Learn More About Vanilla!

There is a lot that goes into the making of a humble vanilla bean. And the process is anything but plain vanilla! Madagascar vanilla beans grow on the vanilla Planifolia orchid, a vine, which is planted next to a “host” tree. This host tree supports the vine as it grows. You might be surprised to learn that each vanilla flower is hand pollinated by highly skilled people, many of whom have been performing this important task for generations.

What happens after the growing process, when the beans are harvested and cured, is critically important to the quality and flavor of the vanilla beans, and to the vanilla extract made from them.

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The vanilla beans are ready for harvest approximately 6 to 9 months after pollination. The beans must be hand-picked, one at a time, at exactly the right moment of ripeness. Too early, and they won’t have the proper flavor, and too late…they may start splitting.

In the Madagascar region, off the southeast coast of Africa, our growers use the time-honored “Bourbon Method” of harvesting and processing vanilla beans. The just-picked beans cannot be used until they are properly cured. Within a week after harvest, there are many steps which need to be taken.

First, the newly picked beans are sorted and graded according to size, length and appearance. Larger beans with a nearly perfect appearance are Grade A beans. The smaller, thinner beans, some with split ends, are Grade B, or Extract Grade beans, used primarily for making vanilla extract.

After grading, the beans are carefully cleaned in water, then immersed in hot, but not boiling, water for 2 to 5 minutes, depending on the grade of bean. This stops the vanilla beans from growing and initiates the curing process. After this step, the vanilla beans are put into a lined, wooden box for a process called sweating. There they are kept for approximately 48 hours where they start to turn brown and take on the characteristic vanilla aroma.

After the first sweating process, the vanilla beans are spread out in the hot afternoon sun on racks, and then back to the sweating box. This sweating/sun drying process continues daily for up to several weeks. The beans are now shiny, dark brown and smell like the vanilla we know and love.

The next process takes place in ventilated rooms where the vanilla beans are spread on racks to continue drying very slowly. This process can take up to a month! After the final drying process, the beans are bundled, tied, and then conditioned in lined, wooden boxes for another two months.

Finally, the bundles of vanilla beans are stored in airtight containers and are ready for shipment to their final destination.

Who knew that vanilla beans take 6-9 months to grow, and then need another several months of hand processing to acquire that delicious vanilla flavor and aroma? It turns out that a vanilla bean needs to be slowly aged to perfection, just like a fine wine!