Prepare to pay more for ice cream.
Vanilla Bean
Credit: © Blend Images / Alamy Stock Photo

You may not think of vanilla as being anything special. It is, after all, the default ice cream flavor on most menus, and it has all these connotations of being boring—plain vanilla. The truth is that vanilla, part of the orchid family, is the second most expensive spice after saffron. It is very labor-intensive to harvest. And it is everywhere: in sweets, in fragrances, in aromatherapy products. Now we are getting reports that there is a shortage. Time to embrace chocolate? Not so fast.

The dearth of Madagascan vanilla, which is considered the best kind for its creamy sweetness (Mexico and Tahiti have vanillas too), reflects climate conditions from 2015. Last year was an especially poor harvest, so this year prices are surging by 150 percent. And high prices create a snowball effect: Farmers pick their vanilla early to capitalize on the surge in pricing (and to protect themselves from being robbed). And they end of picking too soon and drying it too quickly, leading to subpar vanilla.

The numbers tell the story: A good crop of vanilla beans is usually around 2,000 tons, but in 2015 the number was closer to 1,300 tons. Charlie Thuillier, founder of the ice-cream brand Oppo, told the Guardian that the price has doubled in the last month. "We were paying €35 a litre in February but now it's €76," he said.

Time will tell if this summer's coming harvest will create a surplus to bring prices back down. Meantime, some vanilla users—bakers, perfume creators and aromatherapy makers—may experiment with synthetic vanilla. Most likely, prices for ice cream will simply go up until that point when they can come down again—long after summer is gone.

[h/t to The Guardian]