Pilot Testing of Raw Elderberry Vinegar Production Feasibility for Small Farms

Progress report for FNC23-1390

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2023: $14,965.00
Projected End Date: 01/31/2025
Grant Recipient: Fair Share Farm LLC
Region: North Central
State: Missouri
Project Coordinator:
Thomas Ruggieri
Fair Share Farm LLC
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Project Information

Description of operation:

Thomas Ruggieri, fermenter/farmer. Tom has farmed for 20 years and runs the Fair Share Farm fermenting kitchen. The elderberry vinegar project will benefit from this on-farm facility and his operations experience. As a former environmental engineer Tom also has a background in permit applications that can help with procuring applicable Federal licenses for the project. Tom will be responsible for all farm-scale vinegar production operations.

Rebecca Graff is a co-farmer at Fair Share Farm and coordinates our field activities. She has overseen the planting, cultivation, care and propagation of over 200 elderberry bushes on the farm. She will manage the horticultural operation of the project.

Chef Kendall Harris is a Kansas City native and local African-American chef. He works part-time at Fair Share Farm as part of a personal pursuit of the skills and experiences needed to understand and apply fermentation in the kitchen. As former owner of The Happy Apple Café he is a restauranteur, and is pursuing the concept of opening a "fermentation lounge" in KC. His interests also include better understanding how to apply sustainable principles to restaurant applications. He will be evaluating restaurant-kitchen-scale application of vinegar production.

Fair Share Farm staff. Our staff will assist with operations including harvesting and production when additional labor is needed.

Dr. Chung-Ho Lin of the University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources will conduct the health analyses of vinegar samples. Dr. Lin has worked specifically with evaluating the chemical properties of American elderberries in the past and has the experience and accumulated knowledge needed to determine any health benefits of elderberry vinegar.

River Hills Harvest is at the forefront of American elderberry growing and value-added product production in Missouri. They have offered to help both with outreach and distribution of any quality finished products generated as a result of this project.


American elderberries are a native fruit in Missouri, and a viable agricultural product. Craft vinegars are a value-added agricultural product in many parts of the world, but not in the US. Tests at our farm have shown that raising elderberries, fermenting them to wine and then to vinegar is viable, and creates an aesthetically pleasing item. Craft vinegar operations can help give elderberry producers another option for adding value to the harvest.

There are no current vinegar production farms in the area. The project will evaluate various production processes to determine the viability of each for small-farm and restaurant-kitchen operations.

The anti-viral properties of elderberry juice is well established. It is not known, however, what beneficial health attributes of the American Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) will remain (or be enhanced) after a two step fermentation process. We will be teaming with MU analytical lab to determine the answer. 

Additionally, by connecting with the local restaurant community we hope to create a new craft category that will help increase the use of local elderberries, and provide a better knowledge of the benefits of sustainable agriculture.


Project Objectives:


A. Determine operations viability of at least 4 different wine-vinegar setups:

  • Food-grade bucket (passive)
  • Orleans barrel (passive)
  • Bubbler/aerator system
  • Fixed film reactor

B.  Obtain necessary licenses and approvals from Federal agencies to produce alcohol and store it as vinegar production stock. Outline steps to obtain approvals to help others through the process.

C. Determine culinary benefits of vinegar from each production type.

D. Determine health chemistry of vinegar.

E. Determine public demand for local craft elderberry vinegar.


Obtain necessary licenses and approvals

Production of alcohol is regulated by the US Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). Per TTB:

If you make vinegar from fresh fruit or juice, (this type of vinegar is classified as nonbeverage wine) you must:

  • Qualify as a bonded wine cellar by filing an application and bond with TTB using Permits Online. If you make only vinegar, you will not need the Federal Alcohol Administration Act wine producer's permit that is required for producers of beverage wine.
  • Obtain approval for your formula indicating how you plan to make nonbeverage wine /vinegar.
  • Keep records and file reports in accordance with 27 CFR part 24, subpart O.

As a part of this project we will develop a step-by-step process primer to help others navigate the regulatory aspects of producing vinegar from elderberry fruit. 

Operations evaluation

Operations analysis of various elderberries to wine to vinegar processes will be conducted. American elderberries from our farm (both cultivated and wild varieties) and/or purchased from River Hills Harvest(500 lb +/-) is planned. Prior to initiating operations, we will purchase and complete an on-line vinegar production course developed by the Malle-Schmickl company in Austria. 

Wine making will be completed using food grade barrels and buckets as fermenters. Organic sugar and water will be added as necessary. Finished wine will be stored.

Vinegar processing will be completed using 4 different methods:

  1. Passive method. Placing wine in a modified food grade bucket and waiting for vinegar mother to form and convert the wine to vinegar.
  2. Orleans process. Created in France in the 17th century, it is a process where a wood barrel on its side is filled halfway with wine. Openings are cut into the ends of the barrel to allow air to enter and a mother of vinegar to form and convert the wine to vinegar.
  3. Vinegar generator. The Malle-Schmickl company produces and sells vinegar generators that can process from 1 to 25 gallons of wine into vinegar.  Vinegar can be produced in a tenth of the time that the more passive methods require.
  4. Bubbler system. A fourth way to process vinegar is by bubbling air into the wine. A small-scale bubbler system will be constructed to test this method using an aquarium aerator and suitable container. It will be the main restaurant kitchen method of testing and will be carried out on a small scale.

Evaluate culinary benefits of vinegar from each production type.

Tastings of the elderberry vinegar will be performed once an acceptable product has been produced. Each tasting will include the opportunity to complete a survey card. 

Evaluate health chemistry of vinegar from each production type.

We will work with The University of Missouri (MU) to evaluate the health benefits and chemistry of the elderberry vinegar once a suitable product is produced.

Evaluate public demand for local craft elderberry vinegar

As a regular vendor at the Brookside Farmers Market we will get a first hand account of public demand once we have product to sell.



Materials and methods:

Obtain necessary licenses and approvals Winery License/Permit

As a part of the project we have obtained two necessary approvals: A Federal US Department of the Treasury – Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau Basic Permit for a Wine-producer and blender; and a Missouri – Division of Alcohol and Tobacco Control – License as a 22% Manufacturer Solicitor.

At the time of the submittal of the project proposal, it was not understood that the State of Missouri permit would also be required. While this license application required additional work, we were fortunate to have MO ATC agents that were helpful, as well as curious, during the process.

The Federal application took place completely on-line. Initiating the application process took some time, as we did not want to enter a US Treasury tax system without a clear picture that we were filling out the correct “paperwork.” Once the path necessary for our operation to apply became clear the process was rather straightforward. The Missouri application was a printed submission that was hand-delivered to the local MO ATC office.

Both the US and Missouri applications are focused on the applicant verifying their legal legitimacy and tax status, as well as legally defining the location of the operation and alcohol storage/production areas within the structure being permitted. Documents required for the applications include: Articles of Incorporation (must be a corporation in Missouri to get a license), No Tax Due Certificates, background checks on all owners, legal description of the permitted property, facility layout, lease/deed, cash bond (Missouri only), and other such information. More information on the application processes will be provided in the final report.

Operations Evaluation

Completion of On-line Vinegar Course

The Malle-Schmickl Vinegar Making Course was purchased upon approval of the project. This course has proven to be extremely valuable, providing fundamental information that has helped us in our trials and troubleshooting. The course includes information on all aspects of our planned operations, from juicing to winemaking to vinegar production.

One thing learned from the class was the importance of having the ability to conduct wet chemistry analyses on the juice, wine and vinegar. Keeping track of the ferments' vital signs is important to be able to consistently produce a quality product. In addition, it is necessary to measure both the acidity and alcohol by volume of the final product to assure it meets Federal requirements. Prior to the initiation of the project our kitchen was equipped to conduct acidity tests, but the equipment for the alcohol testing required a $400 purchase.

Winemaking Trials

The effort necessary for the production of a consistent, high-quality elderberry wine did not receive much detail in the proposal. This key step, however, has required quite a bit of research and trialing. While the project team has over 20 years of experience making wine directly from grapes, the preparation of a fruit wine from elderberries has proven to be a bit of a different process.

Wine production contains a lot of variables; from what yeast to use, to how high an alcohol level to achieve, to whether the juice and crushed berries (pomace) should be fermented together or separately. We have run several trials to honing in on the project’s primary winemaking method. This is critical as we need the samples that are to be analyzed to all come from the same batch of juice/wine.

 The trials showed a production log system is necessary to keep track of each batch of juice, wine and vinegar. Developing this system, along with honing laboratory skills and other basics took a considerable effort during this stage. 

Vinegar Production Trials

The second fermentation step in the production of vinegar can be completed several ways. As a part of this project, we are going to trial 4 methods, and have the final products tested for beneficial components by MU.

  1. Orleans Process – Barrel
    The Orleans process passive method of making vinegar that exposing a partially filled barred of wire to air in a controlled manner. We have purchased the barrel to modify accordingly and expect to have the barrel operational in January/February 2024.

  2. Orleans Process – Bucket
    We have constructed a 3-1/2 gallon food-grade bucket with a bottom spigot and a tube to allow bottom filling of the container. Trials on this method are in progress in preparation of the main batch. This method is a simplified version of the Orleans Barrel and is helping us to evaluate and understand this “Slow Method” of vinegar production. At this stage in the project we are also considering evaluating a larger Orleans Bucket container.

  3. Vinegar Generator
    A vinegar generator was purchased from Malle-Schmikl as a part of the project. Since starting up the generator on October 3rd , 2023 we have run it continuously. After starting it up using grape wine and strawberry wine, we produced our first trial batch of raw elderberry vinegar on November 2nd . We have been hustling to make enough elderberry wine to keep it fed. We are very happy with the final product quality and ease of operation. We plan on increasing the batch size from 5 liters to 20 liters or more.

  4. Aeration System
    We initiated our aeration system trials on December 7th.  Our initial trial showed that this method volatilizes off a portion of the alcohol in the wine, leading to a lower acid vinegar that may not consistently meet the Federal requirement of 4% acidity.

Evaluate culinary benefits of vinegar from each production type

We have not yet been able to solicit input from market customers or other users, since we don’t have a final product yet, but expect to begin selling and sampling product in early 2024. One thing we will be evaluating before then is the best way to conduct a “vinegar tasting.” This will include determining the best sample containers, how much to dilute a sample to prevent overpowering one’s tastebuds, and what questions to ask on an evaluation card.

In the meantime, we have been distributing 10-ounce bottles to friends and family to try. We have received very positive feedback. We also have been using the vinegar and find it to be a flavorful and diverse product.

Evaluate health chemistry of vinegar

As major component of the project, Dr. Chung Ho Lin of the University of Missouri will be conducting metabolic analysis using high resolution spectrographs of our intermediate (juice and wine) and final (vinegar) products to determine the amount of health promoting compounds they contain. We have plans as a part of the project to test 6 different samples; juice, wine and the 4 different vinegar production methods. 

We have discussed the plan with Dr. Lin and have received appropriate sample vials to collect and freeze samples of juice, wine and vinegar.

Evaluate public demand for local craft elderberry vinegar

We plan during early 2024 to have product for sale. At that time we will sample the product at market and sell it. In addition we plan to contact local chefs who have noted an interest in raw elderberry vinegar in the past.

Restaurant Methods

Chef Kendall has pursued the opportunities that might be available for restaurants to utilize elderberries in the production of raw vinegar. However, further review with the Missouri Department of Alcohol and Tobacco has clarified that making even a small amount of wine at an establishment will require obtaining the same Manufacturer license that we obtained. This precludes restaurant production and sale of raw elderberry vinegar to be conducted as a part of the project. Chef Kendall will still be conducting small-scale tests to evaluate restaurant scale techniques and the technical feasibility of raw vinegar production.

Research results and discussion:

The majority of results achieved to date have been achieved during the trialing of production methods prior to initiation of the main project batch. In general, this trialing has indicated the following:

  1. The winery permitting and licensing is not necessarily a difficult process. Time is spent gathering documents and information from numerous entities and agencies, and that opens more opportunity for frustration. In general though, the applications are straightforward.
  2. The condition and quality of the juice to be used for the wine production is critical. Based on input from the project team and others, a cold-press, low-pressure process was used. The juice was kept separate from the berry pulp (pomace) and they were fermented into wine separately. This low pressure press kept the waxy resin from the berry skins from appearing in the juice-only wine. 
  3. The wine made with the pomace had a tendency to form a mold while the juice-only wine was clearer and did not mold when airlocked. 
  4. We received 500 pounds of elderberries for the project. We pressed 100 lbs to serve our needs during the initial trials. In mid-December we pressed 375 lbs of berries and produced over 40 gallons of wine. It is this batch that will be sampled and analyzed as a part of the project. These activities will take place during 2024.
  5. Both the juice-only and pomace batches required dilution with a 12 brix sugar solution to thin out the viscous nature of the elderberry juice. The trials are aimed at creating the least diluted and purest version of elderberry vinegar.
  6. An alcohol by volume (%ABV) of 6% was used as the target for the wine. This level of alcohol allows us to obtain a vinegar with an acidity of between 4 and 6%.
  7. It is important to have the skill to conduct wet chemistry analyses to determine the acidity and alcohol content during vinegar production. More information on the "lab" we set up will be provided in the final report.
  8. A systematic record-keeping system is essential to a successful operation.
  9. Energy use can be significant as heating elements are beneficial equipment during the vinegar fermentation step. Consistent room temperature plays an important role in the ability to produce a consistent product. 
  10. Pressing 500 lbs of berries requires a facility equipped with proper winemaking vessels. We have made wine from grapes in the past and have a wood/cast iron press, and 60 gallons of glass containers on hand. This scale matched well with the needs of the project.
Participation Summary
1 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

1 On-farm demonstrations
2 Tours

Participation Summary:

1 Farmers participated
1 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

Our outreach and education efforts are still in process. We have regularly posted updates on the project on social media via our Instagram and Facebook pages. This has included posting news on being awarded the project, obtaining our Federal and State licenses as a winery, maiden operation of the vinegar generator, pressing of the elderberries, wine production, and other milestones.

In addition we gave tours this summer for the Missouri Organic Association (40 attendees) and The Brookside Farmers Market (20 attendees) and included showing attendees our vinegar production operation.

The project will be included in an on-farm biodiversity presentation we will give at the Great Plains Growers Conference in  January 2024. Terry Durham of River Hills Harvest has plans to put us on the program of this year's American Elderberry Symposium. We also look forward to further promoting and presenting on the project once the analytical testing is completed is spring/summer.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.