Vanilla Economics: Nothing Basic About Your Latte

Your ritual vanilla latte at Maeva’s doesn’t just feel like the most luxurious part of your day- it is.

If you hadn’t noticed yourself after your own home holiday baking, vanilla bean prices have skyrocketed from $20/kg in 2013 to over $600/kg.

That’s a market price that’s topped or hovered around silver for our last year of operation Maeva’s Coffee.

Vanilla vs. Silver

No big deal if you’re into those Kardashian-style gold leaf masks…but for the rest of us? The ‘plain jane’ flavor has become a luxury.

So what happened?

We’ve had two major shortages since Maeva’s started handcrafted our own latte flavorings in house.

First, major corporations (think Unilever and Nestle) committed to using natural flavors, a push that drove up demand. Then, a cyclone in 2017 wiped out 30% of the crop in Madagascar.

If we were talking corn or soybeans, it wouldn’t be so bad. But vanilla is one of the MOST difficult crops to produce.

With new vines taking up to 5 years to flower, small shops like ours couldn’t afford the skyrocketed price on high-quality beans from Madagascar. So we shifted back to using beans from Mexico, vanilla’s native country.

Due to a unique relationship with the Melipona bee, Mexico is the only country where vanilla grows natively. The Melipona is only species small enough to pollinate the flower during its 8-12 hour, once a year, fertile window. And, like many pollinator species, it’s facing extinction.

On the other side of the world in Madagascar, without natural pollinators, vanilla flowers are painstakingly pollinated by hand. It’s a time-sensitive and time-consuming process.

Sourced from the BBC article linked below.

Shortages in Madagascar exacerbate the problems of supply for businesses, like our coffee shop, committed to using real vanilla. Scarcity has caused not only economic strain on the crop worldwide, but violent and often deadly disputes between farmers and the gangs who prey on them.

Bean theft is at an all-time high. Farmers who can’t afford to guard their crop 24/7, or hire local gangs to do so, are left in a bind. In 2018, so many of the beans were harvested early to avoid theft, the quality of Madagascar’s beans have dropped below the Mexican shipments we reluctantly turned to for our vanilla syrup.

Vanilla production has become so dangerous, many farmers have abandoned their land altogether. They are financially unable or unwilling to take the risk to cultivate new crops in the wake of environmental and economic destruction.

All this means your vanilla latte is a natural lead into talking about global economics and climate change. If you’re interested in nerding out a little more, BBC has an excellent article here.

Meanwhile, small businesses like Maeva’s are faced with a choice: continue to use real vanilla in our products or turn to artificial flavors.

It’s easy to be tempted by “natural vanilla flavors” that use other substances to round out vanillin flavor at 30% the cost of real vanilla. But looking closer, even “natural vanilla flavors” can be filled with coal, tree bark, and cow dung. Finding a supplier that is open about the ingredients they source isn’t easy.

But we aren’t alone.

Anyone who’s made a commitment to giving customers the real deal has felt the pricing crunch. Our friends at Pint Size in STL mentioned it in their IG last fall, right before the holiday rush.

At Maeva’s, we’ve backed off using vanilla in our baked goods. Instead, we’ve begun to substitute higher quality spices like freshly grated nutmeg and Vietnamese cinnamon with a minimum of 6% oil content.

But vanilla syrup? There’s no substitute for true vanilla bean flavor.

We’re still making our vanilla latte syrup by hand.

Maeva's Coffee
Maeva’s Coffee, Photo By Virginia Harold 2018

The next time you see those speckles in your drink, sit back and savor the moment.

At lot goes into making our espresso and milk top quality at Maeva’s.

Add in a hint of vanilla? You’ve got yourself a royal treat.

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