Erwin Gegenbauer

23rd February 2017

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Dan Dennison

23rd February 2017

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Dan Dennison

When we were researching our trip to Vienna last summer, a number of people tipped us off about a master vinegar brewer named Erwin Gegenbauer who is known locally by the rather magnificent title of Vinegar Pope. How could we possibly resist? An audience was requested and a couple of weeks later we find ourselves in Erwin’s factory-shop near the central train station. The man himself, when he greets us amid aisles of oil and vinegar bottles, doesn’t disappoint. Dressed in a mustard-yellow jacket and bright orange trousers, he exudes all the eccentricity you’d expect from someone who has spent most of his adult life turning old wine into sour gold.

Erwin grew up in this building, where his grandfather Ignaz Gegenbauer started a sauerkraut and pickle business in the 1920s. When he took over the company in 1992, Erwin downsized radically and narrowed the focus to vinegar, though he now produces more than 60 different varieties (including vinegars made with raspberries, figs and white asparagus) as well as oils, coffee, beer and some of the best cider we’ve ever come across. His main outlet is at Vienna’s bustling Naschmarkt, but recently he’s been opening up this building to the public – not just via the shop and café but also six very impressive guest rooms on the first floor.

Erwin regrets that he cannot show us his family’s private quarters higher up the building. However he does take us on an extended tour of the factory out back and the cellars below, where we get a chance to taste some of his truly extraordinary creations (as used by top chefs such as Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller). Back in the shop, we gravitate towards the kitchen area where Erwin and his wife Daniela often cater for themselves and guests. “I don’t want you thinking I’m an expert cook,” he says as he toasts homemade muesli with butter and homemade honey, then layers it in glasses with seasoned yoghurt, orange segments and tomato seeds, topped off with a liberal glug of his own chilli oil. We eat this simple but extremely pleasing breakfast with Gegenbauer coffee, followed by glasses of Gegenbauer beer and cider. If the raw materials are as dazzlingly good as these, expertise in the kitchen is not strictly required.

Continued below...

How long have you been here?

Since 1929. Not me personally [laughs]. But I was born in Vienna and I grew up here.

In this building?

Yes. My grandfather came here in 1929 and he started making sauerkraut, which was an incredibly important product in Vienna – my grandfather was one of 600 guys producing it in the city. It developed into a pickle business and in 1968 my parents took it over. They installed the first fully-automatic line in Austria for producing pickles. The enterprise grew and grew. In 1992, when I took it over, it had 650 employees and factories in Czechoslovakia and Germany. And I said, okay let’s stop, this is stupid work.

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What do you mean?

I earned a lot of money but I didn’t find time to spend the money. And I had a wonderful hobby, which is to produce vinegar. So I decided to sell the factories. I didn’t become rich then because everything was on credit, but I gained a new value: time. And this time I was using to think about vinegar. So I founded this brewery and made my hobby my profession. We’re very small: we have only eight employees.

I decided to sell the factories. I didn’t become rich but I gained a new value: time. And this time I was using to think about vinegar

From 650 employees down to just eight? That’s quite a change. So where did your interest in vinegar come from?

My grandmother grew up on a winery around 20km from here. When I was eight or nine, I would degustate with my father, who was a fanatic about wine. And so we degustated and I became a fanatic of wine as well. I started to buy bottles with my pocket money. I had the special wine glass, I was watching the colour, I was tasting. Nowadays I’m drinking the whole bottle because I’m an alcoholic, but back then I would pour the rest into a carafe – and if you leave wine in the carafe, it starts turning into vinegar. This fascinated me. At first I brewed vinegar for my family and friends. Sometimes, when we had negotiations with the supermarket chains, I would bring my vinegar with me. I called it the Sour Corruption. That didn’t help. But I wanted to have my hobby as my profession, and when I got the enterprise in 1992 I changed the entire thing.

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Straight away?

Very shortly after. I sold everything and decided to go another way – I don’t know if it’s the right one. We can survive, but there is no net. If the economy crashes and three-star restaurants are closing, we also have to close. The risk is very high. But to live in this way gives a lot of satisfaction. Everything’s a lot more focused.

You’re happy with the size of the company now?

Yes. We’re producing so many things. On the market, we’ve got around 60 different vinegars. We also produce oils, coffee, beer, cider, honey…

Are you always working on something new?

It’s funny. When I go into the kitchen with a chef, he’s telling me, “Erwin I’ve got a new dish, I’m not happy with it, try it, have you any ideas?” And so maybe there’s a new vinegar or oil I can make for him. But the other way around is also true: I’m giving a new product to the chef and he is inventing a new dish, and this is fun. This kind of evolution is so important to me.

Erwin leads us inside the factory.

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So what you see here is the production area. The filling, the labelling, everything is done by hand. I kicked out all the machines. I’m no socialist but something is clear: if you get rid of all your employees and replace them with machines, you won’t have any customers in the future. So this is one thing: social responsibility1. The other thing is, my guys, if they are bottling the vinegar by hand, they’re smelling and tasting the vinegar. It’s also quality control.

They’re connected with it.

Connected is the right word. If they say “Mm, it’s not so perfect, try it”, and I agree it’s not perfect, the vinegar goes back for maturation. This is very important for me. This is hand work. I don’t think this is a step back, it’s a way into the future.

Thomas Keller uses our noble sour to make a version of crème caramel, Alain Ducasse is putting it on foie gras, and Ferran Adrià made a sorbet out of it

So you take a very artisanal approach to vinegar-making.

Yes and that works for flavours as well. We don’t mix anything. For example when we’re talking about raspberry vinegar, we don’t mix wine vinegar with raspberries, this is too stupid for me. My fascination is to find one flavour in the nature and to keep it for many years in a very conservative, traditional way, preserved by its natural acidic acidity. So we’re fermenting raspberry vinegar, nothing else.

No grapes involved.

No. And this purity is a fascination for me.

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You were talking a moment ago about working with chefs. So who is using your vinegars?

A lot of the big chefs in US like Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller and [Jean-Georges] Vongerichten. Take as an example our noble sour [a “sipping vinegar” with low acidity]. In my idea it’s a digestive, you can drink it as a non-alcoholic alternative instead of schnapps or liquor. But chefs have other ideas. Keller uses it to make a version of crème caramel, Alain Ducasse is putting it on foie gras, and in former times Ferran Adrià made a sorbet out of it.

After we press the raspberry seeds, we’re left with these pellets which we’re feeding to our chickens, and then our guests are getting eggs with a raspberry flavour. This is a perfect circle

Did you approach them or did they approach you?

We have a shop at the Naschmarkt, which has become very important as the city tourism has increased in recent years, and we’ve got a lot of exposure from that. Also, we have big luck with a French guy who imports our products in the New York area. He is educated to high-end food and has good relationship to French chefs.

We continue around the corner into another production area. Erwin picks up a small bottle labelled “Himbeere Kernöl”.

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What’s this?

This is a funny thing. I love to eat raspberries, but when I get seeds caught between my teeth I’m becoming angry. One day I was looking at this little white thing on my fingertip and I said: “You’re the seed of the raspberry. And in each seed has to be some fat, the energy for the new plant. Is there any fat in you?” For the next eight years I worked to produce pure raspberry-seed oil. The product doesn’t cost us anything because it’s made with waste from the vinegar production. We need 1.5 tons of fruit for 1 litre; our daily production now is 2 litres. Smell it, then lick the straw.

We do as instructed.

Maybe the first moment it’s more hay, grass, nutty, and then the raspberries come in. This is a big fascination for me.

It’s a really extraordinary flavour. Like a really grassy olive oil at first, but you do get the raspberry flavour coming in.

After we press the seeds, we’re left with these pellets which we’re feeding to our chickens, and then our guests are getting eggs with a raspberry flavour. This is a perfect circle. So I am happy.

This idea of local produce is boring. I call it the castration of good taste. Of course I try to take products which are in the local area, which makes sense because the costs are less. But if I find a better product, I go around the world to get it

Incredible. Are all your ingredients grown in Austria?

So this idea of local produce is boring. It’s a kind of marketing. If a chef says “I only take the products within 10km”, and he finds a better product 12km away and he’s not allowed to take the better product, he will have a worse dish. I call it the castration of good taste. It’s so stupid. Of course I try to take products which are in the local area, which makes sense because the costs are less. But if I find a better product, I go around the world to get it. I produce fig vinegar, but there aren’t good figs in Austria, so I’ll take them from Turkey.

The Austrian fig – a well-known thing.

[laughs] Yes.

We continue down to the cellars to sample some of Erwin’s vinegars…

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Next we head upstairs to see the guestrooms, then continue to the top of the building where Erwin reveals a surprise: an indoor swimming pool built by his parents in the 1980s, which you can use if you stay in the guest rooms.

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Finally we return to the kitchen where we started out.

Talk us through your average day.

I get up at 6.30am, have breakfast with the kids before they go to school. Then I have time for me, to relax, read the newspaper, look at news on the computer. Nine o’clock I’m starting work here. Then I’m working in a very concentrated way – it’s not easy to reach me by phone. I’m checking on the guys, looking in each corner, making sure everything is working properly. Then at 3pm I’m tasting vinegars, thinking about products, talking to Angela our brewmaster. The employees are stopping at around 5.30pm and I stay around for the evening to control the fermentation. I have to check it every three hours day and night, seven days a week – the bacteria don’t know about sleeping hours. That’s why it’s so important that I’m living here.

On The Menu

Breakfast with Erwin Gegenbauer
Vienna, May 2016

To eat:

Toasted muesli with fruit, yoghurt & chilli oil »

To drink:

Gegenbauer espresso
Gegenbauer Wiener bier
Gegenbauer cider
A whole selection of Gegenbauer vinegars and oils applied to the tongue with pipettes

How do lunch and dinner fit into this schedule?

I don’t have any lunch. I’m too focused. So between breakfast at 7am and dinner at 7pm, I don’t eat.

You have a meal every 12 hours.

Yeah. In the evening, I cook for the kids and my wife. Usually something very simple, it can be a pasta. It’s so stupid but I don’t have any time for cooking. Put some noodles into water – that’s our dinner.

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Can I ask you something? You were described to us as the Vinegar Pope. What’s that all about?

Oh god, yeah [Erwin shakes his head ruefully].

Is it a title you’re comfortable with?

I’m relaxed. I don’t know who was the first one who wrote that.

If you want to have innards, go to Gasthaus Wolf in the fifth district: wonderful. Kidneys, heart: wonderful.
Erwin on his favourite restaurants in Vienna

It’s very catchy.

It’s a typical German thing. It came from when the pope was German, there was the headline “We Are Pope”. Think about that. Everything was pope at that moment. Pope of wine. Pope of shit.

Cheese pope.

Yeah. And so I don’t know – it was many years ago.

When you were growing up, was food important at home?

Let me give you an example. When I was five, I had a blind tasting of 10 different gherkins by 10 different producers an I had to find out which was ours – this was my education. This is the answer. My father was a fanatic of pickles.

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Were his pickles good?

They were good at the beginning, but as the company grew it became the same shit like everything. When the company turned 75 [in 2014], I decided to make gherkins like my grandfather did before, using his recipe and our vinegars. The old people said, “Oh this is the cucumber I had in my childhood, it’s wonderful”. And do you know what kids say? “This is not gherkin, gherkin doesn’t taste like that.” What a poor world where kids don’t have any opportunities to have varieties in taste.

Going back to what we were talking about earlier: when did it become clear that you weren’t going to take on your family business?

It was so crazy. When I was 20, 22, my father would say, “Okay, go to the yacht, care for the yacht.” Great! I was a young guy sitting on the yacht, beautiful girls around me, it was wonderful. Good food on board. Then my father would say, “We have to repair something at the villa, go and watch the builders.” What a wonderful life! But then I thought, I’m the slave of my family. I have to watch property. This is my job. But I’m no housekeeper. The responsibility when you have a lot of possessions is very high. So I reduced them – and believe me this is still a lot to maintain. But it’s enough for me.

For more about Gegenbauer products, go to www.gegenbauer.at

Follow Erwin: Facebook

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  1. It only occurred to us afterwards that Erwin got rid of almost all his employees after he took over the company in 1992. But he’s making a slightly different point here.

Posted 23rd February 2017

In Interviews

 

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Dan Dennison

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