If you’re a fan of the rich, impossible-to-replicate flavor of foods made with whole vanilla beans, you probably already know this, but we’re going to say it anyway: Those beans ain’t cheap. This is partially due to the difficulty in producing them—vanilla farming is incredibly labor-intensive, with the orchids on which the edible beans grow requiring hand-pollination and the beans, once harvested, demanding up to six months of fermentation and drying. Vanilla also isn’t a quick crop; it takes up to three years before a vine starts producing usable beans, so farmers can’t simply plant more the next year to make up for losses or to meet increased demand.
But lately, prices of the spice have skyrocketed to absurd levels. High demand had already led to a general shortage that jacked up the cost of vanilla beans from around $11 per pound in 2011 to $193 per pound by the end of 2016, according to CBS News.
And then came Cyclone Enawo. In early March, the storm tore through the island nation of Madagascar, home to 79 percent of the world’s vanilla fields, and wiped out 30 percent of the current crop. Prices jumped overnight, putting strain on the makers of foods in which vanilla is a major ingredient. Ice cream producers, obviously, have taken the biggest hit, but many brewers are also getting beaned.
Historic Brewing Co. in Flagstaff, Arizona, started producing Piehole Porter, the beer that became its flagship, a few months after opening in 2013, says Carole Kennelly, the brewery’s co-founder. The 6% ABV porter is flavored with cherries as well as six pounds of Madagascar vanilla beans per batch. When the brewery first released Piehole in 2013, Kennelly says, those six pounds cost $740. Today, that same amount of vanilla runs her nearly $2,000.
The price jump has led Historic to scale back Piehole production, pull it from wholesalers and only sell it in the brewery’s taprooms. It was a tough decision to make, Kennelly says.
“It’s our top-selling beer. It’s the one that people order year-round. It’s the one that kind of put us on the map for Arizona. We have accounts that have had it on solid for the last three years emailing and asking us how they can get this,” she says.
Madagascar vanilla beans aren’t the only variety of vanilla available to brewers, of course. Tahiti and Mexico—where the remaining 20-ish percent of the world’s vanilla is grown—managed to avoid cyclonic destruction, and there’s always the ubiquitous and far cheaper vanilla extract. But the flavor, Kennelly says, just isn’t the same.
“When we’ve experimented with other vanillas in the past, we’ve found it changes the flavor profile,” she says. “We even experimented with extract, but we found that the shelf life of the vanilla in the keg was too short. It basically was only present for about three weeks, and then after that you couldn’t really pick up the flavor anymore. So that didn’t make sense for us, even though it was the cheaper, more economical option.”
Kevin Lemp, founder of 4 Hands Brewing Co. in St. Louis, says his brewery’s imperial stout, Madagascar, requires the flavor of Madagascar vanilla beans for reasons that go beyond name continuity. About 50 beans go into every 31 gallons of the beer, imparting a flavor that simply can’t be replicated by cheaper ingredients.
“What we’ve noticed through simple trials is that it has such a nice, rich velvety texture that blends with that chocolatey base beer,” Lemp says. “And then adding the wood, the bourbon, the vanilla notes from the wood and this rich, bourbony bean—you just can’t get that with anything else.”
Bottle Logic Brewing co-founder and brand manager Brandon Buckner says his brewery has also had issues with sourcing fairly priced Madagascar vanilla beans for Fundamental Observation, an incredibly popular imperial stout aged in bourbon barrels with the vanilla. Despite the drastic increase in the cost of the beans, he says, the price and size of this year’s batch of the beer (scheduled for a July release) will remain the same. With upwards of two pounds of vanilla going into each oak barrel, however, that may change if the cost of the spice doesn’t soon return to baseline.
“We’re hoping the price increase is a temporary blip and will have to see what next year’s crop yield looks like before we can decide where to go from there,” Buckner says.
Lemp, for his part, says that 4 Hands won’t change its recipe, but he also doesn’t rule out a bump in the cost of Madagascar.
“Worst comes to worst, we may have to raise the price per bottle by about a dollar, but I think the consumer will understand,” he says.