Vanilla is a core flavour for Symrise, could you give a brief background to the crop and how it is grown?
Yes. Vanilla is one of the biggest flavours in the whole of the flavour and fragrances industry, together with citrus. It’s one of the big components, so of course we had to be present in vanilla to be considered a ‘real’ flavour house.
The flavour is consumed by all our major customers and it is in many of our products. We sell vanilla to a lot of companies, mostly as a flavour but also as a fragrance. We are also very big in the dairy space, where a lot of the vanilla is consumed.
Vanilla is an orchid that is primarily grown in Madagascar—which accounts for 80 percent of the global production—but the crop also grows in many sub-tropical areas that are part of the vanilla belt, albeit in small quantities. These countries include Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and India.
That said, the orchid is not native to Madagascar, but rather it came from Mexico when the French royal family decided that the country would be a good place to grow the crop.
However, in Mexico there are insects that can pollinate the flower; these were forgotten when the royal family brought the crop over. As a result, growing vanilla in Madagascar at present is very manual; farmers need to pollinate each and every flower by hand, which makes the crop even harder to grow in the face of other factors like the environment.
By default, this will remain a very manual and menial farming system as the country, geography, political system and economy does not lend itself to a massive redesign of the agricultural sector.
Are there any other challenges with growing vanilla? What is a typical crop cycle like?
For vanilla, there is only one harvest a year, which is around May. But leading up to this is the most labour-intensive period during the months of November and December, where you have the flowering. This is when farmers need to hand-pollinate all the flowers—or most, in order to reap maximum harvest when harvest time comes around.
Following harvest in May, it may seem like we have the crop already, but actually we still would not have a product yet that we can use for the flavour industry. What typically happens between June and December is all the fermentation processes needed to turn green beans into what we call a cured bean—the typical brown vanilla bean.
The natural environment and weather events play a large part in influencing the crop for the year. They would influence how many flowers you will have, the pollination process itself (in the case of bad weather where farmers may not be able to reach all the flowers), how the green beans develop, and finally the fermentation processes itself.
Fermentation of the green beans happens largely in open air. The beans need to be both sun- and air-dried, and this is a long process that can take up to five weeks, depending on the weather during this period.
Following this is the conditioning process, where once the beans have been dried with the right amount of humidity, they now need to be stored carefully so the components within can finish the fermentation process. This is where the aroma of the vanilla bean is developed also, much like when you put wine in a barrel for the flavour to truly develop.
This process can take a few months, so all in all one may take up to six months to bring the beans from fermentation through to conditioning, making this curing a very long process indeed.
It’s very interesting to look at all that is required to make a perfect vanilla bean—what we aim to achieve at the end of the day is a bean that has good vanillin content, of good quality, and that is ready to travel immediately after curing.
However, all these would depend on the weather elements and possibilities of disease outbreak or any other unforeseen circumstances, which is why I call the entire process an artistry, really.
What do you see happening in the vanilla industry at the moment?
I am seeing a moving demand towards natural rather than synthetic vanilla. Particularly in Asia Pacific, countries such as Japan, Korea and Australia are really big markets for natural vanilla at the moment.
Southeast Asia still is dominated by artificial vanilla, i.e. natural identical synthetics, but I see that that is changing. More and more consumers as well as governmental regulations in the region are pushing for natural extracts, so we are also seeing increased consumption here in Southeast Asia.
Do you foresee any problems with coping with this increasing demand in the near future?
At the moment, the price of vanilla is about 500 euros (US$562) per kg, which is a record high in the last 20 years. I would say the security of supply is challenging at the price point, but still, the security is there. So I do not foresee that there will be any real shortage where manufacturers might need to remove natural vanilla as an ingredient from existing products. Also, there are some limits once you commit to your consumer with natural vanilla; it is very hard to back track.
However, we need some good years to make sure we recover on stock. At the moment, at the price point, it is very attractive to plant and grow vanilla, so hopefully we can stay in balance.
Do you see any interesting product categories in recent years where vanilla is being used?
In terms of product category, I think vanilla has always been everywhere, so it’s not like there’s a brand new category that has popped up and then suddenly there’s vanilla there. It’s a key component of whiskey flavours, as well as milk flavours.
Perhaps one of the more active usages of vanilla I see now is as a sweetness modulator. I think that is an interesting application because many customers today are trying to reduce sugar, and they understand how vanilla can help consumers tolerate a lower sugar content; with its sweet and rich profile, vanilla is used a lot for masking, and it is great for masking bitter or acid tastes from vitamins and minerals, which more manufacturers are putting in beverages for healthier claims.
But I would say vanilla is more on the indulgent side of flavour profile. If it’s too vanilla-sweet, consumers will not believe that a beverage/snack is good for you, even if it contains other functional and healthy ingredients, because it would just seem too indulgent.
In the next 50 to 100 years, do you think that Madagascar will still be the primary land for vanilla?
I think it will be developed in other markets, in other territories, but there is actually a significant flavour profile difference when vanilla is grown elsewhere compared to in Madagascar.
I think the ‘true bone vanilla’ of Madagascar will remain a very premium sought-after type of vanilla, than that which you can find in Papua New Guinea or Indonesia; these just will not have the same richness in terms of the vanilla profile.
But that said, yes, I think vanilla growing will develop elsewhere other than Madagascar. The only limitation is how manual the farming process is, so that really limits what kinds of countries can find enough farmers to grow it.