Photo Gallery | Charles Baldwin and Sons in West Stockbridge
WEST STOCKBRIDGE — Many small towns in New England have a general store.
"Now, there's people that build them to look like an old general store," said Jackie Harmon-Moffatt, sitting inside the 18th century building that houses Charles H. Baldwin & Sons on Center Street next to the Williams River.
"This is old," she said, referring to her surroundings. "Believe me."
When it comes to general stores, Baldwin & Sons — originally built for use as wheelwright shop — is the real deal.
But what makes it special is located in the building's basement at the bottom of a rickety, wooden staircase.
The contraption doesn't look like much: A pair of century-old wooden barrels and a large metal percolator. But what's made in them has kept Baldwin & Sons profitable since the firm was established in 1888 and has gained the business widespread acclaim outside the Berkshires including from Martha Stewart.
This working space is where the firm manufactures pure vanilla extract, made solely from the world's most expensive vanilla bean — the bourbon vanilla bean from Madagascar.
Baldwin & Sons moved to its current location in 1912, and down in this basement Earl Baldwin Moffatt, the great-great-grandson of company founder Henry M. Baldwin, mixes the 44 pounds of vanilla beans that he receives each month into a tasty concoction sold to customers in the Berkshires and at markets the business runs in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Washington, D.C.
"We use the same recipe that H.M. Baldwin came up with," said Jackie, Earl's wife.
Jackie runs the ground-level store, which has an old-time photo booth, and sells retro candies, greeting cards, puzzles, games, toys and other knick-knack gift items. Earl helps with the store when he's not working at his other job as a mechanic.
Jackie, who is originally from Pittsfield, had just lost her job as an administrative assistant in a South County vocational school district when the couple took over the family business in 1994.
"My father-in-law said, 'Perfect. The lady I had working for me left to have a baby so why don't you come over and learn how to make vanilla?'" Jackie said.
All in the family
Earl and Jackie are the fifth generation of the Baldwin family to run the business. They initially didn't want to get involved.
"But nobody else in the family did either," she said, referring to Earl's three siblings. "They grew up here in the lab."
Vanilla extract is a solution that contains the flavor compound vanillin as the primary ingredient. Pure vanilla extract is made by softening and percolating vanilla beans in a solution of ethyl alcohol and water. The vanilla bean is a large bean-like fruit, and its seeds give flavoring to the solution, which provides a savory taste to items like cookies, brownies, and pancakes.
Vanilla extract is so savory it can also be used as a dietary supplement, although it wasn't intended that way.
"Take a whiff of vanilla extract right before digging into any delectable meal, and you might just eat less of it," said Dr. Alan Hirsch, the founder of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation, on Health.com.
"That's because smelling a satisfyingly rich scent (vanilla) can trick your brain into thinking you've eaten more than you actually have," Hirsch said.
According to Jackie, pure vanilla extract has to adhere to a government-approved formula. "Every drop of vanilla we buy has to be accounted for, and it has to match what the formula is," she said.
What makes Baldwin's pure vanilla extract special is the process by which it is made. At Baldwin & Sons, the solution is both mixed and aged in those two 100-year-old oak barrels in the store's basement.
Aging the solution in those barrels "mellows" and "intensifies" Baldwin & Sons vanilla extract, according to the company's website. The Baldwins also save part of a previous batch of vanilla extract in those barrels, so that they can add it to a new batch.
"Well, great-great-grandfather's quote was 'Never tamper with the recipe or use inferior beans, and never let the barrels run dry,'" Jackie said.
"There's a drop of old vanilla in every bottle. So it's a rich, flavorful vanilla extract."
No one knows exactly how Henry Baldwin and his son Charles became involved in making vanilla extract.
"Best I can figure, Albany was a big spice harbor back in the day," said Jackie. "[Henry] did a lot of traveling to the Catskills, the Adirondacks and Columbia County delivering orders, so perhaps he picked up the vanilla there. I imagine he saw a niche."
According to an article published in The Eagle shortly before Baldwin & Sons 60th anniversary in 1947, the Baldwins established their business with $100. Henry and Charles Baldwin — "born salesmen," according to the article — first sold their homemade extract to nearby homes while traveling around the county on a horse and peddling cart. They expanded their territory to New York and Connecticut, then began selling to retail stores. By the late 1940s, the Baldwins were making over 400 products that were sold as far south as Florida.
In addition to vanilla extract, Baldwin & Sons currently makes several other pure extracts including almond, anise, coffee, lemon, orange, spearmint and peppermint, along with flavors like banana, black walnut, cherry, coconut, maple, pineapple, pistachio, raspberry, rum and strawberry. These items are blended and mixed on the first floor.
They also make colorfully named concoctions like "Mr. Baldwin's Proper Bloody Mary Mix" and "Baby Rum Aftershave."
"Just like they use in the barbershop," Jackie said, referring to the aftershave.
Another popular product is Baldwin's Table Syrup, a concoction that Charles' son Earl Baldwin invented in the 1920s when people were searching for a good-tasting, less expensive alternative to maple syrup. Earl, who bought out his brother, Arthur, and ran the business alone, was a registered pharmacist who graduated from the College of Pharmacy of the City of New York, which was then associated with Columbia University.
How did Earl come up with his syrup formula?
"He kind of experimented and fooled around with it," Jackie said. "It has a little less intense maple flavor, but it's half the price of what a quarter of pure maple syrup would go for.
"It's gotten very popular over the years," she said.
But not as popular as the vanilla extract.
"That's the backbone of the business," Jackie said. "That's what's kept us going all of these years."
Making vanilla extract is not without its challenges. With only two barrels and a percolator in the basement, mass production is out of the question.
"We can only make a small amount at a time," Jackie said.
Other events far from West Stockbridge like global weather conditions and international politics also come into play.
"We only import from Madagascar, and it depends on the weather and on their particular dictator," Jackie said. "There's a particular coup uprising over there now. We've heard it's going to be a low yield this year."
Keeping the business in the Baldwin family after Earl and Jackie move on is more of a long-term issue.
"What's going to happen next? I don't know," Earl Moffatt said when asked if a sixth generation of the Baldwin family will eventually take over the business. "We don't have any kids."
But Earl Moffatt's not particularly worried about it. Over the years everything has "just kind of fallen into place," he said.
The pure vanilla extract has kept Baldwin & Sons in business for so long.
"I think we've survived all these years," Jackie said, "because it's a product that's really good."