A Pepper Primer - Part 1

A Pepper Primer - Part1

If you are on this mailing list you probably know some basics about our friend piper nigrum.  What you may not know is the answer to one of the questions that I am frequently asked, “What kind of pepper do you see offered at the typical grocery store?”  Here is the answer.

When I talk about pepper, I always mean whole peppercorns.  The reason is that there is no such thing as packaged gourmet ground pepper.  If you are a pepper lover, the only suitable product is pepper freshly ground to whatever size suits your preference.  What you will see at the store is a generic blend of peppercorns sourced from anywhere in the world where pepper is produced.  Traditionally, the majority of the production was located in India (Malabar), Indonesia (Lampong), and Malaysia (Sarawak).  Most packagers in the USA would use a blend of these peppercorns which went by the trade designation “MLS”.   

In the second half of the 20th Century, Brazil became a low-cost pepper producer and began to influence world prices.  Even though Brazilian black pepper is of low quality, it began to appear in blends which were labeled “MLSB.”  Being a price-driven product, the mix composition was determined by whatever could be obtained at the lowest cost and yield a product with minimally acceptable piperine and essential oils content. 

In the last 20-40 years Vietnam has emerged from nowhere to be a major player, and is now the world’s largest producer and exporter.  Perception of the quality of the Vietnamese product varies, but we have been able to find and high grade Vietnamese pepper and it is popular with many of our customers.   I would expect that the lower grades are now included in the cheap blends, although I have not heard that “MLSBV” is a term that has come into use.

I find the situation analogous to what was available to coffee drinkers 40 years ago.  There were 2 lb. cans of cheap coffee blends that were low grade, and nobody knew the difference.  Starbucks did not invent good coffee but they did a lot to popularize it, and the big cans of pre-ground coffee have largely fallen into disfavor.

Slowly people are learning to appreciate the subtle differences of aroma and flavor available in peppercorns as they havefor wine and coffee aficionados.  And the good news is that anyone can enjoy some of the best pepper available in the world for $20-$50 per year.  Try doing that with wine!



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