Ethanol: From Corn to Kosher Vinegar

The Midwest is known as the breadbasket of America, thanks to its endless fields of grains. Omaha-based Green Plains Inc., which makes corn-based products, was founded in 2004 and is now the fourth largest ethanol fuel producer in North America, with 11 plants in Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Tennessee, Indiana and Nebraska. 

With such a large footprint, Green Plains is committed to sustainability which is at the foundation of corporate decision making. This includes how they approach their biorefinery operations which are meant to conserve energy and water, reduce their carbon footprint while supporting their communities. 

Ethanol is the principal ingredient in alcoholic beverages like beer, wine and brandy. Because it can readily dissolve in water and other organic compounds, ethanol also is an ingredient in a range of products, from personal care and beauty products to paints and varnishes to fuel. 

Green Plains’ York plant — the first of their plants to come under OU Kosher certification – is where they manufacture B Grade FCC ethanol. The process of kosher certification requires a close examination of ingredients and production methods, so the OU Kosher team headed to Nebraska. 

What is Ethyl Alcohol 

Ethanol, also called ethyl alcohol, is a simple organic chemical compound with the formula C2H6O (each molecule is assembled from 2 carbons (C), 1 oxygen (O), and 6 hydrogen (H) atoms). It is produced at the York plant through fermentation of starches found in the #2 Yellow corn widely grown in the region, most of which is used for animal feed. 

There are four grades of ethyl alcohol. “Purest,” the highest grade of ethanol, is beverage quality “GNS” or grain neutral spirits. It is neutral in the sense that nothing has been done to the grain aside from germinating, fermenting, and distilling it. If the neutral spirit is then aged, it can be considered a whiskey; if the neutral spirit is steeped in Juniper and other herbs, it can be considered a gin, and so on. One level down the purity scale is USP (pharmaceutical grade), used in hand sanitizers and the like. Another level down is “FCC Grade” ethanol (Food Chemical Codex). They call this B grade alcohol (as opposed to fuel grade alcohol) and is the type which is sold to vinegar manufacturers for fermentation into vinegar. Rounding out the four grades is 

fuel grade ethanol. The difference between the various grades lies solely in the extent that the impurities have been removed. 

The Plant Inspection Process 

The OU Kosher RC (Rabbinic Coordinator), Rabbi Mordechai Stareshefsky, reviewed the Schedule A and found that all of the ingredients used in the plant are kosher. 

Producing FCC ethanol is a complicated affair. Briefly, it goes like this: The grain is received and stored. Then the kernels of corn are smashed in hammermills. The milled corn flour is mixed with water and enzymes and heated to break down the starches in the corn, then fermented with yeast in huge tanks. The result is a “beer” with a high alcohol content, which is distilled and refined until it becomes B Grade FCC ethanol. 

Although #2 Yellow corn is used to produce ethanol, the process is animal friendly and sustainable as ethanol production uses starch, which animals do not digest; animals require protein. The remainder of the corn is returned to the food chain for animal feed in the form of DDGS (Distillers Dried Grains with Solubles) and/or WDGS (Distillers Wet Grains). The products are a major source of animal feed – protein rich and low in starch. 

Rabbi Mordechai Starshefsky
Rabbi Mordechai Stareshefsky resides in Lakewood, NJ with his family. He is a musmach of BMG, having previously learned in Yeshivas Rav Chaim Berlin, The Mir and Brisk. Prior to joining the OU he worked at ArtScroll as part of the team of writers elucidating Talmud Yerushalmi. His focus at OU Kosher is on Baby Formulas, Spices, Vinegars and the Beverage industry. He was one of the editors of the Halachah Yomis book published by the OU.