When Julie Wiedmeyer isn't serving on the Sun Prairie Chamber of Commerce or the Plan Commission, or organizing the rapidly growing Sunshine Supper, which serves free meals to low-income members of the community, she makes vanilla extract. More to the point, she finds the time to extensively research vanilla beans, distributors, recipes and extraction techniques, and now makes vanilla extract that she sells under the Vanilla Beanery label.
"I just don't sit down and watch TV, at all," Wiedmeyer says, as if that could possibly explain how she multitasks to this degree. "I like to stay busy, I like to stay in motion."
The process of making vanilla extract is fairly simple: Submerge vanilla beans in alcohol, and wait. Over time, the alcohol pulls the flavor compounds out of the vanilla and produces a dark, sweet liquor - no less than 35% alcohol by volume, by the FDA's standard. Oh, and that end point doesn't arrive for at least four to six weeks, according to most recipes.
This doesn't seem like the hobby of a person who likes to keep moving. But Wiedmeyer finds ways to make vanilla extract busy.
"There's such a huge variety in beans," Wiedmeyer says. "Some smell great and have no flavor; some don't smell at all, have some flavor. I was really looking for that unique taste." She sources her vanilla beans from New Guinea and Madagascar, but that's no easy decision.
Vanilla beans, like coffee and chocolate, only proliferate naturally in tropical latitudes, and, like wine grapes, the various strains reflect the qualities of the soil in which they are grown. This makes Mexican vanilla different from Madagascar vanilla, Tahitian different from Ugandan.
"I have worked with every distributor in the country that I can locate and contact," says Wiedmeyer. "I've tried all of those beans. I've tried working with some of those direct distributors in Madagascar, New Guinea and Uganda."
Then there's the extraction. Many recipes use neutral grain spirits, and extracts can be made with any alcohol. But as usual, Wiedmeyer has experimented. After rum, brandy, whiskey, even gin, she chose Yahara Bay vodka. "Being a local business," she asks, "if I'm not supporting local businesses, how are people going to support me?" Locality aside, she's confident Yahara Bay's vodka complements her vanilla's flavor.
Wiedmeyer debuted her brand at the 2012 Isthmus Food & Wine Festival, but she had been perfecting her product for more than three years. It all started, she says, when a vanilla extract she borrowed from a friend had an unexpected and profound effect on her trusty old chocolate chip cookie recipe.
It was an overseas brand, and probably supplemented with artificially produced vanillin, but her curiosity was piqued. "I started trying a lot of brand names, expensive vanillas, because I knew I couldn't get this one," Wiedmeyer explains, "and after doing research I knew I didn't really want that one."
Some vanilla extracts produced outside of the United States are made with a compound called coumarin, which is derived from the tonka bean and bears a strong sensory resemblance to vanillin. It is generally prohibited from use in food products in the United States, and can be toxic.
Wiedmeyer decided to do better than what she saw as the indistinct vanilla extracts found in grocery stores. Though her extract is triple-filtered, Wiedmeyer thinks it's probably more potent than the average single-strength extract. Visually, it's obvious there's more going on in the Vanilla Beanery bottle; the extract is darker, with more vanilla particulate than that of the local market leader, Penzey's.
Wiedmeyer still says that Vanilla Beanery isn't intended to be a full-time endeavor, but her dedication to the craft is clear and strong. "I've read every book on vanilla. I've done a ton of research online. I'm looking at formal research. I've been looking at FDA guidelines on top of trying to figure out how to start the business."
Area retailers like Metcalfe's and Beans 'n Cream Coffeehouse sell her product, and Wiedmeyer also works with Market Street Diner in Sun Prairie. Vanilla Beanery extract goes into general manager Deb Riphahn's pies, cookies and house-made marshmallows; the banana cream pie is especially smooth and imbued with that trademark warm sweetness of vanilla.
Vanilla Beanery extract is starting to achieve some significant visibility. It's sold in 18 states and three countries. But it's still the local interest that drives Wiedmeyer. As I walked into the Market Street Diner for our interview, two women in front of me pointed at the blue-and-brown-labeled bottles near the register.
"Oh," one says to the other, "that's Julie Wiedmeyer's vanilla."