Once upon a time in America, tens of thousands of flour mills stood majestically across the plains. Today, there are fewer than 200 flour mills in the United States, according to the US Department of Agriculture, and scores have closed within the century. Yet spurred on by the promise of the local food movement and the push toward sustainable agriculture, renewed energy and new investors are helping drive and support a notable shift in America’s grain and milling sectors.

Two key factors drive the movement: increased supply of local specialty grains to support local and regional mills, and new mills at the retail and wholesale bakery level in efforts to complement — but not replace — existing flour supplies.  

Under the direction of head baker and partner Avery Ruzicka, Manresa Bread in Los Gatos, California, strives to source the best artisanal products available, from grains and cereals to produce and dairy, creating their best interpretation of classic bread and pastries using time-honored techniques, fermentation processes, and baking traditions. Her bakery installed a 48-inch stone mill from New American Stone Mill in Vermont. The majority of the grains used at Manresa Bread are milled in-house. 

“We are looking to incorporate more fresh flour. I much prefer that depth of flavor,” says Ruzicka, who has plans to use fresh-milled flour for new products including pasta, pizza and bagels. “We are going into our fifth year, and the big thing we are most excited about is enhancing our menu. We are about to roll out a Detroit-style whole grain pizza to give our customers a fun new experience. That will continue every Wednesday. We are also going to do sourdough bagels once a week.”

Founded in 2013, Manresa Bread has three retail locations in the San Francisco Bay Area and is available at Verve Coffee Roasters locations in Santa Cruz and San Francisco. The bakery produces more than 3,500 loaves of bread a week, using more than 4,000 pounds of organic flour. More than 2,000 pounds of this flour is freshly milled in-house each week. Manresa Bread produces its bread and pastries in a 3,400-square-foot commissary kitchen located down the street from the Los Gatos retail space.

In other parts of the country, Bellegarde Bakery in New Orleans is a wholesale bakery providing fresh flour and bread to more than 100 restaurants and markets in Louisiana. One of Bellegarde’s head bakers, Morgan Angelle, says they use a 40-inch granite stone mill to mill their flour, producing nearly 5,000 loaves of bread a week. They mill about six varieties of grain.

“Being able to do our own milling and baking test is a great advantage to having our own stone mill. I always like to know what is out there and what our most trusted farmers are growing and why,” Angelle says. “Before making a new grain purchase, we always mill a sample of the harvest to perform our own test. We do prefer a higher protein flour (12% to 15%), but more important is the quality of the protein.”

Why collaboration matters

Greg Wade, head baker for Publican Quality Bread in Chicago and winner of the 2019 James Beard Outstanding Baker award, loves working with others to test local and regional varieties of wheat, rye and oats.

“We are a founding member of the Artisan Grain Collaborative here in Chicago, a group whose reach has now spread to most of the Midwest. It is a group of farmers, bakers, millers, plant breeders and university extensions all working together to create a stronger regional grain system.”

The Artisan Grain Collaborative is constantly testing new varieties over different soil types and climate conditions, performing bake and flavor tests among other programs with the end goal of more grain being grown and used in all culinary and even beverage applications.

“By working together with everyone in the grain value chain, we are able to overcome a lot of hurdles that most of us wouldn’t be able to accomplish working alone,” Wade says.

Tracing back to landrace grains

Glenn Roberts, the founder of Anson Mills in Charleston, South Carolina, shares that landrace grains don’t follow the rules; they adapt to the specific environment where they are grown. “Everything we do is based on flavor, impact, truth and future security,” Roberts says. “There are a lot of things to play with that are of antiquity. Take what you don’t know and turn it into fabulous food.”

Roberts is regarded as a pivotal pioneer in bringing landrace grains (prehybridized varieties of corn, wheat, rice and other grains) back from extinction. At one time in his career, Roberts helped plan restaurant menus that were intended to offer period-authentic dishes. There was a huge obstacle. Not only did supplies of heirloom ingredients not exist; they were extinct. In particular, grains of the era like Carolina Gold rice, lynchpin of the Antebellum cuisine of South Carolina, were nearly impossible to source.

Roberts started by growing small-plot Carolina Gold in Charleston and worked with a rice geneticist in Texas to reinvigorate the seed, which, through neglect and inactivity, had begun to display characteristics of its sister rice, Carolina White. To support his experiments in Carolina Gold, he began to research other regional heirloom grains of the era that he could throw into production more quickly. The research began with corn.

In 1995, Roberts explored rural back roads looking for the famous white Carolina mill corn that was revered in Antebellum plantation inventories and recipes for its high mineral and floral characteristics and its creamy mouthfeel. He found this corn in a bootlegger’s field near Dillon, South Carolina, in 1997, and planted and harvested his own first crop of 30 acres in 1998.

Known as Carolina Gourdseed White, the single-family hand-select dated back to the late 1600s. When Roberts passed the Gourdseed grits around to chefs in Charleston and Atlanta, they were eager for more.

By 2001, Roberts was able to take on full production of certified organic Carolina Gold rice and a “Thirteen Colony” wheat called Red May. He also does polycrop grains that consist of multi-species plots of specialty grains. In addition, Anson Mills grows Japanese buckwheat, French oats and Mediterranean wheat and Italian farro.

Rising in the Northwest

In the Pacific Northwest, Cairnspring Mill’s key partners include Patagonia’s venture capital fund Tin Shed Ventures, the Port of Skagit, Camas Country Mill and Washington State University’s The Bread Lab, as well as local farmers. A multiple-year project included a stop in Scandinavia where the partners worked with a milling company to develop a roller mill/stone mill hybrid. Cainspring Mills currently has a capacity of 5-6 million pounds of flour per year, focusing on serving smaller bakeries that use between 500 pounds and 1,000 pounds of European-style bread flours per week. For example, San Francisco’s acclaimed Tartine Bakery is a key customer.

Kevin Morse, chief executive officer of Cairnspring Mills, is co-founder of Cairnspring Mills with Tom Hunton, owner of Camas Country Mill, which operates a stone mill in Oregon’s Willamette Valley and focuses on whole grain flours. At Cairnspring, the milling process involves multiple steps: tempering the wheat, a roller break, then to the stone mill, and finally a sift at the end prior to the finished flour. Cairnspring Mills works with nearly a dozen wheat farmers in Washington and Oregon, where they often produce extremely high yields (100 to 150 bushels per acre) of winter wheat. Now, their goal is to help rebuild the local farm community. “We pay growers $1.50 to $2 a bushel more than commodity wheat,” Morse says. “The bar is definitely higher, and they have to earn it.”

Supporting local sources

In Ann Arbor, Michigan, Zingerman’s Bakehouse is tapping into more local grains than ever after installing a 26-inch stone mill from New American Stone Mills. “Now we are buying the berries of grains and milling daily and injecting freshly milled flours into all sorts of recipes,” says Frank Carollo, a managing partner for Zingerman’s Bakehouse. “We make a fougasse with freekeh, Michigan spelt and Warthog grown in Illinois. We make a porridge, and that’s a super delicious bread. Our new breads are featuring freshly milled whole grains, and typically a combination of them.” 

Prominent flavor

Jan Schat, a professional bread consultant who is a Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie champion, points out quite simply that flavor is playing a much more prominent role in the craft bread world of today. There are more specialty ingredients and local grains for bakers to work with, and although some can get expensive, bakers can be excited by the possibilities. He has baked breads that include a low percentage (10%) of a single varietal whole grain flour with wonderful results. He’s done so in classics like French baguettes, resulting in “phenomenal” flavors. “Small additions of single varietals into liquid levains, or poolish, bring out interesting flavors. I find that to be exciting,” Schat says. “To me, it’s nice if you can transition people into better flavor and nutrition. It’s an exciting world of flavor that is definitely worth pursuing.