Grains of Change

As the American public grows more fascinated with ancient grains and heirloom varieties of just about anything, would it be so surprising to witness a revival of historic wheat varieties bred for flavor?

Professor Stephen Jones, who runs the Bread Lab at Washington State University, is a big believer. He and other bread experts convened Sept. 19-21 in Chicago for WheatStalk 2014, a conference held every two years by the Bread Bakers Guild of America, to share ideas on the future of bread.

“We look at 40,000 varieties of wheat in my program,” says Jones, who invites notable bread bakers such as Chad Robertson of San Francisco’s Tartine Bakery to bake at his Bread Lab. “There are purple wheats, blue wheats. These wheats have flavor and functionality.”

Jones sees a promising future for wheat varieties such as Red Russian, Renan, Tevelde and Edison.

Varieties like Renan yield over 150 bushels per acre, Jones says, and command $12 a bushel on the local market. At a recent White House event, the menu featured breads exclusively from the Bread Lab. President Barack Obama enjoyed a hot dog on a bun made with 100% Edison. Jones says the President called the bun the best he’d ever tasted.   

Located an hour north of Seattle, the 2½-year-old Bread Lab is the first public laboratory designed solely for testing and development of products and techniques for the craft baker. The 500-square-foot lab includes a WP Kemper SP spiral mixer, a Matador four-deck oven, as well as a stone mill and experimental roller flour mill. The lab houses sophisticated testing equipment such as a Farinograph, Alveograph and falling number machine.

The lab is situated in Washington’s fertile Skagit Valley where local farmers grow 90 different crops. One is the second-largest tulip grower in the world, and also happens to grow wheat.

“Five years ago, all of the wheat grown here left this area,” Jones says. “Today, 80% of the wheat stays here. Our job is to add value to the wheat they grow.”

The Bread Lab employs a resident baker in Jonathan Bethony, and five WSU Ph.D. students work on a variety of projects including wheat, oats and barley. When a WheatStalk attendee asked how the lab is funded, Jones responded that funding comes from the generous support of Clif Bar, Chipotle and The Rockefeller Foundation, among others.

“Their vision is to help create the next generation of plant breeders,” he says.

Jones sees great promise in the work of the Bread Lab in helping craft bakers identify wheat varieties that can produce more flavorful bread and higher profits at the same time. Still, there’s work to be done across the country. “These local grain movements, and there are many, don’t have the varieties they need. There are many parts of the country where you can grow very good wheat.”

Another WheatStalk speaker, Julie Dawson, assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, explained how several projects involving value-added grains for local and regional food systems are benefiting the overall cause.

Under the supervision of King Arthur Flour’s Jeffrey Hamelman, eight bakers from New England selected seven wheat varieties that showed good adaptation to organic, and then scored each variety at each stage of various tests.

They baked bread and cooked the grains, scoring for flavor using a flavor wheel. Historic variety Red Fife scored the highest in bread but lower in the cooked grains category. Warthog variety scored at the top in flavor among cooked grains, but last in flavor among breads.

“Bakers can make excellent bread out of many kinds of wheat,” Dawson says. “I think baking evaluations are critical. Bakers learn how to make breads that are more stable in different environments.”