In 1993, my boss gave all his chemists a really cool gift.  He made vanilla extract and bottled it for everyone in the lab.  The vanilla was far superior to anything you buy in the store and while it is long gone, I still remember the label:

Ross Schaeder’s Handmade Vanilla
NEVER SOLD, only given
to my best friends and associates

Well, this year, I am brewing up a batch of homemade vanilla in the brewery.  If you are lucky enough to get one of these rare bottles (I am only making 12!), mix a bit with sugar, chocolate, cream and rum and enjoy a proper Colonial chocolate.

For hundreds of years, the Totonac people, who lived on the east-central coast of Mexico, have grown and harvested the Tlilxochitl vine, an orchid that can only grow in very specific climates.  In the mid 1400’s the Aztecs conquered the Totonac people and forced them to provide regular tributes. These tributes included the fruits of the Tlilxochitl vine, which we know today as vanilla.  When Cortés arrived in 1520, Montezuma, the Aztec emperor, greeted him with an offering of chocolatl (xocolatl). Cortés, astounded by this bold new flavor, demanded to know the ingredients—ground corn, cacao beans, honey and vanilla pods. Cortés brought chocolatl back with him to Europe and, for many years, vanilla was used exclusively in the chocolate drink, consumed as a luxury by the rich. In 1602, Hugh Morgan, an apothecary to Queen Elizabeth I, had the brilliant idea to use vanilla as a flavoring by itself. It was the first step toward the popularity vanilla enjoys today.

Around 1793, a vanilla vine was smuggled from Mexico to the Bourbon Island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean. For almost 50 years after its arrival at Réunion, the growth and production of vanilla on Réunion and nearby Madagascar was difficult. The vines grew successfully with beautiful blossoms but seldom resulted in vanilla pods. Without the Melipona bee, which is vanilla’s natural pollinator in Mexico, the flowers were only occasionally pollinated by local insects.  It wasn’t until 1836 that Charles Morren, a Belgian botanist, discovered the pollination link between the Melipona bee and plant.

In 1841, Edmond Albius of Réunion developed an efficient method for fertilizing the flower by hand. Using a bamboo stick to lift the thin membrane separating the male organ (anther) from the female organ (stigma) and press the pollen against the stigma.  Thanks to Albius’ method, vanilla could successfully grow to scale in the Bourbon Islands. Cultivation of vanilla began spreading to other countries, including Tahiti and Indonesia. As the supply grew, vanilla became more accessible to all people, not just the rich, eventually becoming world’s most prevalent and popular flavor. But as you can imagine, this process is EXTREMELY labor intensive making even high-volume production of Bourbon Vanilla very expensive (today about $220/lb) so efforts began early to find a substitute for pure vanilla.

The first successful attempt at making artificial vanilla used castoreum.  That’s right, the slimy brown substance from beaver anal glands. The castor gland, located underneath the beaver’s tail castoreum. In nature, beavers use castoreum to mark their territory. Thanks to a diet of tree bark, the goo has a musky fragrance similar to natural vanilla.  The properties of castoreum have made it a popular additive in perfumes and to enhance vanilla, strawberry, and raspberry flavors in foods like ice cream and yogurt. The biggest challenge to processing castoreum for use in food is that it’s challenging to harvest.  The process is complex and invasive. First the beaver must be anesthetized and the castor gland “milked” to produce the secretion. For this reason, the process was abandoned in the middle of the 20th Century.  Castoreum is not used today in any form of vanilla sold for human food use but it is still used in fragrances. Like hand pollenated vanilla, the cost is prohibitive.

Today, artificial vanilla is made by refining petrochemicals. Vanillylmandelic acid, which, when it reacts to oxygen, produces synthetic vanillin, the main ingredient in imitation vanilla. About 85 percent of the world’s synthetic vanillin, or 18,000 metric tons every year, is produced by the Belgian chemical company Rhodia this way.  This is the imitation or artificial vanilla extract that you can easily find at the grocery store. 

But the Regimental Brewmeister is not making imitation vanilla nor am I going anywhere near a beaver’s butt.  Pure vanilla extract is made from vanilla beans, while imitation vanilla has similar flavors there are significant differences.  Pure vanilla is much better.

If you are not one of the few who will get one of my bottles of vanilla extract, you can easily make your own vanilla extract.  It only requires two ingredients: vanilla beans and alcohol.

Like wine grapes, vanilla takes on the “terroir” of the place where it is grown and produced, meaning that vanilla beans grown in Madagascar will have different flavor notes from those grown in Mexico or Tahiti.  Madagascar vanilla beans (sometimes called Bourbon, for the Bourbon Islands) have that classic, deep, rich “real” vanilla flavor.  Mexican vanilla is spicier and nutmeg-y.  Tahitian vanilla has strong notes of cherry or “smoky marshmallow.”   

Your beans should be fairly moist, plump, and flexible, not dry and brittle. If they are on the dry side, they can still be used to make vanilla extract, but you may need more beans to get a good flavor.  Do NOT use beans that have any mold on them. 

When it comes to the alcohol for your homemade vanilla extract, you have a few options.

Vodka is flavorless and really lets the vanilla beans shine through. Some people, however, use bourbon, rum, or brandy to add a little extra flavor. Just keep in mind that each of those has its own flavor base already, so make sure these flavors go along with flavor of the vanilla.

Homemade Vanilla Extract

  • Use 1/4 pound of beans for every quart of extract that you want to make.  Yes, there are lots of vanilla extract recipes that tell you to use “x” beans to make “y” ounces of extract.  The problem with that is that there can be anywhere from 70 to 250 beans per pound, depending upon the length and quality.
  • Chop the beans into 1/2-inch pieces. Slicing the beans open is okay but it really does not help the process, is difficult and time consuming.
  • Use 70 to 90 proof inexpensive name brand alcohol. The easiest liquor to use is Vodka, which is about 35 to 40% alcohol (80 proof Vodka is 40% alcohol).  If you choose to use “grain alcohol”, which is up to 100% alcohol, add two parts distilled water for each part alcohol in order to bring it down to the same proof as Vodka.  Otherwise, the beans will dry out.  Using stronger alcohol will NOT speed up or improve the extract process, water is required to extract the flavonoids.
  • Shake daily for about one month then bottle in smaller aliquots.
  • You may want to filter your finished product. There is no harm in leaving the beans in.

Most commercial vanilla extract comes sweetened.  This helps cut the alcohol smell, but it is not needed.  You can do the same by adding some corn syrup or sugar water – about 10% by volume.

How do you know when the extract is done?  Smell is one way, and another way is by the color – it should be a nice deep amber color.  You can’t compare the color to what you buy at the store because vanilla extract manufacturers often add coloring agents.

Do not freeze or refrigerate vanilla extract during or after the extraction process.  The vanilla will keep more or less indefinitely at room temperature in a tightly sealed container.  If you leave the beans in, just make sure to keep the beans themselves covered with alcohol, and check the jar periodically for any mold.

So, there you have it.  Wars have been fought over “plain vanilla” which is anything but ordinary.  This is truly the spice of the gods.

Published by Michael Carver

My goal is to bring history alive through interactive portrayal of ordinary American life in the late 18th Century (1750—1799) My persona are: Journeyman Brewer; Cordwainer (leather tradesman but not cobbler), Statesman and Orator; Chandler (candle and soap maker); Gentleman Scientist; and, Soldier in either the British Regular Army, the Centennial Army, or one of the various Militia. Let me help you experience history 1st hand!

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