Pete Bradford and the Art of Making Vinegar
If you’re looking for unique gift ideas for the holidays, this week’s podcast “Pete Bradford and the art of making vinegar” might interest you.
Pete is a cooper, which means he specializes in barrel-making. Spirits, wine, vinegar, pickles, hot sauce, soy sauce, and a number of other fermented goods get aged in wooden barrels. Every community in Canada used to have at least one person who specialized in making barrels because you couldn’t survive the winter without fermented foods.
Not too many people took up the profession recently, but Pete has three apprentices working with him, because he says that there’s a lot of work available and he can’t do all of it.
He accidentally fell into vinegar-making, and foodies everywhere will rejoice. I highly vouch for his peach, raspberry and balsamic vinegars, which are being shipped around the world.
Pete and I discuss how he came to be a cooper, the history of coopering, the challenges of running a creative business in Canada, the many products that need barrel-aging and his recent luck at finding and purchasing his grandfather’s blacksmith’s bench and vice from 1923.Listen to my conversation with Pete here.
I highly recommend a visit to Canadian Vinegar Cellars, which operates within the Black Prince Winery in Picton.
These vinegar flavours taste amazing, and the company takes orders from their website.
Here’s the transcript of our conversation:
Tracey [00:00:03] We are here at the Black Prince Winery in Canadian vinegar sellers, Canadian vinegar sellers, and we are talking to Pete Bradford. Bradford, like the town, Bradford D, NORAD. Yep. And we have just been doing a tasting of the most amazing vinegar I’ve ever tasted in my life.
Tracey [00:00:23] And they all started by accident. So tell me about the beginning of your vinegar experience.
Pete [00:00:31] Well, I’m. I’m a cooper by trade, so I make barrels. And the interest in the barrels has been going for my entire life. But I basically started getting a little real about it about 35 years ago and it was back at that time where I had spoken to a couple of guys in a greasy spoon restaurant where we had had breakfast and we talked about where we lived and what we did and all that sort of thing. And I expressed at that time that I was interested in becoming a Cooper. So as not we said our goodbyes and everything. And it was a number of months later where I got a knock at the door and there was a gentleman who had four barrels in the back of his truck and offered to give them to me.
Pete [00:01:17] So I accepted that and had the barrels and not knowing what to do with them or what to do anything about them other than to look at them over a couple of month’s time. Another gentleman showed up and asked me if I was interested in some bulk sherry that it started to go to vinegar on him. I said absolutely. So took it and put it into the four barrels that I had. And by basically the grace of God sat in the garage for twenty plus years aging into vinegar. And then when it came basically to disposal time and thinking about getting rid of this stuff, because I’ve forgotten about the barrels. I went to dump it and I tasted some of it and found it quite amazing. So it grew from that particular year of three barrels up to about six.
Pete [00:02:08] And then it went to about 12 and then 30. And I’m now sitting at about 250 to 280 barrels full of vinegar.
Tracey [00:02:16] Wow. Actually, just to go back to the beginning, because the Cooper is a person who makes barrels. Yes. And most people don’t necessarily know that this is a an art that has been around since the 1800s at least, and probably the 1600s. Because you had to make barrels in order to keep anything preserved. So the kinds of things that preserve in barrels include wine and vinegar and what else?
Pete [00:02:42] There’s soy sauce that’s done.
Pete [00:02:43] And quite frankly, barrels actually go back centuries, thousands of years, probably. Well, back to the Romans and the Greeks. So it’s been it’s been a trade and a vessel that has been around basically since the beginning of civilized world. So it’s ithree thousand years old. And then when it comes to the vessel itself, it like you say, it’s used for wine but spirits are bourbon, whiskeys and rums. Soy sauce is done in it, which I’m gonna be doing a soy sauce this fall.
Tracey [00:03:20] So I mean, a new experience. Yeah.
Pete [00:03:22] I built small fermentors, wooden fermentors. So 500 litre fermentors. And I’ve got one right now that I’m gonna be doing a soy sauce this fall.
Tracey [00:03:31] So you wont add wheat, so I can taste it?
Pete [00:03:32] I haven’t got a clue how to make. Well, I’ll figure it out like everything else that I’ve done. And yeah, but hot sauce and pickles and you name it. So just about anything that’s fermented or that can be preserved. It has typically historically been put into a wooden barrel.
Tracey [00:03:57] Now, as I’m a hiker, so I’ve done a bunch of hiking guides and people know that there are Cooper Lane’s pretty much throughout Ontario and Quebec because Cooper was a traditional industry that people wanted to be part of. But how many Coopers are there in Canada now?
Pete [00:04:13] I know of two Coopers in Nova Scotia and they are called White Coopers. So they make barrels out of spruce and pints of softwood. And one is a historical site at the new Ross Farms. Walter’s a Cooper that that both Marla and I had met. We spent the day in his shop.
Pete [00:04:31] And then there’s another shop in the southern end of Nova Scotia. And they also are White Coopers. They make pails, buckets, small barrels for the fishing industry. When it comes to wet barrels, so hardwood barrels for wine, spirits, that sort of thing. Right now, as it stands, I am the only one doing it in Canada.
Pete [00:04:54] I’ve got three apprentices and one or two other people have learned from me in the past. But there are three apprentices right now on the go.
Tracey [00:05:03] Wow. Awesome. So this particular tradition is actually going to be carried on. Absolutely.
Pete [00:05:08] It was always a goal of mine. When I first started this to have a couple of people before I retire. So I’ve got about 10 years left in me to keep on plugging away at what I’m doing. But there will be at least three other Coopers. So I’m hoping that they’re going to open their own shops and things will carry on and evolve. There’s enough business in each province of Canada to have three or four cooperidges. If the right marketing is done and all that sort of thing. There was always way more work than I ever wanted to deal with.
Tracey [00:05:39] All right. OK. And in terms of the Cooper side, you’ve got a Cooper side to your business and you’ve got the vinegar side to your business. So can you talk a little bit about how the vinegar side has evolved and where you’re going from here with that?
Pete [00:05:54] Well, the evolution of this of this mess that I’ve created. I learned old school when it came to learning how to make barrels. And I learned that from one gentleman outside of Kansas City, Dale. And I was I was fortunate enough to learn old school. So what I’ve kind of done with the vinegar is, is it’s taken a big interest of mine. I’m not a drinker. I don’t drink alcohol really at all. I have a glass of wine once in a blue moon or a beer. But I’m not I’m not a drinker. So I always thought it would be kind of neat to really progress with the vinegar, being a non alcoholic ingredient. So I’ve sort of studied what the Spanish and the Italians and the Portuguese do with the barrels and how they age vingegars and Solaris systems and cooling systems and how barrels are stacked and how that affects the aging of whatever is in the barrels, the temperatures, the environment and all those sort of things. So II love what the Spanish and the Portuguese do with barrels. So it’s not just the vinegars, but it’s ports and it’s sherrys and olive oils and all of the different things. Wine is at the bottom of the list for me when it comes to barrels. No particular reason. It’s just not where my interest really lies. But I find it fascinating what they do. So old school on the vinegar is too. So thus, you know, the peach vinegar has been in the barrel for twenty-five, twenty-six years. All of vinegar are aged minimum…it takes five to seven years for the alcohol to dissipate. So every vinegar from a starting point is five to seven years old.
Tracey [00:07:43] Now what’s interesting about aging vinegar is in a barrel is that the alcohol dissipates to the barrel itself. And yet they don’t leak. Can you talk a little bit about the the leaking versus…
Pete [00:07:57] It’s a little more icomplicated than that. There’s, um, there’s a starter, a mother that I use that I was given or traded for a number of barrels that I built for an Italian gentleman in trade for the starter. That starter is really what takes the vinegar to a whole new level. But it’s the work that the starter does with the enzymes within the barrel or within the vinegar. So it’s pulling air in. It’s constantly stirring and drawing air into the wine, which increases the acidic value. So it’s basically an over-oxidization of the wine to to increase the acid.
Pete [00:08:43] And then it’s the that’s the water molecules of the water vapor plus the alcohol vapor that evaporates through the wood in the barrel, which is called the angel’s share. So on a typical vinegar barrel, I lose anywhere from five to eight liters of vinegar every year out of the barrel. And that is water, primarily water molecules and some of the alcohol. Most of the alcohol is eaten up by the mother working away on the enzymes within the barrel that’s constantly bringing churning air into the wine, which air evaporates alcohol. So I’m never afraid to pull the bung on the barrel five or six times a month. Whereas wine, you put wine in a barrel, you put the bung in and you leave it until you’re at least tasting from it, which is anywhere from five to six to eight months down the road. So the barrels are constantly being opened. New fresh air is being brought into the barrel every time you open it and take the bung out, which regenerates and revives or gives the mother a little more energy to keep working.
Tracey [00:09:51] And just for listeners as well, then you use mothers with sour dough used nowadays with kombucha, you use mothers with anything that you’re fermenting over a long period of time and you want to have a starter. So when I was a kid, we used to call sour dough monster dough, because it actually has to eat all the time. And that’s you feeding the mother.
Pete [00:10:11] Right.
Tracey [00:10:11] And so in this particular case, you don’t feed the mother. The mother gets fed by opening the barrel frequently and getting the oxygen.
Pete [00:10:18] And I’m increasing. So I’ve got I’ve got a mother barrel that I draw mother from. So when I’m starting a barrel, I take five liters of mother out of my mother barrel and put it in the barrel that I’m starting. But when I take five liters out, I’m also taking 10 liters of vinegar or wine that’s coming in the door and putting it in the mother barrel. So every time I use the mother, I’m taking five litres out, but I’m putting ten litres in. One to feed the mother with fresh and secondly to increase the volume. So that 15 liters of mother that I got 14 years ago is now grown to close to six hundred and fifty to seven hundred liters of mother.
Tracey [00:10:57] And I just want to say, that’s because so many people don’t actually prepare their own food, let alone actually prepare their own artisan products. So it gives you an idea of how basically once you start with abundance, you actually create more abundance.
Pete [00:11:09] Right.
Tracey [00:11:11] Absolutely. Absolutely. It’s a very important concept in the world. You’re either dealing with abundance or you’re deal with scarcity and it’s much more happy life if you can actually work on the abundance side.
Pete [00:11:23] Absolutely.
Tracey [00:11:24] So can you talk a little bit about your how you set up your life as an artisan. It must be kind of hard to make a living in Canada these days. What’s going on?
Pete [00:11:33] Yeah, it’s it’s a tough in any small business. And I don’t have any experience outside of Ontario, but any small business working in Ontario is really tough. There’s the labour laws and then there’s all of thealth and safety regulations. And and, yes, it’s all necessary, but at the same time, it’s a tough go. Ontario or Canada is a hard place to have a small business. There’s no question about it.
Pete [00:12:01] I’ve been through my hardships. I went bankrupt not too long ago, was five years ago and basically lost everything. And it’s kind of I think it’s the entrepreneur thing. It’s going to happen to you once or twice and you jump in with both feet. And if you get knocked down, you stand up, you wipe the dirt off your jeans and you carry on or you start over. So that’s kind of what I’ve done. And, you know, as much as here, I am 60 years old and wishing that I had a retirement program or a retirement fund, which I don’t. But at the end of the day, it’s only money. And at the end of the day, you have to enjoy it. So I enjoy the people that I meet. I meet amazing people from all over the world. I get invited all over the world to go and do things and and be places. I haven’t taken any of them up on yet. And I’ve met some crazy musicians and movie stars and artists and it all has to do with this. So I’m a believer in opening up everything to the universe and not to sound too corny or anything, because I hate sounding corny, but just if you open up and you let the good things happen, then the good things will happen. And the bad things that happen, you just got to kind of get over it and get on with it. So that lets sort of the way I look at it and I take on the day with a smile on my face and I hope I end the day with a smile on my face. And the ones that do that for me are the ones that I meet in between.
Tracey [00:13:30] And in terms of your creative entrepreneurship, because that’s basically that’s what you are. You have both sides. Can you tell me and some of the challenges that shocked you about being on either side and the creative side or the entrepreneurship side?
Pete [00:13:48] Wow. That’s a that’s a big question. Geez.
Pete [00:13:56] With or without pullingsome industries into this. It’s just been a tough go.
Pete [00:14:07] And I think probably one of the hardest things that I found as a Cooper was you’re Canadian, so you don’t know what you’re doing. I had that response from a number of different companies.
Tracey [00:14:25] Is that because Coopers are considered a European trade?
Pete [00:14:28] Yeah.
Tracey [00:14:30] It’s very typical for almost all our artists. Any artist creative person in Canada faces that. You know, the group of seven went to study in Europe.
Pete [00:14:41] And then and then the other thing that that I but I always find it funny and I still to to do to this day, And that is you’re a Cooper. What are you doing making vinegar? Because vinegar is out there in the world as bad wine. No, actually, it’s really good wine that just happened to go to vinegar. But but so when you’re when you’re a company that’s developing and you’re making barrels for different industries and they’re learning that you age vinegar in barrels, then that’s kind of an oxymoron or whatever you might want to call it.
Tracey [00:15:20] We like to call it multi passionate.
Pete [00:15:23] And and I call it a big o, whatever. Take your opinion and shove it. It doesn’t matter to me.
Tracey [00:15:31] Now, we were talking earlier about the different kinds of you don’t actually do any advertising. You tend to get your attention from word of mouth and yet you’re actually exporting you now your work to several different companies. Can you tell me which which work it is and how you divide your two businesses up and where it goes?
Pete [00:15:48] Well, of the the barrels themselves, I don’t do too much anymore. I’ve got three apprentices. I’m letting those guys learn that the recoopering skills. I’m not building very many new barrels at all. And that will change over time over the next couple of years. But in the end, it’s only to introduce the apprentices to building barrels. They all have a lot to learn. There’s way more to a barrel than just knowing how to physically make a barrel. As a matter of fact, that’s the easy part.
Tracey [00:16:22] It’s even the sizing. There’s three different sizes a barrel, right?
Pete [00:16:26] There’s like 30 sizes 30. So there’s that. I mean, I’m pulling the number out of the air, but yeah, I bet there’s 30 sizes.
Tracey [00:16:32] OK, so how many sizes do you specialize in?
Pete [00:16:34] There’s a 24 to 30 litre Perkin. Then there’s a 50 liter barrel, a 100 liter barrel, a 220 litre barrel and then a 500 liter. Those are the ones that I that I’ve typically done.
Pete [00:16:49] And which countries are they going to, where are they going to?
Pete [00:16:53] It’s been Canada and some to the United States when it comes to barrels. And that’s as big and as far as I ever wanted to stretch their reach. Any more than that, it involves more than one person and I’m only one person.
Tracey [00:17:06] While we’re here at Prince Black Prince Winery and they actually are one of the few wineries that have decided to use your barrels. So these are Canadian oak barrels. You have to do one of their Solaris. It’s like a brandy, but it’s more than that.
Pete [00:17:28] In Prince Edward County, there’s probably about 15, 18 wineries that have used my barrels in the past. Some of them still have a couple of the barrels that they’re using and then some went down into the states. And that’s pretty much as far as the the barrels have gone.
Pete [00:17:47] When it comes to the vinegar, though, it’s gone to Tokyo, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, there’s about four or five states and pretty much across Canada. And it’s the foodies and the people that kind of appreciate what you do and then there’s chefs, pretty much every one of those places that I just mentioned. That’s that’s the reason why it’s gone primarily across the ocean, it’s different restaurants and chefs.
Tracey [00:18:21] Now, these chefs are all taking, what, your peach vinegar or?
Pete [00:18:24] Yes. Or they’re doing that. They’re doing the peach. And then the solara, the original one, which I’m down to, only about 10, 12 liters left in that, then that’s the end of it. That’s the 37 year old. It’s over the top. And then they take the peach, the rasberry and the the balsamic seem to be the three main ones that are that are traveling around now.
Tracey [00:18:48] Yeah. I know the ones that are truly appreciate. Yeah. And how do you actually ship them?
Pete [00:18:54] It’s bottled and then packed in boxes. Most of the shipments are only small shipments, like two or three cases or even sometimes not even that. Maybe half a case to different places. And then there’s other places. I did a big order in January and it was 400 cases and it went to Taiwan. And that representative has already contacted me back saying that they received it and he’s liking and he hoping to put in an order twice or three times the size for December because he wants to take it to China and in Japan.
Tracey [00:19:56] So then my last question and all of my podcasts are always this are do you. Do you consider yourself a Canadian? And if so, what does that mean to you? Wow.
Pete [00:20:05] Yes. I am a Canadian. I’m a 100 percent Canadian. I’m very proud to be a Canadian. The generations of my family have been Canadian for six generations. We started in Ireland and went to the East Coast, then to Goderich, Ontario and Dungannan, Ontario.
Pete [00:20:25] So my great grandfather and my great great grandfather were both blacksmiths in Dungannon, Ontario. The type of cartridge. My grandparents had a butcher shop in Goderich. My father was a butcher before he became a vice principal for the Scarborough Board of Education in Toronto.
Pete [00:20:42] But yeah, I take great pride in in the fact that my family was not in any of the military services because the services they provided were necessities in the communities that they were living in, which is the blacksmithing and the butchering. So I take great pride in that. And yeah, I’ve got my great grandfather’s blacksmith shop. I just found his blacksmith shop in Dungannan four years ago. And I managed to buy the bench. His name’s carved into the back of the bench. George Bradford, 1923 is carved into the bench. I managed to get his blacksmith vice, which is part of it. And the blower from the the forge. So I. Yeah. And I’m a hundred percent Canadian. I love it. I wouldn’t live any other any in any other place in the world. We’ve got the greatest country in the world. And yeah, either Canadians like to have fun. If they if they’re given the chance, the opportunity to have fun. So. Yeah.
Tracey [00:21:55] Thank you very much. I really appreciate your time. And I love, love, love your vinegar. Thank you for introducing us to your art.
Pete [00:22:02] Very nice meeting. Good to meet you, too.
About the Author
Tracey Arial helps Canadians grow with notable nonfiction and urban agriculture.