Vanilla Bean Dilemma

Mike Johnston
Savory Spice Shop

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Vanilla Bean Dilemma

Vanilla beans as we know them are under attack. Not by Mother Nature, per se, although she has played her part with Cyclone Enawo. Earlier this year, the devastating cyclone tore up parts of Madagascar that are key to growing vanilla beans. Typically, when a spice’s price rises to extraordinary levels, Mother Nature has been behind it. Sometimes the price’s impact is immediate and other times we don’t feel it for years here in America.

When we opened our first shop back in 2004, the price of vanilla had reached crisis levels due to the effects Cyclone Hudah in 2000. The impact wasn’t immediate, but because of legitimate shortages, vanilla bean prices rose by 2002 and reached all-time highs by 2004.

Later in 2004, Hurricane Ivan destroyed Grenada and its nutmeg trees. So much so that during a visit to the island in 2016, Janet and I learned that the nutmeg business has never really recovered and that cocoa production has become the primary spice that they’re cultivating and exporting. However, the price of nutmeg remained stable for many years after the hurricane mostly because of the sheer amount of reserves. Eventually we felt the exorbitant increases, which lasted for a few years. That’s Mother Nature’s way, but eventually life and prices get back to normal. This attack is different. This attack is coming from one our worst traits as humans: greed. More specifically, corporate greed.

Quick Curing

Quick-curing isn’t necessarily a new practice but in the past, very few could afford setting up a facility to do it. However, several years ago a major German flavor-house set up a plant in Madagascar and became quite good at it. Sensing a competitive disadvantage, other flavor-houses, namely three of the largest global players, encouraged and funded their suppliers in Madagascar to set up quick-curing facilities to accelerate the harvesting and curing process of vanilla beans.

women preparing vanilla beans

The traditional methods for curing vanilla, which have been used for generations, create tens of thousands of jobs for members of these communities. The sorting, drying, manipulation and grading of vanilla, a process that can take up to six months for the best qualities of vanilla, has become an afterthought with quick-curing and “green” vanilla extraction.

On paper, quick-curing sounds like progress. Traditional methods for curing vanilla beans can take up to six months, while quick-curing can be done in weeks. Aside from the fact that this new method eliminates tens of thousands of jobs in a historically poor third-world country, it has created a vanilla pricing crisis that likely isn’t going to end soon.

These flavor-houses are bidding and outbidding each other for “green” beans so they can buy up as much inventory as they can for themselves. By doing this, they are creating an environment where the value of “green” beans is so high that theft has become a problem for the growers. In the past, the value of a vanilla bean increased only after it had been cured. Now the value is in the “green” bean. But because of the risk of theft, growers are picking them earlier causing a degradation of beans in general.

The quick-curing method takes eight pounds of “green” beans to produce one pound of low-quality cured vanilla beans. Using the traditional method, it only takes five pounds to create one pound of high-quality beans. Ultimately as people lose their jobs, theft of “green” beans is becoming the only way to put food on the table. Growers are picking beans early to prevent theft, meaning the quality of beans is far worse, and yields go down. It’s a vicious human cyclone that isn’t likely to change soon. But, somehow, in all of this, the big flavor-houses win. The rest of us, particularly those who have lost their way of making a living, lose.

That’s the story in Madagascar, and it’s not much better in other countries that cultivate vanilla beans.

There’s one other huge problem with quick-curing. The process pretty much eliminates the various grades of vanilla beans. By picking beans earlier and earlier, most, if not all, are prevented from developing nuances of flavor. What we are left with is one uniform and low-quality vanilla flavor profile. Imagine if the same decision was made with grapes for wine…there would be a major outcry, and there should be one for vanilla beans too.

Another Option: Natural Vanilla Extract

So what will have to happen for a change to come about? It’s the opinion of many experts that the market for vanilla needs to collapse. One way to fight back, which is a little counterintuitive in our world of farm-to-table and organic, is to buy Natural Vanilla Extractnot pure vanilla, so the collapse will eventually happen.

This is a choice we are making here at Savory. While it is our intention to always offer high-quality, pure vanilla extracts and a selection of vanilla beans when they are available, with prices being as much as 10-20 times what they were at the beginning of 2016, the reality is that lack of other options likely takes vanilla off the table for many of our customers.

While I’m not happy that all of us are in this boat, I am pleased that we can offer you an alternative vanilla extract option for this upcoming baking season. Natural Vanilla Extract is made from all natural ingredients. Natural extracts are not new to our line. Some of the flavor profiles we offer are natural versus pure.

Double vanilla cupcakes
Double Vanilla Cupcakes

What's the Difference Between a Pure Extract and a Natural One?

A pure extract’s flavor is derived from the named source of the flavor. Vanilla from vanilla beans or lemon from lemons. Our natural extracts are made from plant-based ingredients, but sometimes that flavor is derived from other parts of the named source such as leaves or stems of a vanilla orchid instead of the bean. In other cases, a natural flavor could come from an entirely different plant, but it is always a natural source and never artificial.

The formulas for all natural extracts are highly proprietary, so I do not have an exact ingredient list to share with you. However, in conversations with our vanilla supplier, the Natural Vanilla Extract that we are offering could best be described as a partial-pure, hinting at the fact that its flavor is mostly extracted from the vanilla plant, but also includes other plant-based ingredients.

For those of you who want flavor facts and not hints, stick with one of our pure vanilla extracts. For those of you who can’t justify or are unable to pay the exorbitantly high and rising prices, or just want to stick it to the flavor-house man, this is a great option. We think the flavor doesn’t miss a beat. So much so, that we have reformulated our line of vanilla sugars using our Natural Vanilla Extract as the primary flavor provider of those sugars.  

Group shot of vanilla products. Extracts and sugars.

We did that for two reasons. One, because we didn’t think it would be prudent of us to use up a good portion of our limited supply of pure vanilla to make them. And two, because the price of our line of sugars would have made them far too expensive to sell.

That’s the unfortunate story of vanilla, but stay tuned as we’ll do our best to keep you informed. Hopefully there will be some better news down the road.

You can purchase Natural Vanilla Extract online or in any of our locations.


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