A Breed Apart

Dr. Stephen Jones, director of The Bread Lab, holds up a 100% hydration artisan bread baked by Chad Robertson of Tartine Bakery.
 
Much has been written about the soaring popularity of heirloom wheat varieties among artisan bread bakers, but little has been reported on the yield potential of new varieties on the horizon. During an Oct. 10 education session at the International Baking Industry Exposition (IBIE) in Las Vegas, Stephen Jones, a wheat breeder and director of The Bread Lab at Washington State University, elaborated on the potential of new wheat varieties (1109, as one example) developed in the past six years that offer great promise. 
 
Notable bakers like Josey Baker Bread in San Francisco have tested 1109 and preferred the modern variety over heirloom. “This is a variety that will yield up to 10 times what an heirloom variety will do,” Jones says. “We want the yield to bring price points down, so that very good nutritious foods can become available for the same price.”
 
Heirloom, or sometimes called historical, varieties like Einkorn, Emmer, Red Fife and Turkey Red have become the darlings of the artisan bread community in recent years, largely due to America’s growing fascination with nostalgia and all things local. There’s a small wheat farm in northeast Kansas, for instance, that grows historical Turkey Red for a retail baker just five miles away.
 
Julie Dawson, a wheat breeder and assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who spoke at the IBIE session, explained the historical significance of varieties like Red Fife that have the genetic diversity to be grown on large geographic areas. “We used to grow wheat everywhere in the United States,” Jones points out.
 
The problem with historical wheat varieties is they are no longer abundant. Thus, wheat breeders like Dawson look to overcome limitations of historical varieties while preserving their baking qualities. Their ultimate goal is to develop varieties that increase farmer autonomy and choice, in addition to offering flavor and functionality that bakers and chefs desire. 
 
“It really depends on whether the baker can work with (the variety),” Dawson says. “It takes a big commitment from the farmer, but they are happy with what they get out of the process.”
 
Tom Hunton, a wheat farmer who works with Jones, advocates building a bridge from the farmer being profitable to the retail baker producing a great loaf of bread, “so the baker has some unique capabilities to be successful.” This means the pipeline needs new varieties with desirable traits.
 
Jones points out the job of wheat breeders (and they also look at other grains) is to sort through variations and make it work for the farmer, first, "and then find uses for it. We can now bring the farmers, bakers, brewers, and local communities together. They help inform us what flavors, what functionalities are desired. Our job as public researchers is to keep the value where it's produced within communities."

Jones, who learned to bake from his Polish grandmother, carries a special fondness for the retail bread business and, as director of The Bread Lab, works with many of the nation's top baker, including Chad Robertson of Tartine in San Francisco. Of note, The Bread Lab is currently undergoing a major renovation into a 12,000-square-foot building at the Port of Skagit (Washington).

In addition to the expanded lab, the new quarters will house a rheological lab, the King Flour Baking School at the Bread Lab, and a milling lab. Future plans include a professional kitchen overseen by James Beard Best Chef Northwest Blaine Wetzel, and a malting, brewing and distilling micro-lab led by Matt Hofmann, CEO and master distiller of Westland Distillery, and Will Kemper, co-owner of Chuckanut Brewery and Kitchen.

Jones gets asked all the time whether they are trying to change the modern agriculture system, and he is quick to point out that his team deals with thousand of acres of wheat, not tens of millions (the U.S. grows more than 60 million acres of wheat per year. "We have no illusion that things are going to change on a grand scale. We're not going to feed the world," he says. "We just want to help communities add value. We see these little grain communities are starting to pop up all over the country."

As a farmer, Hunton says that it helps to have to the voices of the "rock star bakers" behind his evolving movement, and their scope is growing. Places like Philadelphia and New York are embracing whole grain breads produced with these new wheat varieties. "What is really exciting is you sort of become a local food bank," Hunton says. "We're now serving nine school districts in our area. And we're able to bring some of these grains to places where we didn't think they would grow before."

Financial support for The Bread Lab comes from such notable companies as Clif Bar, Chipotle and Patagonia, which Jones says is now in the food business and is striving to do in food what the company has accomplished in clothing: create exceptional products while being positive environmental stewards. 

It's also pushing for a better life for local communities. "We do nothing in our lab that makes a Clif Bar taste better," Jones says, "but we help train the next generation of wheat and grain breeders to move forward in our field."