Julie Wiedmeyer’s life was changed by a batch of chocolate chip cookies.
"I was out of vanilla extract, so I borrowed some from my neighbor," she explains in a phone interview. "I was completely blown away by the flavor. Her vanilla was from another country; her parents had brought it back from vacation for her. It totally took my recipe up a notch."
Wiedmeyer was delighted when her neighbor let her have the rest of the bottle. But, when it ran out, she was disappointed to find that the vanilla she’d fallen in love with wasn’t available in stores, or even online.
"After doing some research, I decided that I might not actually want to use the vanilla that she gave me. When you buy vanilla on vacation, you often don’t know what you’re getting. But, I really wanted to recreate that flavor."
So Wiedmeyer began trying out a wide variety of high-end vanillas.
"If it cost a lot, I thought it was worthwhile trying it," she says. "But, I couldn’t seem to find that same depth of flavor and aroma. I have a very curious nature, so I also started wondering if it was something I could figure out myself."
And that’s when her journey toward entrepreneurship began. She decided to make her own vanilla, and began by experimenting with every vanilla bean she could find, and steeping the beans in a wide variety of different alcohols.
"I really didn’t know anything about vanilla," she confesses. "And I certainly never thought about starting a vanilla business. In fact, if I was going to do anything, I always thought I’d be a chocolatier. But, I think vanilla actually found me."
Despite studies by "Cooks Illustrated" magazine, which found that most people couldn’t tell the difference between imitation and real vanilla extract, Wiedmeyer felt strongly that using real vanilla would be the key to her success.
"I wouldn’t call myself an uber foodie, but I feel as if I can tell the difference," she says. "When I bake, I try to use organic eggs and quality ingredients. I want to know what I’m putting in my body, and if you look at the ingredients on imitation vanilla, that’s not something I want to ingest."
So, Wiedmeyer spent months researching online, studying various processes for extracting flavor from vanilla beans, and learning about the differences between sun killed and water killed beans, two methods used to cease the maturing process of vanilla beans before they are cured.
"I started out with five beans from five different countries. I pulled them apart, flexed them, split them open, smelled them, tasted them," she explains. "I’m a huge chocolate chip cookie lover, so I made batches of cookies, dividing them into a variety of batches, using different types of vanilla."
Then she asked her friends to taste test each variety.
"I have a friend who is a sensory professional, so she was useful in the process," Wiedmeyer says. "I really benefited from the expertise of those around me. I gave bottles of vanillas to friends and acquaintances with evaluation forms so that they could try it out in a variety of ways – cold items and hot items."
Nothing stood out until she happened upon the magical combination of Grade B Madagascar bourbon vanilla beans and locally made Yahara Bay vodka.
"Alcohol is really important because that’s what draws the flavor out of the bean," she explains. "I tried the gamut – from cheap vodka to expensive vodka… I don’t know what it is, but there’s something about the Yahara that brings out the flavor and smell."
Wiedmeyer says she had a feeling about the combination from the moment she first made it, but she withheld her own judgment until she heard from the last of her friends who had sampled the latest batch of vanilla.
The taste testing results were largely unanimous. Everyone loved the extract in both baked goods and uncooked recipes. Wiedmeyer was ecstatic, and she decided it would be worthwhile to share her discovery with the public.
"I did a lot of reading to find out what larger vanilla companies were doing," she says, "And I worked to find machinery that would work for my business. I also developed a proprietary process where I can make extract in about a week."
Once she determined that her process was viable, she took the next step. Wiedmeyer located a commercial kitchen near her home in Sun Prairie. The Vanilla Beanery was established in March 2012, licensed in July, and took on its first retail sales in September and October.
Her initial production was small, with one batch making 450 four-ounce bottles at a time. However, after Wiedmeyer made over $8,000 in sales during her first three months in business, she knew she had to up her game. Her husband, who helps out with the business, contacted one of their neighbors, who works as an engineer, and together they came up with a new piece of machinery that will allow her to triple her production.
"That will be up and running soon," Wiedmeyer reports. "It will allow me to keep up with the orders coming in while maintaining full control over the product and the flavor."
Wiedmeyer also made it a point to establish her business using as many local supplies as possible. In addition to locally made vodka, she purchases bottles from WB Bottle on the South Side of Milwaukee. She realized that insisting upon buying locally would put her product at a higher price point, but she believes the effort is worthwhile.
"We’ve been taught to shop with the bottom line, and look for the cheapest products," she says. "But cheapest isn’t always best. I feel better supporting local businesses, and I think today’s consumers support what I’m trying to do."
Weidmeyer keeps herself busy. She is still working a day job, so she spends most free nights and weekends in the kitchen keeping up with vanilla production. And she says that, in her spare time, she is actively investigating possibilities for diversifying her vanilla business.
"I have whole vanilla beans for sale at two grocery stores in Madison," she says. "I’m giving that a chance, and currently testing other products, like vanilla syrups and sugars. I’ve also looked into the possibility of making other extracts. But, that’s for the future. In the meantime, I want to focus on creating a really good vanilla extract."
Four-ounce bottles of The Vanilla Beanery’s extract retail for $12, 16-ounce bottles for $35. Both are available in Milwaukee at Metcalfe’s Sentry in Wauwatosa or online at thevanillabeanery.com.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.