As the beans complete their curing, they need to be inspected, sorted, and packaged for long-term storage. We’ve been doing this for 2 months now, and some of the earliest beans to go into storage are ready for sale or to be made into one of our vanilla products, such as extract or syrup.
The beans are initially sorted into three groups: Grade A, Grade B and Extract. This is according to moisture content and appearance. They are then vacuum-packed and will be aged in that state for 1–6 months.
This year’s harvest is our first big harvest and we’re not quite sure how it’s all going to get marketed. Of course there will be online retail sales, and perhaps a couple of shops on the island will carry our vanilla products.
We are engaging our contacts in the culinary world, too. We’re interested to know how the quality of our beans measures up with people who know vanilla…and of course, we will be selling wholesale to professionals who are looking for artisanal Hawaiian vanilla.
I see a lot of these guys in the vanillery. It must be a great environment for them, a million places to hide and hunt, with convenient walkways so you never have to touch the ground. Mo’o is the Hawaiian word for lizard or reptile…it gets a lot of use since geckos are so common here.
Mostly the ones I see in the vanillery are the green anoles. They look like tiny dragons, and they have a lot of personality…certainly when compared to a gecko! Their typical green color matches the vanilla foliage perfectly. They can change color, so they’re often referred to as “chameleons” and though they do have eyelids that are a bit like them, they aren’t chameleons.
I came across this one, standing out quite obviously because he was a very dark brown color. He was looking at me defiantly, so I snapped a few shots. Later he showed me his impressive dewlap. I think he was trying to scare me.
This other guy is a less common sight in the vanillery, the gold dust day gecko blends in pretty good, despite some stunning color and overall bejeweled effect. (we jokingly call them “gay deckos”) These ones have been slowly taking over from the typical little brown geckos we’ve always had. I’m pretty sure these day geckos are more aggressive and so have been edging out the original population…seems like we see more and more of them every year. For some reason the vanillery is not a usual place to see them. These guys love fruit, so instead we see them in the bananas and where we bring in our fruit from the yard.
We are at the peak of the harvest season, and during this time, we are harvesting about a hundred beans out of the vanillery every two to three days. Choosing which beans to take requires some pretty sharp observation: the color change can be hard to see in the shady tangle of vines. The beans were pollinated almost a year ago, and a lot of vine growth has taken place since then, burying many of the brooms deep within the growth. In the dim light, it’s easy to mistake the gentle lightening that takes place as the bean matures for the clear signal of true ripeness.
Choosing the moment to harvest any one bean is a bit of a game of brinksmanship. We want the bean to be at the absolute peak of ripeness, but if you miss it or wait too long, the bean begins to split open, preparing to release it’s seeds. At that point, the vanilla pod cannot be sold as a whole bean, although it is still good for making extract. We’re looking for a strong orange-yellow color at the tip of the bean, along with a hint of the split beginning to form.
Oh, and watch out for the sap! Like many tropical plants, vanilla employs a chemical defense against foraging animals. This is due the presence of calcium oxilate crystals, which are small and sharp enough to get into the pores of your skin, causing minor but sometimes pretty painful irritation. During harvest, we’re careful not to touch the sap or get it on the skin. When handling freshly-harvested pods, latex gloves are used, as the sap is hard to avoid once the pods get into the harvest box.
This is the first year we are getting a full harvest out of the vanillery. It’s been a good year, growth-wise, maybe even too good. The vines are growing so thickly now, it’s hard to see the beans for harvesting.
This harvest season actually began on January 3, we missed a few early ones, but on that day I harvested 3 dozen beans. It seems to be coming in much earlier this year. Last year’s first harvest was in February sometime. I can only guess that the onset of the harvest season moves around a lot.
Today’s harvest was particularly bountiful in terms of bean size. In the photo, I’m holding one of the biggest beans I’ve ever seen, 240mm in length and weighing in at 33 grams. The average length for a grade I bean is about 180mm and 17g, so that’s substantially larger than most of the large beans.
You might expect a bean like that from a Tahitian vanilla (Vanilla tahitensis) plant, but we are growing the more common Vanilla planifolia, which produces a smaller bean generally.
Vanilla bean green grades are by length: grade I is 150mm and over, grade II is 150 — 100mm, and grade III is less than 100mm. This is important because the processing is slightly different for each grade. The larger the bean, the more time it gets in the kill bath and in the sweating stage.
For the beans in this kill bath, it is the beginning of a long process: 10 days of sweating followed by 3–6 weeks of air-drying. After that, the by now shriveled and dark brown or black beans are conditioned for 9 months before they are graded and made into extract.
The vanillery is exactly 3 years old now. This Spring, for the first time, we’re seeing full flowering on all the rows. This is great news for vanilla production here, our last two years have seen fairly small harvests. At this rate, there may be many hundreds of pods in here for next winter’s harvest.
Having this many flowers does require a significant time investment to get them all pollinated. This is the peak of the flowering cycle, and we’re seeing 1 — 1 1/2 hours of pollinating each morning, and that will keep up for 2 — 3 weeks. You definitely have to plan your morning around that.
In the first season of fruit in the vanillery, I let a couple of beans ripen naturally, as I sometimes do when they’re too small or overripe. When they ripen on the vine, they split open, turn black and eventually the tiny, tiny seeds come out. I guess if things are just right where those seeds fall, they will germinate and grow into new vines.
This is, in my experience, pretty unusual. Most of the time none of those seeds sprout, and the little vines that emerge aren’t tough like full-grown vanilla, they’re extremely delicate. It wouldn’t take much going wrong for that sprout to not survive.
Near one of the bamboo posts in the vanillery, it looks like the conditions were just right, because a whole cluster of little vines formed in that one spot. You can see that in this photo, although the seedling vines are tucked way in. They’re beginning to climb up the bamboo post and the other vines.
I wonder if these vines will be different? Almost all of the vanilla plants here came from a single vine my grandmother planted some 40 years ago. These new vines will have some genetic variation…who knows how much, though, because the pollen came from the same plant. We’ll see.
Took the beans out of their box today: it’s time to grade the harvest. The last beans came off the open-air drying racks two months ago, and they’ve been conditioning in their box since then. The beans are graded at this point, divided into the two grades by size, moisture content, and appearance.
The grade A beans are bundled and placed in the conditioning box for another 7 months, so there is a total of 9 months of conditioning after the drying is complete. The cured beans are sold to the culinary trade for direct use in recipes. They are brown in color and filled with fragrant, oily “caviar,” the seeds and pulp of the vanilla pod after curing. This is where the fragrance of the vanilla bean is concentrated.
The grade B beans in part will be sold as grade B beans, but most will be used to make extract. We make two different types of extract: one, a 100% local extract using Koloa Rum, made on the west side of Kauai. The second is an organic extract using Prairie organic vodka. The beans sit in the alcohol for a minimum of 6 months before we begin to sell them.
It’s a good harvest this year, I’m very proud of it! The beans are in beautiful condition.
Today, we hoisted our Ambient Weather WS-1400IP sensor unit atop it’s mounting pole. I’ve always wanted to keep our own local weather data, and with the addition of this device, we are officially collecting data and sharing it on the net. We’re still working out some of the details, but this is a exciting development as far as I’m concerned.
We call the station “Queen’s Acres,” which is one of the names used for our neighborhood on the back side of Nonou Mountain near Kapaa. Our data stream is visible on Weather Underground at KHIKAPAA19
This morning I came across two racemes in the vanillery that had seven open blossoms on each of them! This is really quite unusual.
When the vanilla vines are really growing strongly, the flowering racemes can come out double or triple or more. Usually, the raceme is a single stalk of flowers with 1 — 20 flower buds on it. The buds will open usually one at a time over a period of several weeks until they have all opened.
When there is a huge amount of vitality in the vine, though, the raceme can include branches of racemes, making it possible for a large number of flowers to sprout from a single node. This is a very good thing, because each node can only produce once (if at all—most don’t): and it will be either either a new vine or a flower raceme.
Of course, not all the flowers on a raceme should be pollinated, it’s important to only pollinate as much as will develop into full-size pods. Pollinate too many, and you’ll end up with a lot of uselessly-small pods. But with so much vitality in the vine, the number of flowers you can pollinate increases. We’ll probably get 15 full-size pods on these big racemes, while a typical raceme will usually only produce 5–7.
Vanilla blossoming seems to come in waves: you’ll have days where the blossoming is sparse, and days like today, where nearly every raceme on all the vines has one or more flowers blossoming. I don’t know what governs these cycles, perhaps weather, perhaps the moon. We already know that the vines are quite sensitive to lunar cycles.
This morning, I pollinated 49 flowers in the vanillery. An impressively large number considering it’s age…this is really the first year we’re having flowers on vines that grew in the vanillery. Perviously, all the flowering was done by vines that were a couple of years old when they were transplanted in. The vanillery is finally coming in, but this is only the beginning.
I say today is the peak of the 2016 flowering season because in all, I pollinated 153 flowers today. Looking at the racemes out there now, I doubt we’ll have as big a day again this season. All the racemes that are going to emerge have done so by now.
Flowering took place several weeks later this year than last year. Not sure why, but there is a strong possibility it is due to a very dry winter here. Meteorologists are calling it a drought, although it wouldn’t resemble what most of the world calls such a thing.
Last week, the rains returned, lucky us, and spring weather is back to it’s soggy normal here. For us, these flowers mark the beginning of typically eight weeks of early-morning trips to the vines to do the pollination. Flowering in the vanillery was slow to get started, but it looks like it’s going to be good. This is the first year we expect to get a decent harvest out of it, and it’s going get better every year for several years.