Ian Henderson inspects the vinegar vats.
Ian Henderson inspects the vinegar vats. DEIRDRE SMITH

From humble start, winemaker makes vinegar to export

IAN Henderson thinks he is an easy boss to work for.

"I'm happy with perfection," he said.

"I tell my staff they can stop when they get there, they don't need to go any further."

It is that attitude, combining innovation and the pursuit of the highest standards that led to Ian's company, Australian Vinegar being selected as one of just 21 finalists for a 2019 Telstra Queensland Business Awards. A record 21,000 nominations were received nationwide

Stanthorpe Vinegar was praised for offering a high-quality artisanal vinegar free from allergens, sulphites and artificial additives. Available only in speciality retailers, the business supplies vinegar to many four and five-star chefs around the country.

Six years ago, the Stanthorpe business had only one employee. Now there's 17 including highly qualified research scientists and human relations, sales, management and accounting professionals. There's even a demand planner, whose job it is to make sure the right amount of vinegar gets produced.

There are 600 bottlings per year and Australian Vinegar products are exported to Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia and New Zealand.

"There is no reason why you can't run an international business from a regional town," he said.

 

Young vinegar maker, Whitney Schoenfisch with storage tanks.
Vinegar maker, Whitney Schoenfisch with storage tanks. DEIRDRE SMITH

Knowing that he cannot compete on price against large manufacturers, Ian believes success lies in innovation and doing 'new things better and faster'.

He found his place in the market with Australian barrel-aged shiraz vinegar.

"You can't beat the Japanese on rice vinegar or the Italians on balsamic vinegar," he said.

"But they can't copy this."

There is even an innovation committee and the company works closely with chefs and the food trade. The retail brand 'Lirah' offers intriguing variations such as honey or lemongrass balsamic vinegar but fig is the biggest seller. There is also a premium Grand Reserve, which Ian signs off personally.

His path to vinegar maker started with degrees in biomedicine and chemical engineering and while working in Brisbane, he met his now-wife, Robyn Puglisi of Ballandean Estate Wines.

 

Ian with the barrels traditionally used for aging of vinegar.
Ian Henderson and Lorelle Silveira, of Foodbank . Christopher Visentin

Studying wine making was a natural extension but the vinegar came about when a friend from the United States called and asked about vinegar imports and Ian thought 'it sounds like fun, I'll give it a go'.

"My mistake is that I knew how to stop wine becoming vinegar," he said.

"So I thought it would be easy to make vinegar."

The process: Adding yeast to the base juice to turn it into alcohol. The tricky bit is the monitoring as the alcohol must be reduced to close to zero but without actually hitting that number otherwise the bacteria necessary for the chemical reaction will die.

"We don't do anything by accident or chance," he said.

"It is incredibly precise."

 

Australian Vinegar is a big supporter of the Foodbank charity. Ian here with Lorelle Silveira of Foodbank QLD.
Ian Henderson and Lorelle Silveira, of Foodbank . FILE

Oxygen is then pumped into the tanks meaning the aging process that formerly took two years in a barrel can now be done in 24 hours.

The raw product is also an important part of the success and Ian spends a great deal of time buying and blending wine.

"Anything good in the wine becomes better," he said.

"Anything bad in the wine becomes worse."

Consistency is also vital, with constant testing to analyse colour, odour and taste. The tanks in the purpose-built facility are connected by a web of red bridges that allow the makers access to test the vinegar.

Vinegar maker Whitney Schoenfisch has been with the company for six years. After completing a biomedical science degree in Toowoomba, the Warwick local was hesitant about the job, not really knowing what it entailed.

"I didn't know if I should give it a go," she said.

"Six years ago, it was very different."

There were just three other employees and the company operated out of sheds at Ballandean. They were soon filled up and the new facility was purpose-built at an industrial estate on Texas Road.

"It's nice having Stanthorpe built especially for it," she said.

"Ian's got lots of ideas.

"There's so much space but we've managed to fill it up."