trusty chef pals. Fish and chips, of course, because that’ll always be your go-to dish for a bottle of Sarsons. But as well as that we were shown how this stereotypical British brand can be just as versatile as its more dreamy relatives of wine vinegars and bolshy balsamics. Like the dressing for a rainbow bright panzanella salad, or the marinade for some of the most delicious spare ribs I’ve had in a while.
As we tuck into lunch, Jimmy’s enthusiasm refuses to wane and it’s rather infectious. For him, familiarity can breed contempt – which is perhaps why we don’t see the greatness in longstanding staples like our trusty malt vinegar. “There are some lovely Italian vinegars out there – great!,” he tells me. “But we produce one of the best malt vinegars in the world, and just because you see it in a supermarket all the time it doesn’t make it any less of a product.”
I come away thinking he’s probably right. After all, there must be a reason that Sarsons is still there on the supermarket shelves? Sometimes things become old favourites for a reason and hey, if it ain’t broke, why fix it? Needless to say, next time we have fish and chips it’ll be Sarsons that’s all over them – how could I not, when the bottles got my name on it?
I was invited to Sarsons to take a look at how it’s made. My trip and our lunch were complimentary. I also wrote about it for The i – you can check out the piece here.