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Vanilla Beans As Far as the Eye Can See - A Visit to Nielsen-Massey Vanillas

By Anthony Todd in Food on Dec 8, 2010 5:00PM

Every home cook (even those who fear baking) has a little brown bottle in their spice cabinet labeled "Vanilla Extract." But how many of us have really paid attention to it? What is in the bottle? Who makes it? Where does it come from? If you are lucky, or you happen to be a vanilla connoisseur, it is likely that your vanilla comes from right here in Chicagoland. Nielsen-Massey has been producing vanilla in Chicago since 1907, and we were lucky enough to get a glimpse inside their production facility. Want to know how vanilla gets into that little bottle? Come along on the tour!

Nielsen-Massey is still a family-owned operation, and the CEO, Craig Nielsen, was kind enough to take us around the plant. Upon entering the production floor, we were hit with the wonderful smell of vanilla - not surprising, as tank after tank was processing the extract right in front of us. Beans enter the facility whole, bought from farmers and brokers all over the world. One of Nielsen-Massey's specialities is their single-source vanilla - extracts made from beans grown in just one region. They produce specialized extracts from Madagascar, Mexico, Indonesia and Tahiti, each with a different flavor. Vanilla beans are the fruit of the vanilla orchid, a time-and-labor-intensive crop which can only be grown in a very limited portion of the world. Indeed, the supply is so limited that crop failures can produce serious price spikes. Vanilla orchids grow vines 80-90 feet long that must be carefully handled, and the beans are hand-picked and hand-polinated.

Any serious baker would've fallen over in a dead faint after being handed huge handfuls of vanilla beans - we must admit, the temptation to hide some under our shirt was only tempered by the fact that Nielsen was such a gracious host. After the beans come into the factory, they are crushed and ground into small pieces, and then they are put into large metal tanks. Nielsen uses a "cold extraction" method, with alcohol as a solvent, so different concentrations of alcohol and pure water are added to and then taken off the crushed beans. The entire process takes 3-5 weeks and the mixing is almost entirely automated.

The logistics of this process are more complicated than they sound. First, the entire plant is closely regulated, due to the large quanties of pure alcohol used in the production process and the resulting risk of fire and explosion. Different varieties of vanilla have to be kept entirely separate, and the plant also manufactures organic vanilla, which requires its own piping system. Bottling is done in single runs - one product at a time. The plant also makes industrial and commercial vanillas for other manufacturers.

Until 1982, Nielsen-Massey was actually located within the city limits - their factory was on Webster street. They outgrew that plant and moved to their current location in Waukegan in 1995, and are already planning a large expansion. An original tank from the Chicago plant still stands on their production floor, though it is rarely used.

A few vanilla facts for the home cook. Vanilla extract, if kept out of direct sunlight and heat, lasts pretty much forever - unlike other spices and herbs, it doesn't need to be thrown away. In fact, Nielsen told us about an experiment - vanilla extract from the plant was aged for years in an oak barrel, and it actually gained more depth and complexity. We sense an entirely new product line in the making. A common descriptor, "Bourbon" vanilla doesn't have anything to do with the alcohol used - all Nielsen-Massey products are made with pure corn alcohol. Rather, "Bourbon" refers to the Bourbon Islands, which include Madagascar. Be sure your vanilla is real - not "vanilla flavoring," which is usually synthetic "vanillin," made from byproducts of the paper industry.

Check out the pictures, and try some new types of vanilla in your holiday baking this year!