Good question, reader Naomi. There definitely is, though unless you’ve got a truly stellar ingredient shop nearby, you pretty much have to take what you can get, bean-wise. Most larger grocery stores have stopped selling vanilla beans because so few people buy them. The small boutique shops here in Louisville generally stock only one type and that’s typically Bourbon — also known as “Madagascar” — vanilla from Nielsen-Massey. They’re the most common retail brand.
Madagascar vanilla is considered by many to be the “definitive” vanilla, though a lot of that is probably just good marketing on the part of Nielsen-Massey. It seems true to me that Madagascar vanilla is stronger and more aromatic, it gives off more exotic “high notes” as it were. That’s made it the go-to vanilla bean for pastry pros for decades. However in 2000 a typhoon all but wiped out vanilla crops in Madagascar and the nearby vanilla-producing islands of Réunion and Comoros. That caused prices to spike. It also gave pastry makers cause to take another look at the two other major vanillas: Mexican and Tahitian.
It’s said that Mexican vanilla has a deeper, smoother, truer vanilla flavor (it is the place, after all, where vanilla originated). Tahitian is thought by many to be very fruity. True vanilla enthusiasts can tell the differences between those and Madagascar vanilla, very discerning palates might even be able to pick up differences between Madagascar, Mexican, Tahitian and others like New Guinea, Indonesia, India, Tonga, Mauritius, Uganda, Réunion, Comoros, etc.. All that is far beyond my ability, (and, frankly, my interest).
Generally if I can find a real vanilla bean — one that’s fresh, meaning plump, glossy and pliable — I’m happy. And while it’s true that I do use extracts (often imitation) most of the time in the kitchen, I’ll always use a real vanilla bean in a custard or a cream, where the subtle perfumes sing.