You like beer (I assume, since you’re reading this now). You probably also like vanilla. It’s a flavor present in so many food products (usually sweet and/or rich) that we’ve all been basically conditioned to like it. But the mysteries of vanilla are many, and I’m here to give you a quick and useful rundown on the beautiful bean and how and why it’s used in some beers. So first, the basics.
Vanilla is in the orchid family, and its name means “little bean pod,” or something like it. The beans are very labor intensive to farm and you already know this by their high price, second only to saffron in the spice realm. There are four types: Tahitian (grown in French Polynesia), Mexican, Bourbon (from Indian Ocean islands like Madagascar) and the West Indian vanilla bean (from Central and South America). You’re probably most familiar with the Bourbon or Tahitian vanilla beans, as they are the most heavily produced. Vanilla beans are wonderful, but as their price is high, a lot of alternatives are also manufactured for commercial food products and also the perfume/fragrance industry. Why am I mentioning this, if I’ve already set out to write about the real vanilla bean? Well, a couple reasons. The main sources of artificial vanilla extract come from two compounds: guaiacol and lignan. Neither of the two are obviously the exact same compound as vanillan (what you taste in vanilla), but both are close enough in flavor to fool many palates. What’s interesting about both alternatives is their connection to wood. Guaiacol is present in wood smoke, and lignan is literally a compound found in wood and bark cell walls. As you may know, wood flavors are of importance to the beverage industry, usually in the form of oak and barrel aging. I’m talking wine, bourbon, scotch, and more–including beer. We often speak about barrel-aged products as having vanilla notes (especially those products aged in virgin oak like bourbon). So vanilla in beer seems a natural fit, does it not?
Not all beers would welcome vanilla–let’s be clear. In fact, the majority of beer utilizing vanilla beans are of the roasty, dark variety–stouts, porters, spiced or further aged barley wines and imperial barrel-aged beers. Why is this? Well, a couple reasons. Vanilla is thought to be a sweet flavor. This doesn’t mean vanilla is sweet. Many foods seem sweet without actually being sweet. Either the chemical compounds trigger a sweet response on our palate or we are so thoroughly conditioned by association to anticipate sweetness. Vanilla is almost entirely reserved for desserts, confections, and fruit preserves. It deepens a lot of other sweet flavors, and we know those all very well. So obviously we’re trained to anticipate sweetness (or add phantom sweetness) when vanilla flavors are noted. Not all styles of beer want to highlight sweetness as a strong flavor. I can’t imagine a vanilla pilsner being any good at all. Traditional flavor combinations with vanilla are vast, but high on the list is coffee, chocolate, cinnamon, dark fruits–all flavors that are either added to or are already present in an darker malt aged or oxidized beer. Vanilla in baking is usually added to heighten other flavors—the same way coffee is sometimes added to chocolate cakes to boost a rich roasty and deep flavor. Similarly, vanilla is used in beer to bring out bigger flavors. Alone, it can introduce a lovely creamy and rich flavor.
There is a danger with vanilla and beer–it can become too dominant, too sweet, and too perfumey. I don’t prefer these flavors, and similarly I don’t enjoy the punchiness of new oak very much either. You may feel differently. But there are a range of options to try, from the subtle to the intensely vanilla-ed. It’s becoming autumn today, so perhaps it’s time to find roasty vanilla beers. Wood smoke is in the air soon, and the smell of the woods is always a friendly warm feeling to me. Vanilla and its wood counterparts are certainly in season.