Some wouldn’t expect to find incredible artisanal, aged balsamic vinegar in a tiny town in Western Nebraska, but in the Cherry County village of Cody (pop. 200), George Paul Vinegar (GPV) stands, unassuming and delightful. From the moment visitors arrive, they are treated to the kind of hospitality found only in a small town.
In 1999, former cattle rancher George Johnson and his wife Karen decided to grow grapes in his yard in hopes of making wine. After tasting a bit of surplus wine, a family friend wondered aloud if it would make excellent balsamic vinegar (turns out the unique Sandhills climate is ideal for eking the essential fruit flavor out of grapes), which led the family to try their hand at vinegar making.
Johnson honed his technique over the years, but knew immediately that he wanted to explore traditional, time-tested techniques. All vinegars start by fermenting fruit juice, which converts natural sugars into alcohol (in other words…wine). Natural acetobacters feed on this alcohol, resulting in acetic acid, and bits of cellulose start to appear. This is often referred to as “the mother.” Letting this process unfold naturally takes time—between two and eight years for Johnson’s vinegars—but that patience pays off in clean, pure flavors sans the usual sour notes found in mass-produced vinegars.
Eventually, Johnson decided to turn his hobby into a business, but lacked sufficient space and equipment to produce quality vinegar on a larger scale. Rather than erect a metal building, he decided to employ a centuries-old tradition of energy-efficient straw bale construction. During the second half of 2007, friends and family helped build the structure, often working solely for the experience and a couple of beers. The vinegary is beautiful, glowing in stunning Western Nebraska sunsets surrounded by Master Gardener Karen’s lush gardens.
The company has never advertised, relying solely on word of mouth and good old-fashioned salesmanship. In the early days, Johnson hand-carried vinegar around the state, meeting with chefs and introducing them to his wares. Culinary professionals began to take notice, and on more than one occasion the extended Johnson family hosted groups at their own homes for tours, tastings, and small-town kindness.
One such visit involved a group of chef instructors from The Institute for the Culinary Arts at Metropolitan Community College. Johnson fondly recalled the group arriving in a full-blown snowstorm, carefully navigating the snow-packed road in two vans. Karen whipped up a home-cooked meal, and the group spent a famously enjoyable evening eating, learning, and swapping tall tales.
In 2018, the vinegary’s stellar Apple Cider vinegar offering caught the eye of high-end haircare company dpHUE, who today commissions gallons of it for use in their wildly popular ACV Hair Rinse. Recently the company has also requested a consumable beverage comprising unfiltered apple cider vinegar, lemon, and cayenne, all sourced, blended and packaged by GPV.
Since opening, Johnson has counted notable Omaha eateries V. Mertz, Sage Student Bistro, La Buvette Wine & Grocery, and Dolce as regular customers, but during the pandemic, the Johnson’s wholesale business dipped as many restaurants closed or switched to more casual carry-out menus.
Retail business was the silver lining in the pandemic, as home cooks went in search of different or unique items to stave off boredom in their own kitchens. Today, George Paul Vinegars line shelves at Whole Foods and Hy-Vee stores, as well as myriad boutiques and delis across all 50 states.
The most famous of the vinegars made at GPV is the Modena-style aged Balsamic, which takes up to eight years to fully mature. The precious liquid is first aged in American Oak barrels, then mingled with various wooden staves in stainless steel tanks, concentrating both flavor and aroma. It is the namesake of Johnson’s daughter Emily, who is also responsible for the gorgeous labels that are carefully created on a vintage letterpress.
Small batch Apple Cider vinegar is made from Nebraska apples, presenting as crisp, sweet, and abundantly clean. The Johnsons like to recommend its use in everything from pie crusts to vinaigrettes. The white wine vinegars are named after their grapes: Prairie White, Edelweiss, and Brianna. Prairie Red and Temparia grapes provide extra depth to the red wine vinegars, and the limited quantity raspberry vinegar is incredible over vanilla ice cream. Every offering is made from local fruit, and just like in Willy Wonka, the apples taste like apples, and the berries like berries.
Peruse GPV’s website or follow their social media channels for heartwarming stories and delicious recipe ideas. With a bit of advance notice, Johnson is thrilled to accept visitors for a tour and tasting, regaling them with amusing anecdotes alongside fascinating information about the vinegary and process. When most folks his age would be reveling in retirement, he finds himself working more than ever, “Getting to meet people is why I love this business.”