Friends and Mission Hills neighbors Charlie Hammond and Kate Banks smelled opportunity. They realized that the familiar scent of vanilla didn’t have to be limited to the alcohol-based extract stored in nearly every kitchen cabinet. And so, the scent-trepreneurs recently launched Vain Foods and made a product line of their own vanilla extracts, using various spirits and vanilla beans available from around the world.
The concept for Vain originated two years ago. Kate’s mother sent her a sizeable amount of vanilla beans as a gift. She couldn’t use them all in baking projects. So, Banks and Hammond began to experiment to try and create a vanilla extract with a twist.
“We both love to cook,” says Banks, a self-described food nerd. “When we began to make extract, all of the recipes called for vodka because it is a neutral spirit.”
All commercially-produced vanilla extract contains alcohol. The extraction process requires the use of a spirit that is at least 40% alcohol (80 proof). Vodka is commonly used because it doesn’t impart flavor or aroma to the extract. Hammond and Banks decided instead to use a range of spirits that naturally enhance or introduce more distinct flavors and aromas.
“We used bourbon, rum and orange liqueur with natural vanilla,” says Hammond, a chef-instructor at L’École Culinaire on the Country Club Plaza, of the early experimental process. “We bottled, aged and sampled it. It was good.”
Hammond and Banks realized the potential of their flavored extracts after selling bottles in November 2013 to family and friends over the holidays. They registered Vain as a business in March 2014, began investing in equipment and supplies and produced the extracts on a larger scale.
Vain’s bean-to-bottle extracts use different types of bean pods. Vanilla beans from Madagascar have a sweet, raisin-like aroma. Less-sweet scents such as smoke and chocolate are common to Indian vanilla beans while the Mexican varietal leans more toward fig. Perhaps the most intriguing of all, Uganda’s version smells sharp and spicy with a touch of chocolate. Tahitian vanilla beans, by far the most expensive, tend to be more plump, juicy and complex in flavor.
“Tahitian beans are harder to grow,” says Hammond. All vanilla beans grow from orchid flowers that bloom once annually. Each flower produces one bean. “The flowers are hand-pollinated. Tahitian beans are super fat and oily which makes them even more expensive.”
Hammond and Banks pre-slice each vanilla bean pod. Slicing the husk of the pod exposes more “caviar,” the oily seeds within that produce the powerful flavor and aroma. They infuse each type of bean with a particular spirit. For example, Indonesian vanilla bean is paired with cane rum. Mexican vanilla is aged in bourbon. Tonga vanilla is aged in apple brandy.
“We pair Tahitian beans only with rum,” says Banks. “Rum has a natural sweetness that brings out the bean’s delicate floral qualities.”
They put one-and-a-half sliced vanilla beans and a designated spirit into each four-ounce labeled bottle. The extract is aged for six weeks and then it is ready to ship. The batch number is indicated on the label. These small-batch extracts only contain two ingredients, vanilla bean and a spirit. The extracts have no expiration date. In fact, the flavor intensifies as it ages. Banks points out that the leftover beans from bottles can be used afterward for baking or in creme brulee.
Vain Foods also created a secondary line of vanilla extract called “coffee drops” sold in a two-ounce bottle with a medicine dropper lid.
Hammond says, “We found other uses for the extract in addition to baking. One day I added a few drops of vanilla rum extract to my coffee.”
A lightbulb went off. Vain Foods quickly developed extracts specifically for coffee pairings in flavors such as Island Vanilla, Kentucky Vanilla and Irish Vanilla. Respectively, rum, bourbon and Irish whiskey impart additional flavor to each extract.
The coffee drop extracts are produced with ground beans. The beans are steeped in three to five gallon batches, aged and strained before the extract is pumped into the bottles, capped and sealed.
Hammond and Banks chose Vain Foods as the brand’s name to distinguish their premium product from, well, plain vanilla.
“We wanted a word that started with the letter V,” says Banks. “It fits because our vanilla isn’t plain. It’s the opposite approach. Vanilla can be exciting. It’s the most popular flavor in the world. We use all-natural ingredients to enhance the bean. It really does all the work.”