At the recent Fancy Food Show in San Francisco, the most impressive product I encountered was a honey wine vinegar made by Slide Ridge Honey, a small family business in northern Utah. I interviewed the developer, Martin James, about how the business and product began.
How did your business begin?
I started keeping bees when I was 9 years old. It was a hobby. When I was in my thirties, I wanted to start a business. I’d been doing flooring. Carpet, linoleum, that sort of thing. Large commercial jobs and residential. I wanted to be my own boss, control my own destination, have my own business. I started a honey business with my two sisters, one older, one younger.That was 10 years ago.
How did this product begin?
We wanted a more unique product. We wanted to expand beyond Utah. When you ship butter somewhere, it’s already there — local honey. So it’s hard to enter the market. We wanted to diversify our business so we weren’t only selling honey. We wanted higher profit margins.
My sisters and I discussed lots of possible products. Eventually vinegar came out the favorite. There are only two other people making honey wine vinegar — one in Washington State (Honey Ridge Farms), the other in Italy. If you put our products side by side, you’ll see they’re totally different.
The development took 7 years. The first step was to use honey to make wine. I got yeasts from wine shops, brewing shops, and mail order. I needed to find a yeast that was compatible with honey. The first ones I tried produced off flavors — for example, the wine smelled like gasoline. I finally found a yeast that was compatible with honey, that made an excellent honey wine. The next step was to produce vinegar. To do that I used an acetobacter — a microbe that eats alcohol and makes acid. It feels like piece of wet leather. What kombucha makers call a scooby. I found the acetobacter I needed from a vinegar maker in Napa Valley — a vinegar maker.
There was also four years of paperwork. Local, state, federal.
What has surprised you?
The reception. When they taste it, people’s eyes light up. I hadn’t prepared myself for the product to take off so well. Repeat customers buy 3 bottles. A lot of specialty chefs have taken an interest. A lot of TV chefs have come by.