We’re dedicated to giving you the inside look into our sourcing! This spring Lopa and Ben went to India on a sourcing trip, here’s some of Ben’s insight.
Vanilla is one of my favorite plants at Rasa, despite the fact that it’s not an adaptogen, it’s not roasty and coffee-like, and it’s absurdly expensive (we just bought 600 lbs for a cool $100k!). So why do we use it in our Rasa Calm, Golden Chai, and seasonal Peppermint Cacao blends? The short answer: pure pleasure. Real vanilla has this magical quality of adding smoothness, sweetness, and cohesiveness to recipes. After tasting it while formulating Calm I knew there was no going back!
I tasted vanilla from Madagascar, Indonesia, and India, and landed on sourcing from India because of the flavor and the farmers. While Madagascar is often considered the premier source for vanilla, India grows the same variety of beans—called Bourbon— and their beans actually have a higher vanillin content (which is what gives it its delicious flavor!). Plus, our main supply partner in India recently started a vanilla initiative to help small organic farmers add vanilla to their lands as a strategy for supplemental income.
The Indian state of Karnataka, where these farmers are based, has one of the biggest coconut belts in India, and also grows the most areca palms in the country. The trees are stable cash crops for farmers and many of the farms we visited had one or both. Vanilla is a creeper vine that needs a tree to climb up, so it’s a perfect addition to these coconut and palm groves, providing supplemental income while taking up no extra space. It’s a win-win for farmers.
This spring, Lopa and I traveled to India to meet the farmers who grow many of our herbs, understand their processes and challenges, and build a culture of trust and transparency throughout our supply systems. We spent 15-hour days driving to farms all around Karnataka (I will never again complain of carsickness in Colorado!). Three vanilla farmers stood out and I’m honored to share a few of their stories with you.
Ramya & Ramesh, Farm #1
Ramya and her husband Ramesh were the first vanilla farmers we met. As we pulled up to their 6-acre farm I was so excited—I’ve been enjoying vanilla my whole life, but I’d never actually met the plant in person! There is a very particular excitement shared by plant people the world over when meeting a favorite plant for the first time. I was ready for the rush.
Ramya met us at the entrance to the farm and led us into the green and vibrant interior. I immediately spotted vanilla vines everywhere. And not only vanilla but lots of cacao trees as well. I remember savoring the thought, “I’m basically standing in a chocolate bar right now!”.
Lucky for us, the vanilla vines were in flower. Vanilla is an orchid with big beautiful flowers. The wild thing is that it has no natural pollinators outside of its native habitat in Mexico and needs to be hand pollinated everywhere else in the world. Ramya’s brother gave us a crash course on how to hand pollinate the flowers. Not only is it delicate work, but each vanilla flower only lasts for one day, so careful daily monitoring is required to catch the flowers as they bloom.
Besides vanilla and cacao, they showed us cloves, black pepper, cardamom, their honey bees, and their composting system. The vanilla vines looked very healthy, but I noticed the cacao was struggling a bit. They explained that there were two main issues. The rains lasted for two months past the normal monsoon season this year, leading to fungal issues with black pepper and cacao. Plus they had wildcats entering the farm at night and eating cacao fruits. The night before we arrived, they had eaten or ruined 25 cacao pods! Both issues didn’t have easy answers, and what worried me was the reports I heard across India of weather changes affecting crops.
Mahabaleshwar, Farm #2
Every farm we went to over my two weeks in India offered us chai and snacks as we talked in the shade after a trek through the farm. One of my favorite instances of this daily ritual was with Mahabaleshwar. We drank delicious buffalo milk chai, with a side of homemade papadam, in his small concrete home. I gave him and his family a bag of our Golden Chai and explained that their vanilla was an important ingredient in our products. I then tried to pick out words as our supply partner talked about Rasa and coffee alternatives to Mahabaleshwar and his family in their native tongue of Kannada.
Srikanth, Farm #3
Srikanth’s farm was different than the other vanilla farms we visited. It was on a hill at higher elevation and had more mature vanilla. It takes about 9 months for pollinated flowers to become ripe vanilla beans ready to harvest, and these beans were much farther along than the much younger and flowering vines I’d previously seen.
We stood by a beautiful little stream that cut through the stand of areca palms as we got a primer on vanilla curing. Similar to how raw cacao seeds go through a fermentation process and multiple curing steps to produce what we think of as chocolate, vanilla is not much more than a green bean until it’s been properly cured.
There are many variations of how to cure vanilla, but the basic steps include grading the beans by size and thickness, cooking in boiling water for 3-5 minutes, and then sweating them. The process of sweating involves a cycle of putting the beans in a pure wool blanket and sealing them inside a wooden box for 24 hrs and then opening the box and keeping the beans in sunlight for the day. This cycle can go on for a week or more. Then it’s time for the “slow drain”, where the beans are dried in a shed for a month or more until moisture levels are much lower. The sweating and slow drain are crucial to enhancing the production of vanillin, the compound responsibility for that classic vanilla taste.
Instead of the customary chai at this farm, Srikanth’s cousin climbed up a nearby coconut tree and cut down a dozen fresh coconuts for us all to drink. After spending hours in the high humidity Indian heat, the coconut water was revelatory!
Meeting these farmers in India was both inspiring and humbling. We’re a tiny part of an incredible movement of thousands of small organic farmers across India. Yet, our decisions of what and where to buy have big impacts on dozens of individual farmers. We came home to Colorado committed to consistently buying from the farmers we met and continuing to develop these relationships through annual visits. We’re dedicated to helping Rasa be a voice in the shifting story of Indian agriculture—from a story of dependence on expensive chemicals to one of economic independence and healthier soils.