February 01, 2022

The Incredible True Story of Vanilla

By Philippe Jolicoeur
beautiful vanilla flower

The Incredible True Story of Vanilla

Vanilla. A flavor that is so ubiquitous that it is easily overlooked. Even the expression of referring to something as “vanilla” , which connotes a sense of simplicity or boringness implies a sort of cultural conception of vanilla as a flavor that is taken for granted. The truth is, the journey for vanilla to become one of the most popular flavors in the world was long and winding and involved many unlikely characters. Strap in, as I take you on a journey of world flavors.


Our story begins in the province of modern day Veracruz, Mexico, which is  by the way where 1936 coffee started! At the time the orchid vanilla was derived from grew wild only in neighboring regions in the form of a vine that climbed up a host tree (commonly referred to as a mentor), which flowered only one day a year.  There, the Totonac people discovered the process of curing vanilla to release its flavourful aroma. The Totonac people believed vanilla was a gift from the gods, and they used it as part of their religious ceremonies. 


When the Aztecs conquered the Totonacs, they quickly fell in love with it and forced a vanilla tax on them, which left the Totonacs having to give up most of their vanilla yields. The Aztecs quickly learnt that the bean had not only a great aroma, but a great flavor too. They also learnt (hundreds of years before modern science would go on to corroborate this fact) that their newfound sacred ingredient had aphrodisiac properties. What really turned vanilla into an Aztec mainstay was their invention of “xocolatl”, a ceremonial concoction which combined vanilla and cacao.


The first Spanish visits to Mexico returned to Europe with some vanilla cargo, which they only knew to use as perfume. It wasn’t until, legend has it, Hernán Cortés met with the Aztec Emperor Montezuma drinking xocolatl that the Spaniards discovered vanilla’s flavor benefits. They immediately collected a large sample of vanilla to bring back with them to Spain. The Spanish conquest of the Aztecs introduced vanilla and cacao to the old world, which they immediately took a liking to (who wouldn’t). 


It was also at this time that Vanilla received its name. In Spanish, the word for sheath is “vaina” and the diminutive suffix “-illa” indicates that something is small. Given the flower’s pod-like appearance and their small size, the two were combined to create the name Vanilla; Little Sheath. Interestingly, if you trace the etymology one step back you discover that “vaina” is itself derived from the latin word “vagina” which means “covering” (typically referring to the covering of a weapon). It actually wasn’t for another hundred years or so (around the mid 17th century) that the word “vagina” began to be used in the anatomical sense.


When vanilla began to be imported into Europe in an attempt to grow it at the beginning of the 1500’s, they ran into a problem. Vanilla orchids were being cultivated successfully in botanical gardens in France and England, but they weren’t producing the seeds necessary to successfully convert the flowers into the coveted spice. Despite it’s high demand, the answer of how to produce vanilla in Europe remained a secret for over 300 years and during this time vanilla could essentially only be produced in Mexico. In the beginning of the 1800’s, French entrepreneurs began shipping vanilla fruit to the islands of Réunion and Mauritius. It wasn’t until 1837 that Belgian botanist Charles François Antoine Morren discovered that the issue was that the vanilla orchid needed to be pollinated by the Melipone bee in order to allow the plant to successfully produce the fruit needed to make the spice. The Melipone bee only survived in Mexico, so Morrendeveloped his own method of artificial pollination. 


Interestingly, his method proved to be financially unfeasible so it was never widely implemented but only four years later, in the island of Réunion, a 12 year old slave child named Edmond Albius discovered that the plant could be hand pollinated. I told you this story was filled with twists and turns and surprising characters, and in this case a surprising hero! Not only did this prodigy slave child in an island in the middle of the indian ocean develop the first method of hand pollination for vanilla, he actually developed the method that is still used around the world to this day.



he Spanish conquest of the Aztecs in 1519 brought the fragrant flower—and its companion, cacao—to Europe. Vanilla was cultivated in botanical gardens in France and England, but never offered up its glorious seeds. Not without bees.definitively documented to date are orchid bees in the genus Eulaema,


Pollination is required to make the plants produce the fruit from which the vanilla spice is obtained. In 1837, Belgian botanist Charles François Antoine Morren discovered this fact and pioneered a method of artificially pollinating the plant. The method proved financially unworkable and was not deployed commercially. In 1841, Edmond Albius, a 12-year-old enslaved child who lived on the French island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean, discovered that the plant could be hand-pollinated.


the island of Réunion, a 39-mile long volcanic hotspot in the Indian Ocean, everything changed. In 1841, an enslaved boy on the island named Edmond Albius developed the painstaking yet effective hand-pollination method for vanilla that is still in use today, which involves exposing and mating the flower’s male and female parts. Shortly thereafter, the tropical orchids were sent to Comoros Islands, Seychelles, and Madagascarwith instructions on how to grow, pollinate and cure them for a successful harvest. And so, the true vanilla boom ensued. Today, vanilla grows in a long list of countries including Costa Rica, Guatemala, Uganda, Kenya, China, India, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Fiji, Tahiti, Hawaii and other Pacific Islands.


The labor intensive and high cost nature of the manufacturing process makes the natural vanilla the second most expensive spice in the world. Nowadays, most vanilla flavors use a 19th century method of extracting the key flavor of vanilla from more accessible natural sources such as eugenol (a chemical compound found in clove oil) ,lignin from plants and wood pulp.


We here at 1936 Coffee are proud to continue the story of vanilla with our signature Vanilla 1936 Instant Coffee. From the hillsides of Veracruz more than 500 years ago to your cup, all in an instant.



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