It’s interesting how the word “vanilla,” when used to describe a person, has come to be associated with being bland, boring, just not that interesting. In the flavor world, vanilla is anything but bland or boring! Known for its smooth creamy flavor, vanilla is typically assigned five flavor profiles: beany, woody, smoky, creamy, and buttery. It’s no wonder we include vanilla flavor in so many of our teas – not only vanilla teas, but teas like Paris, Victorian London Fog tea, and even Chocolate Tea (more on the long relationship between chocolate and vanilla later!)
The characteristic flavor of vanilla comes from the compound vanillin, which is described as tasting like a marshmallow – up to 85% of vanilla essential oil is vanillin. As anyone who has ever baked a cookie from scratch knows, vanilla is commonly sold in liquid extract form. If you want to go next-level with your vanilla, you can buy vanilla pods and scrape the vanilla seeds right out of the bean. When you eat really amazing vanilla ice cream and see tiny black flecks? Those are vanilla seeds – not something the food inspector missed.
What Is Vanilla and Where Does It Come From?
Vanilla grows on vines that climb trees and shrubs in tropical forests. It’s part of the Vanilla species, which is a member of the orchid family. The vines usually take three to four years to flower, and then only flower once a year. After the flowers are pollinated, they develop for eight to 10 months into long pods resembling string beans, which is how the name “vanilla bean” came into being! As we mentioned earlier, the pods contain thousands of tiny seeds that are responsible for the main flavors of vanilla.
Harvesting vanilla is not a simple process, because the fresh vanilla beans haven’t developed much flavor – that occurs during a three-to-six month curing process. Between the curing and the manual pollination processes, vanilla is one of the most expensive spices – now you know why that tiny bottle of vanilla extract costs so much!
Vanilla originated in southern Mexico. For hundreds of years, Mexico was the only vanilla exporter, because only insects native to Mexico could pollinate the plant. In the 1830s, however, Europeans discovered a method to hand-pollinate vanilla, and by the 1870s, the French island colonies of Madagascar and Bourbon (now called Reunion Island) became the major world producers. Even now, vanilla produced in this region is often called “Bourbon vanilla.” Today, Madagascar is the major producer of vanilla, followed by Indonesia with Mexico (a distant third) as well as a smattering of other countries producing minor amounts.
Fun vanilla fact: if you ask people what color vanilla is, it’s not unusual for people to say “white.” It could be because vanilla ice cream is white, vanilla cupcakes are white, vanilla icing is white, etc. In truth, vanilla seeds are very dark brown/black (remember the flecks in your vanilla ice cream?). Because vanilla is a very strong flavor, you only need a little, which means the color is diluted.
Ready to Explore Vanilla Teas?
Vanilla is a wonderful addition to many different types of teas. Whether it’s taking center stage in our best-selling Decaf Vanilla Comoro or playing an important supporting role in our popular Paris tea, vanilla is an ingredient we couldn’t imagine living without. Here are some Harney & Sons teas that use vanilla to great effect (which means they taste amazing!).
- Vanilla Black. The lesser known caffeinated version of our fan-favorite Decaf Vanilla Comoro, many people are surprised to learn that vanilla black tea exists. Again, we think this notion of “vanilla” and “dark” aren’t elements people put together. One sip of this straightforward black tea with vanilla flavor will erase that idea right off the mental blackboard.
- Decaf Vanilla Comoro. Customers cannot get enough of this decaf vanilla tea. “A creamy, decaffeinated indulgence” is what it says right on the tin. There really isn’t anything else to say…except if you haven’t tried it, you should!
- Paris. Not to humble brag, but Harney & Sons Paris tea is loved around the world. A black tea with vanilla, caramel, and notes of bergamot, thousands and thousands of tea drinkers will tell you it is trés bien!
- Decaf Paris. Why did we create a decaf version of our Paris tea? So you could drink it day and night, of course!
- Paris Herbal. Rooibos stands in for black tea in this herbal version of our liquid homage to the City of Lights.
- Victorian London Fog. Traditionally, a London Fog drink was Earl Grey tea with steamed milk. One of our customers came up with this Victorian London Fog tea that mimics that creamy drink by combining black tea with oolong tea – a wonderfully smooth, rather milky tea – with vanilla, lavender, and bergamot oil.
- Chocolate Tea. Chocolate and vanilla have an interesting relationship. While often thought of as opposites, vanilla has long been an important ingredient in chocolate. In fact, before it got its own identity, vanilla was only thought of as an additive for chocolate. It wasn’t until the early 17th century when a chocolate-free, vanilla-flavored candy was created for Queen Elizabeth I that vanilla started to get its own press. The rest is vanilla ice cream history! Our Chocolate tea gets the band back together again with black tea, chocolate, and vanilla.
- Decaf Chocolate Tea. Because who doesn’t want a cup of chocolate tea before bed, right?
- SoHo Blend. I created SoHo blend in honor of our SoHo store’s fifth anniversary. The primary notes of chocolate and coconut are a great representation of New York City – deep, wonderful, rich in character, and a little nutty! Vanilla brings balance and spice to this black tea.
- Tower of London. This blend is a bit of a cross between our Paris tea with its caramel, bergamot, and black currant flavors, and our Victorian London Fog tea with its mix of black and oolong teas. Tower of London adds honey to the mix and, like the other teas on this list, benefits from the addition of vanilla.
- Organic Bangkok. This Thai tea is a vanilla green tea that partners with coconut and ginger for a refreshing light tea with a bit of zip.
- White Vanilla Grapefruit. Another wonderfully light blend, this white tea features the creamy taste of vanilla and bright grapefruit notes for a distinct brew.
- Thai Rooibos. Another great Thai tea, this one takes the earthiness of rooibos and adds Thai spices of cinnamon, coconut, ginger, and lemongrass…along with vanilla, of course.
- Venetian Tiramisu. Vanilla and chocolate flavors pair up again to recreate a signature dessert that has a hint of brandy flavor. You’re welcome.
- White Christmas. Maybe the scent of balsam fir wins the signature Christmas smell, but we’d argue that vanilla and almond together come in a strong second. This white tea incorporates those wonderful spices, along with cardamom, to create a holiday classic.
- Mickey Mouse Blend. A national treasure like Disney’s Mickey Mouse deserves a timeless ingredient like vanilla as one of his primary flavors. Our Mickey Mouse tea has all the fun and spunk of the iconic, beloved character.
- Love Life. Vanilla has a party with the strawberry and coconut flavors along with popped rice in this refreshing, do-good green tea that benefits Gay Men’s Health Crisis not-for-profit.
- Wedding Tea. A perfect marriage of flavors, our Wedding Tea starts with a delicate white tea with vanilla and lemon flavors sprinkled with pink rosebuds and petals. Commemorative gift hint: with enough advance notice, the tins can be personalized, which isn’t “vanilla” at all!
- Soothing Vanilla Fresh Brew Iced Tea. Last but certainly not least, our vanilla iced tea is just as advertised: soothing. Even though summer has ended for most of us, keep some available for those sudden, unexpected warm days – you never know when iced tea will come in handy!