Brad Messier has worked at restaurants around Portland and for years, ran the catering operation out of Rosemont Markets. These days, when he’s not cooking at Bowdoin College, he can be found in a kitchen on the Bath Road in Brunswick, turning beer into gourmet vinegar. The summer of 2018 has been a big one for him, with his first craft vinegar making its way into stores from Local in Brunswick, where Messier lives now, to all the Rosemont markets, Browne Trading Company, A&C Grocery in Portland and in the tasting room at Allagash Brewing Company, which supplies him with the base for making vinegar: Maine beer.

FOOD PHILOSOPHY: Messier graduated from the University of Colorado in Boulder with a degree in philosophy. Then he went on to the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont, studying in its Caribbean program. How did his two courses of study work together? “Most chefs have some of the innate, introspective nature of a philosopher. A chef converts their thoughts into the physical medium of food.” It’s more than just flavors that taste good together, he said. “I have always said, with my philosophy degree, I use it everyday.”

NATIVE SON: He worked in England as a chef, returning to his native Portland in the early aughts. One of his early jobs was at Five Fifty-Five. “The best part of my job was that I would shop at the farmers markets twice a week in Portland to get the best of the local food.” For him, this was eye-opening period in his hometown, with a move away from the utilitarian New England style food – “its main function was sustenance” to something more exciting, dominated by chef owners. This stood in fairly sharp contrast to his childhood, when his dad used to take him to places like Ruby’s Choice, “which was a fancy hamburger spot on Spring Street. Back then it was a radical idea that you could make a fancy hamburger.” What’s old is new again. “It is funny how things always circle back around. In the last few years, the fancy hamburger has become trendy again. When I look at that, I think, that is so 1987.”

LIVING THE DREAM: How did he come up with this idea? It’s largely about being a fan of the local food movement and enjoying watching the way that Maine brewers are increasingly using locally grown products in their craft beers. Like barley and other grains. “It goes to the brewers, they take the raw ingredients and produce beer. That’s where I step in. I take the beer that is the product of their hard work and make a new interpretation of their product.” Messier recently married, and he and his wife and her children live in Brunswick. He wanted to focus his life there, but wasn’t ready to give up the connections he had in Portland’s food world, and the vinegar business is helping him keep one foot in that world. “I don’t sit down and have a pint with my brewer friends anymore. But I can still be involved with the bigger picture of the brewing.”

DO IT YOURSELF: Being a chef taught him a lot about do-it-yourself projects. “I really embraced it. I hauled 50 gallons of seawater out of Casco Bay, and I made salt.” He took nose-to-tail workshops at the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. Vinegar-making intrigued him “because it clearly had a lot of science to it. It had a lot of mystery to it.” And even not quite understanding the process: “You could get some pretty good results with just luck and experimenting.” His friends at Allagash let him have unfinished beer to cook sausage in. “It imparted some flavor, but it was also a lot of fun.” This got him thinking about ways to use different parts of the brewing process. He also tried cider-making, where an accident in the process might lead to some “pretty tasty vinegar.” All of this combined to make him wonder, what would happen if he were trying to do this. But with beer.

SOURCING: Some people assume Messier is picking up the dregs from brewers, like the batches that didn’t quite work out. “There is this idea that you can make vinegar out of everything and it doesn’t matter what it starts with, it’s just a vinegar.” Not so. “The quality of what I start with is the biggest factor.” For his first product, he’s making his Black Beer Vinegar from Allagash Black, a Belgian stout. “This for me is pretty much an ideal beer to work with.” How come? It contains fewer hops, which have antibacterial properties that can slow the vinegar-making process. The stout “also has the correct amount of alcohol for what I do.” Between 6 and 7 percent alcohol is good. “Anything less than that won’t have enough acid in it.” Residual sugars in the beer also add to the flavors, and the undertones of the beer come through. “It is not all sour and harsh.”

OLD SCHOOL: From beer to a bottled vinegar takes about two months, Messier said, but the majority of the “action” takes place over a two to three week process. He’s using techniques that combine modern processes from the 1950s with some of the techniques of the 1850s; slow food, and the strong flavors that come with those methods, in the 19th century was the norm.

WELL-DRESSED: The Black Beer Vinegar could be substituted for malt vinegar in recipes, Messier said. “Or in place of balsamic.” He recommends it in marinades, and definitely on salads. “I tell people to think of it almost like a hot sauce, and to use it to brighten dishes.” At Five Fifty-Five, he learned to use lemon juice to as a finishing touch to brighten the flavor of dishes. He’d like to see people do the same with the Black Beer Vinegar (a 10-ounce bottle will cost you $12.95 at Local in Brunswick). Especially in something like potato salad, where it might be a “heavy, goopy affair with mayonnaise” and with a splash of vinegar “the dish comes alive.”

MORE BEER PLEASE: Will he broaden his horizons to other vinegars, beyond ones made with beer? Unlikely. “I would like to keep my focus on the beer vinegar because I think there is a ton of potential there.” But expanding his range of flavors is definitely in the game plan. Also, going completely local. “One of my ambitions is to make a vinegar that is made from exclusively Maine ingredients.” He’ll likely branch out to other breweries, but as he points out, Maine brewers tend to have the kind of cult followings that mean they sell out of popular lines. Allagash puts aside a couple of kegs for him every two weeks. “I just can’t say enough about how supportive Allagash has been.” Messier depends on that consistent supply chain to make his vinegars. “It is kind of a balancing act.” Somewhere between tart and sweet.

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