The acetous fermentation is nothing more than the acidification or oxygenation of wine29, produced in the open air by means of the absorption of oxygen. The resulting acid is the acetous acid, commonly called Vinegar, which is composed of hydrogen and charcoal united together in proportions not yet ascertained, and changed into the acid state by oxygen. As vinegar is an acid, we might conclude from analogy that it contains oxygen, but this is put beyond doubt by direct experiments: In the first place, we cannot change wine into vinegar without the contact of air containing oxygen; secondly, this process is accompanied by a diminution of the volume of the air in which it is carried on from the absorption of its oxygen; and, thirdly, wine may be changed into vinegar by any other means of oxygenation.
Independent of the proofs which these facts furnish of the acetous acid being produced by the oxygenation of wine, an experiment made by Mr Chaptal, Professor of Chemistry at Montpellier, gives us a distinct view of what takes place in this process. He impregnated water with about its own bulk of carbonic acid from fermenting beer, and placed this water in a cellar in vessels communicating with the air, and in a short time the whole was converted into acetous acid. The carbonic acid gas procured from beer vats in fermentation is not perfectly pure, but contains a small quantity of alkohol in solution, wherefore water impregnated with it contains all the materials necessary for forming the acetous acid. The alkohol furnishes hydrogen and one portion of charcoal, the carbonic acid furnishes oxygen and the rest of the charcoal, and the air of the atmosphere furnishes the rest of the oxygen necessary for changing the mixture into acetous acid. From this observation it follows, that nothing but hydrogen is wanting to convert carbonic acid into acetous acid; or more generally, that, by means of hydrogen, and according to the degree of oxygenation, carbonic acid may be changed into all the vegetable acids; and, on the contrary, that, by depriving any of the vegetable acids of their hydrogen, they may be converted into carbonic acid.
Although the principal facts relating to the acetous acid are well known, yet numerical exactitude is still wanting, till furnished by more exact experiments than any hitherto performed; wherefore I shall not enlarge any farther upon the subject. It is sufficiently shown by what has been said, that the constitution of all the vegetable acids and oxyds is exactly conformable to the formation of vinegar; but farther experiments are necessary to teach us the proportion of the constituent elements in all these acids and oxyds. We may easily perceive, however, that this part of chemistry, like all the rest of its divisions, makes rapid progress towards perfection, and that it is already rendered greatly more simple than was formerly believed.
29 The word Wine, in this chapter, is used to signify the liquor produced by the vinous fermentation, whatever vegetable substance may have been used for obtaining it. — E.
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