Watkins Catalog

Vanilla beans vary in flavor and fragrance when they are grown in different parts of the world.

Vanilla beans - those pricey, fragrant, dried seed-pods that offer no easy clue about how to use them - are native to tropical America. There are over 150 varieties of vanilla orchids, but only two species are used commercially to flavor and fragrance foods and beverages-- Bourbon and Tahitian. Bourbon beans are botanically known as Vanilla planifolia or Vanilla fragrance and originally came from the Gulf Coast of Mexico. When grown in Mexico they're called Mexican beans. On the other hand, beans from the same plant stock are called Bourbon beans if they grow in Madagascar, Indonesia, and many other regions. The big exception is the beans from Tahiti. Even though Tahitian vanilla is now considered its own species, the original plant stock also came from Mexico.

Beans vary in flavor and fragrance when they are grown in different parts of the world. Soil and climate differences as well as methods of curing the beans imbue unique qualities in beans. Vanilla grown only 20 miles apart can have subtle but distinct differences in flavor and appearance.

Tips for choosing quality beans

Premium vanilla beans, regardless of where they come from, should have a rich, full aroma, be oily to the touch, and sleek in appearance. Beans to avoid are those with very little scent, are smoky, brittle or dry, or are mildewed.

Bourbon beans are long and slender, with a very rich taste and smell, have thick, oily skin, contain an abundance of tiny seeds, and have a strong vanilla aroma. Bourbon beans from Madagascar and the Comoros are described as having a creamy, hay-like, and sweet, with vanillin overtones. Bourbon beans from other regions will be similar if they are picked at peak ripeness and are properly cured.

Mexican beans are very similar to Bourbon beans though they have a more mellow, smooth, quality and a spicy, woody fragrance.

Tahitian beans are usually shorter, plumper, and contain a higher oil and water content than Bourbon beans. The skin is thinner, they contain fewer seeds, and the aroma is fruity and floral. They are often described as smelling like licorice, cherry, prunes, or wine.

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