Jonathan Kaye, founder of Heritage Breads bakery in Hopkins, saws into an enormous four-pound miche.
Its golden crust crackles with a wheaty, yeasty scent, yielding a dense, toothy, tangy slice. Elemental and strangely familiar, such bread sustained generations of American workers as the foundation of every meal.
Kaye is rangy, balding, and so tall that he stoops as he glides across his tiny kitchen. He opens the heavy oven door, revealing racks of rye that rotate amid the blasting heat, and inserts a digital thermometer into a rectangular loaf.
“Two-hundred-and-ten degrees,” he says. “Just about perfect. But I want the crust to brown, so I’ll leave them a bit longer. You just don’t walk away or rely on buzzers. It’s about paying attention.”
Heritage Bread sells about 200 loaves a week—16 different seasonal varieties, plus focaccia and different rolls throughout the year. Many are spoken for in advance orders from customers across the Twin Cities metro region; others travel to locations as far-flung as Seattle and even Belgium. The bread is leavened with a 100-year-old starter from a Bolivian baker and requires a three-day prep process of kneading, stretching, and shaping by hand.
“It takes time to develop flavor and texture,” Kaye says in his lilting Australian accent. “But good, fresh flour is key. People don’t realize the difference fresh flour makes. Flour is a food, not a commodity product.” It was also, at one time, Minneapolis’ chief export. The country’s first flour mill, Washburn Crosby—the predecessor to General Mills—was established in 1874 along the banks of the Mississippi. And for a half-century, Minneapolis—“Mill City”—was known as the flour-milling capital of the world. Washburn Crosby milled Turkey red wheat, a tall, burnished brown grain planted by German Mennonites who settled in Kansas in the 1800s. (Turkey red, which shimmers in the sun, inspired the line “amber waves of grain”; its sheaves were minted on the backs of pennies until 1959.)
This first Washburn A-Mill exploded in 1878 when flour dust ignited. The grindstone operation was replaced by a state-of-the-art roller mill to process “The World’s Best Flour—Gold Medal.” Roller mills removed the unsightly bran but damaged the flour’s nutrient content, and by the 1930s General Mills began refortifying its white flour with niacin, iron, and vitamins—all nutrients that the old grindstone mill once left intact.
The most dramatic change in flour, however, relates to changes in the wheat plant itself. Shortly after World War II, wheat was hybridized to increase yields and expedite the harvest using enormous amounts of toxic fertilizers, pesticides, and plant growth regulators that control germination and strengthen stalks. It’s sprayed with chemical protectants and insecticides, processed at high speeds that damage nutrients, then treated with conditioners and preservatives to prevent sticking. Those five-pound bags of bleached white flour in grocery stores? They’re eternally “shelf stable.” And some researchers suspect the plant’s gluten structure was altered in hybridization, accounting for the spike in gluten-related health issues.
You won’t find that flour in Kaye’s baked goods. Instead, as he readies a loaf, he opens a bag of freshly milled Turkey red wheat flour from Sunrise Flour Mill in North Branch, Minnesota. He’ll go through about 600 pounds of Sunrise’s heritage flour a week, matching the different varieties to his baked goods. He first encountered fresh flour the day he met Darrold and Marty Glanville—founders of Sunrise Flour Mill—at the Mill City Farmers Market about five years ago. Within a month, he was helping out in their booth on Saturdays and making artisan bread on the side.
“Baking challenged me; as a chef I wanted a challenge, to learn something new,” he says. In 2015 Kaye left his post as culinary instructor at Le Cordon Blue and began selling Heritage Breads, first at Mill City (right next to the Glanvilles), then from his own storefront bakery.
Kaye’s friendship with the Glanvilles reflects the symbiotic nature of our local food economy. Darrold, a retired executive and passionate amateur bread baker, became interested in milling heritage wheat when he realized the impact commercial flour was having on his health. He’d been suffering a variety of medical issues, especially chronic fatigue. The drugs his doctors prescribed were of no help. Doggedly curious, he began his own research into wheat. And once he began baking with fresh flour he milled from heritage grains, those symptoms disappeared.
It was then that he and his wife, Marty, put their entrepreneurial shoulders to the (literal) grindstone. The grindstone mill crushes, shears, and grinds wheat using a slower, cooler process than rollers, leaving the wheat’s nutrients and flavors intact. Over the past 10 years, Sunrise Flour Mill has been supplying organic, heritage grindstone-milled flour to restaurants (Red Wagon Pizza, Jones in the Park, Tenant, and Luci Ancora, to name a few) and in bulk to area natural foods co-ops. The flour is available online, too, and you can often find Darrold and Marty at the Mill City Farmers Market, sharing their knowledge (and Darrold’s sourdough starter).
“We call the businesses that rely on our flour our ‘flour children,’” Marty says. And their family is growing; the company recently purchased a 5,200-square-foot facility in North Branch to increase its retail packaging and wholesale capacity. Along with organic heritage wheat flour, Sunrise processes organic whole oats, cornmeal, pancake mixes, and frozen pizza dough, and has plans to add pastas and cake and cookie mixes. By going back to the grindstone, Sunrise Flour Mill is sowing demand for heritage varieties of organic wheat—especially Turkey red, the wheat milled by Minneapolis’ Washburn Crosby Company.
In Minneapolis, not far from the original Washburn Crosby Mill, sits Baker’s Field Flour & Bread—the first artisan mill built within the city limits in more than 40 years. In the Food Building near the banks of the Mississippi, Steve Horton, three-time James Beard Award semifinalist and former owner of Rustica Bakery, controls his primary ingredient by milling it himself.
“You don’t really know how a certain grain performs or how it tastes because big commercial mills combine grains from various regions and harvests into a single bag,” he says. To highlight the grain’s flavor, Horton contracts directly with local farmers.
“Wheat, like chocolate, coffee, or wine, tastes of the place where it’s grown,” says one of Horton’s farmers, Ben Penner. Originally from Kansas, Penner is a Mennonite, and he was intrigued by the wheat his ancestors once grew. “Plus, Turkey red is a high-quality grain with a terrific profile; it works beautifully in an organic system. Given its height, it can take more time than the shorter, commodity wheat to harvest, but the tradeoff is that you get wheat that’s meant for baking and can be grown without chemicals. That is as important to Steve as it is to me.”
This season, Penner has expanded his acreage of Turkey red from two and a half to 20 acres. In order to build his mill within city limits, Horton worked with the City Council to change zoning laws that were established after the Washburn Crosby explosion. His state-of-the-art grindstone mill produces over 6,000 pounds of local organic flour to make 700 artisan loaves a day. The bread and bags of fresh flour go off to co-ops, Kowalski’s, and specialty retail stores and coffee shops.
Even at this scale, it’s a hands-on process. As he shapes bagels, he says, “It’s always about paying attention, to the wheat, to the long, slow fermentation, rise, and shaping, to baking. That’s what defines the flavor.” Racks of dark brown seeded loaves are cooling, almost ready to bag, individually, and by hand. They are sentries to our march toward real, good food. And they might just help us reclaim the title “Breadbasket of the Country.”
Flour & Bread
1401 Marshall St. NE,
10902 Greenbrier Rd.,
Sunrise Flour Mill
39724 Grand Ave.,
More from Food & Drink