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How Americans Became Obsessed With Drinking Apple Cider Vinegar

The story of how health-conscious thrill-seekers started chugging vinegar, from Johnny Appleseed to Katy Perry.


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Apple cider vinegar being poured into a Mason jar

Photo by Isa Zapata, Food Styling by Micah Marie Morton

If you’re anything like me, the last time you bought apple cider vinegar, it was part of some dubious cleanse or wellness scheme. I bought a bottle of Bragg’s—the gold standard for neo-hippie purity tonics—in the hopes that the murky brown fluid would reverse the effects of too much decadent living.

After all, Kim and Kourtney Kardashian, Jennifer Aniston, and Katy Perry are only a few of the celebrities who attribute their flourishing gut health and fit bods to the regular consumption of apple cider vinegar (or ACV). Victoria Beckham claims that the first thing she does each morning is chug some down. You can find countless YouTubers and TikTok personalities taking the #applecidervinegarchallenge, grimacing as they drink a shot or two every day for a week or a month as they document the alleged physical transformations for their followers.

In other words, ACV is often something you (reluctantly) drink because it’s supposed to be good for you, not something you reach for because it tastes good. “I often put apple cider vinegar in my hot water,” Elizabeth Hurley told The Cut back in 2017. “It tastes disgusting.”

But there is much, much more to ACV than its internet reputation as a detox tonic and weight-loss super-fuel. The history of ACV is intertwined with the global spread of apples and with the transformations of fermentation. In America, ACV is an ingredient that traces the colonial settlement of the frontier, reflects the shift from homemade to industrial foods, and refracts a boozy heritage into a wholesome legacy.

If you ask Kirsten Shockey, the cofounder of the Fermentation School and author of Homebrewed Vinegar, it was all a bit inevitable. Well, at least the part where the apples turned into vinegar. “Vinegar happens, whether you want it to or not,” she says. Fruits ripen and fall, and wild yeasts ferment their sugars to alcohol. As moose, monkeys, and birds get soused on this natural moonshine, bacteria swoop in—specifically, a type of bacteria known as Acetobacter. These microbes feast on alcohol, digesting it and converting it to acetic acid. The key to vinegar making, Shockey teaches, is nurturing the natural fermentation process: supplying the right kind of alcohol, a warmish space, and a container with enough surface area to provide the oxygen that Acetobacter need to operate.

ACV was Shockey’s gateway to making vinegar. She and her family moved to southern Oregon in 1998. “We had all these old apple trees on the property,” she recalls. “One of our first purchases was a cider press. We had little kids, and so we used it mainly for apple juice.” But “as soon as fruit is picked, it’s a race against time.” Rather than fight the inevitable, they embraced it. Some of the juice became hard cider, to drink themselves and share with friends. Some became vinegar.

The apple trees connect Shockey to a longer American tradition of apple cider and ACV. Apple cider—the alcoholic kind—was once a staple beverage in the American colonies and early republic, and the vinegar made from it was commonplace in every pantry.

Apples are not indigenous to the Americas. Originally domesticated in central Asia, the fruit traveled with the currents of war and trade, following the Silk Road to Western Europe. The first reliable documentation of apple cider—and cider vinegar—is in medieval Normandy, says Reginald Smith, founder of Supreme Vinegar, an artisanal vinegar company outside of Philadelphia and author of the fascinating history The Eternal Condiment. The Norman conquest “brought [cider and cider vinegar] to the British Isles when William the Conqueror came through” in 1066, he explained. From Britain, apple cultivation jumped the pond to the American colonies, where it flourished in New England.

Apples then made their way across the North American continent, carried by settler colonists who officially staked their claim to territory by planting fruit trees. One of the figures who helped spread the fruit was Johnny Appleseed. (Yes, he was a real person!) Born in Massachusetts in 1774 as John Chapman, in his 20s, he traveled to what was then the frontier—Western Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana—planting apple seeds and selling the saplings to colonists eager to own land.

Apples are typically cultivated by grafting. But Appleseed insisted on, well, growing his apples from seeds. A missionary for an eccentric Christian sect known as the Swedenborgians, Appleseed’s faith taught that grafting was form of plant torture. However, seed-grown apple trees produce fruit that is unpredictable in flavor and often radically different than that of its parent tree—apples that go by the evocative nickname spitters. Sour, bitter, and complex, these fruits are not so great for eating, but excellent for making hooch.

“That’s why he was so popular,” Michael Pollan writes of Appleseed in his book The Botany of Desire. “He was the guy bringing the booze.”

Shockey’s household—on Takelma Tribe land, she notes—was outside of the range of Johnny Appleseed’s ramblings, but the custom of planting apple trees to lay claim to territory moved West with the frontier. Some historians believe that the dizzying variety of American apples stems from this seed-starting practice; at the end of the 19th century, there were around 14,000 different types of apples grown in this country. This meant that every region—every homestead, practically—had its own distinct cider, and its own distinct vinegar. “Until the mid-19th century, vinegar was a homemade thing,” Smith explains.

“ACV was sort of like the peasant vinegar,” he muses. “Malt vinegar—which had to be imported—that was the high-class vinegar, the gentleman’s vinegar. Then Heinz began mass-producing it [in the late 19th century], and it became as common as everything else.”

Industrialization, which turned malt vinegar from a luxury into a commodity, also spelled the beginning of the end for flavorful homemade ACV made from gnarly local apples. Technologies for speeding up and otherwise improving vinegar production had been in use for hundreds of years. Increasingly, Americans went to the store to buy bottled vinegar made through one of these methods, rather than in their cellars. Temperance and Prohibition rang the final death knell, as they demolished the hard cider business that was already weakened by the competition from beer. Apple orchards shifted from supplying cideries, to growing the sweet “dessert” apples for baking, eating, and juice making that are now standard.

In the mid-20th century, a new industrial process for making vinegar was developed: submerged fermentation. This method, originally devised to speed the production of penicillin during World War II, involves forcing oxygen through the fermentation tanks, supercharging the bacterial conversion of alcohol into acid. What once took months could now be accomplished in days. Most commercial vinegars are now made using this method and are diluted to an acceptable acidity, filtered for clarity, and pasteurized (stabilizing the product and killing all living bacteria).

“This allowed for the production of massive volumes of vinegar cheaply,” laments Smith, “but at the cost of a decline in flavor” as flavor compounds are “stripped out.”

For all the convenience and reliability of standardized, mass-produced ACV, the industrial product opened the door for its counterpart: the raw, unpasteurized stuff marketed for its health benefits.

Although vinegar (of all kinds) has been used as an antiseptic, a cleaning solution, and a therapeutic digestive tonic since antiquity, the current vogue for the ACV cure has a more recent pedigree. Smith believes the first to promote ACV’s health benefits was D.C. Jarvis, a Vermont country doctor who advocated for regular consumption of the vinegar in his 1959 book Folk Medicine.

But the main force behind the rise of raw, unpasteurized ACV was a naturopath with a gift for self-promotion: Paul C. Bragg. Born in 1895, Bragg established himself as an alternative health guru in Hollywood and then in Hawaii, where he preached the secret of attaining eternal youth and good health through raw food and breathing exercises until his death in 1976 from a heart attack. A 1972 newspaper advertisement for his cookbook showed the 77-year-old flexing his muscles in a very tiny swimsuit, with the caption: “He is 91 years young.” (Bragg appears to have routinely added a decade or more to his age to gloss up his vigor.) In the 1970s the first of Bragg’s booklets promoting raw, unpasteurized ACV as a health drink was published.

This coincided with the rise of a countercultural natural food movement, which embraced the brown, gritty, and “all-natural” in its refusal of the refined, bleached, and heavily processed products of the industrial food system. Bragg’s teachings resonated with this ethos.

A recent edition of Bragg’s ACV booklet, titled “The Apple Cider Vinegar Miracle Health System,” touts a daily dose of ACV as a cure for all that ails you. Looking to lose weight? Try some ACV! Too scrawny? Ditto! ACV is also recommended to treat baldness, kidney ailments, heart disease, “female troubles,” and many, many other things.

As far as I can tell, the Bragg’s brand of ACV “with the mother”—proof of its living bacterial cultures and a symbol of its anti-industry credo—first appeared in stores nationally in the 1990s, when the company was under the leadership of Patricia Bragg, Paul C. Bragg’s daughter-in-law. By the 2000s, ACV established itself as the perfect tonic for our under-insured, hydration-obsessed, wellness-fixated age, in which we’re all searching for that one weird trick that actually works.

It’s a beautiful irony. From its roots in boozy American hard cider culture, ACV has become the opposite: a detox tonic that promises to rinse away the accumulated glut of our debaucheries and the residue of our cheat days, leaving us with the toned, well-hydrated physiques of clean-eating influencers.

One of those influencers is pop star Katy Perry. The singer and Patricia Bragg went to the same church in Santa Barbara, California, and Perry began taking daily doses of ACV as a child to soothe her vocal cords. She remains a true believer. Perry and her fiancé, Orlando Bloom, bonded over ACV when they both toted reusable bottles of ACV-laced water to one of their first dates. They loved ACV so much, they actually bought the company! Perry and Bloom were part of an investor group led by private equity firm Swander Pace Capital that acquired Bragg Live Food Products in 2019. Every dram of Bragg’s is a ka-ching in Perry’s pocket.

The scientific basis for the claims made about ACV is much thinner. There is some evidence that consuming ACV daily can have marginal effects for those seeking to manage blood sugar or reduce cholesterol levels. There are a handful of small studies showing some minimal boosts to weight loss. But it isn’t clear whether these benefits are specific to ACV or are due to acetic acid, which is found in any old vinegar.

And what about the mother? Why is she such a big deal? Technically, a vinegar mother (the layer of happily munching bacteria that glom together in a slimy scrim of cellulose during the vinegar-making process) is not a probiotic, as the acetic acid bacteria that comprise it can’t survive in our guts. Its main component, cellulose, is not digestible. Shockey and Smith point out that there could be benefits to its consumption that have yet to be measured or quantified. But many artisanal vinegar makers don’t include the mother in their products because it doesn’t contribute anything to the flavor.

So if ACV isn’t a magical elixir that will guarantee us years of radiant health, thick tresses, and glowy skin, why should we even bother?

“Because of the flavor!” says Rodrigo Vargas, founder of American Vinegar Works, which makes small-batch vinegars using 19th-century methods out of a former blacksmith’s shop in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Vargas wants his vinegars “to be connected to a sense of place and space.” And no fruit better represents the New England terroir than the apple. “If apples were wine, this area would be Napa Valley,” Vargas boasts. Using cider made from local apples, combined with some cooked-down apple juice, American Vinegar Works’s ACV has an agrodolce—sour-sweet—tang that spotlights complex apple flavors.

Isaiah Billington, who cofounded Keepwell Vinegar with his partner, Sarah Conezio, also sees vinegar making as a way of finding and preserving flavors in the surrounding Western Pennsylvania terrain.

Making vinegar, he says, “helps us interact closely with the total landscape of local agriculture.” It means using produce that can’t be sold primarily for aesthetic reasons or that can’t make it to the market in time. “We work at the margins of the harvest.”

He describes a York apple, one of the varieties that Keepwell makes into vinegar: “It’s very ugly,” he says. “It’s kind of slanted. It looks like someone photoshopped an apple and dragged out one of the corners.” Usually grown for cider and applesauce, the York develops “a really wonderful quality that only emerges after a certain amount of time in the barrel.” Keepwell mellows and ages the vinegar in oak barrels for at least a year, at which point it begins to develop what Billington describes as a “honey aroma.”

“We’re not there to be a commodity,” he says. “We are an avenue for people to be more into cooking and be more into cooking with things that have a lot of flavor.”

By this point, you may be thinking about tracking down some craft ACV. But there’s only so many vinaigrettes you can make. How else can you enjoy the full force of vinegar?

One delicious suggestion: shrubs.

Cocktail expert Mike Dietsch remembers when he had his first shrub. It was at Tales of the Cocktail, the annual gathering of spirits and drinks enthusiasts in New Orleans, in July 2008, when the city was punishingly hot and humid. A shrub-based cocktail, with cachaça and lime juice, was exactly right. “We were all just amazed at how refreshing this drink was,” he recalls. “A number of us went home and started to experiment with shrubs.”

This included Dietsch. His book, Shrubs: An Old Fashioned Drink for Modern Times, is a guide to the wide world of these irresistibly quaffable concoctions. Shrubs, Dietsch tells me, were born in 17th-century Britain and got their sour bite from citrus juices, especially lemons and limes— not from vinegar. In the American colonies, citrus fruits were harder to come by. So colonists started using the acid they had available: vinegars, including ACV. The vinegar-based shrub is an American innovation.

To level up your shrub experimentation, you could even make your own apple cider vinegar, beginning with a bottle of hard cider. Supreme Vinegar, Smith’s company, sells mothers of vinegar, a starter culture of bacteria to get you going, to aspiring vinegar makers. (Many commercial vinegars are pasteurized and do not contain living cultures.)

Or you can begin at the beginning, making your own cider with apple juice and winemaker’s or wild-foraged yeast. Maybe you’d like to add herbs, flowers, or other fruits to coferment and add some funk to your ACV. Shockey’s book, Homebrewed Vinegar, is an excellent resource for both the novice and experienced vinegar maker, outlining the tools and techniques of vinegar making, and offering step-by-step instructions and gorgeous photographs of rainbow-hued vinegars.

With vinegar making, experimentation is encouraged. “Anything that has sugars in it will eventually become vinegar,” Shockey says. This means there is a lot of room to play around with flavor.

“If it’s not great,” Shockey laughs, “you can still use it as a cleaning fluid!”

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This post originally appeared on Epicurious and was published July 28, 2022. This article is republished here with permission.

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