Bakery owner Doug Michael of Columbia County Bread & Granola vividly recalls the summer of 2009, when he built a pushcart and baked about 20 loaves of sprouted grain bread for the local Bloomsburg, Penn., farmers’ market. The town of Bloomsburg (population 14,000), located in the central part of the state, has a rich history, according to local officials, and one in which the turn of the century brought about a substantial change to the local economy once iron ore was exhausted and the agricultural base was depleted. Textile mills began to locate in Bloomsburg, employing many people and enhancing the local economy. Today, Bloomsburg boasts a diverse economy thanks to Autoneum, Geisinger-Bloomsburg Hospital, Bloomsburg University, and a downtown community of small businesses from shops to restaurants.

“Sprouted should be its own category. When people buy food, particularly online, they see categories such as paleo and gluten free. But there needs to be a sprouted grain category because sprouted fundamentally alters grain,” Michael explains. “Pre-industrial cultures utilized grain in their diets, but they all knew that grain has to be prepared before eating it.”

Moving forward, “I’m looking really closely at what we can do with Kernza. We just got Kernza in after signing a license agreement with The Land Institute, and we find it sprouts quickly and is a very clean grain. It seems to have a low gluten content as the dough lacks extensibility, but we’re still able to make a cracker with it either by mixing it with sprouted wheat or using a press. As awareness of Kernza grows and people understand the enormous implications of what it might mean for a sustainable and healthy food supply, we want to find ways of making Kernza products people love and search out.”

As with many local bakeries, Columbia County Bread traces its beginnings to hard work, integrity, innovation, and a bit of luck. “Though the loaves were sprouted, I was still using about 20% flour for finishing but experimenting with flax seed to try to draw down the moisture in the loaves rather than using flour,” Michael recalls. “The flax didn’t work, but I liked what happened to flax seeds when they got wet; they cluster, making a unique flax seed granola.”

A bread customer came to the market one day, Michael recalls, and reported he was on his way to see a woman who was a nutritionist and wanted to bring her something from the market. “I gave him a sample of the flax granola, not sure what I was going to do with it, and I asked if he could get her thoughts. She called. She had been looking everywhere for someone making a flax seed granola and none existed. We met. I followed her specific directions. She wrote a book called ‘The Plan’ and in 2013 went on The Dr. Oz show. In that instant, I went from myself and two helpers to a crew of nearly 30. We moved into our own facility and here we are today.”

Of science and opinion

When people ask Michael what kind of bread is healthiest, he always responds, Who’s your baker? “If there’s no individual behind the bread, look elsewhere,” he answers. “Find a baker in your neighborhood and support them. Ask that baker if he or she works with a sourdough and buy those loaves. If they offer a sprouted grain bread, try that as well.”

The baker admits that he mainly learns from his customers and what they tell him. Initially, the bakery catered mainly to diabetics who inform him that the bread does not spike their blood sugar response. “Lately, we’re seeing a lot of ‘bread refugees,’ people who once loved bread but decided they could not eat it due to gluten or general wheat allergies until they found us.”

The bakers at Columbia County Bread are careful to source grain exclusively from area growers they know, and they only buy organic. They soak the berries for approximately 24 hours. The soak involves repeated rinses; this cleans the grain as they drain off discoloration, un-hulled grain, weed matter, etc. The goal is to have the wheat clean and the water running clear.

“We think this cleansing with water is essential in our sprouting process and the only way you can do it is to commit to sprouted grain,” Michael explains. “Once the grain has sprouted with the visible emergence of the radical (beginning of the root system), we drain the water and grind the sprouts into a course mash; what we call our proto-dough. To that we add a small amount of sea salt and our unique sprouted sourdough starter. The health of the starter and its vigor means everything to our bread’s structure and ability to rise. The starter is constantly fed with sprouted mash and kept in a cool environment until we need it. Once we grind the sprouted grain and mix in the starter, we have a fairly limited amount of time to weigh, shape, proof and bake -- sprouting degrades gluten -- so if anything slows us up (an oven goes down, say) we often see the loaves tearing and deflating.”

Catering to a cause

The benefits of flour free bread are strictly for the consumer, he explains. Making bread with flour makes the process much simpler and much less constrained by time and temperature, he adds. It also makes it a lot easier to add in ingredients, such as gluten, yeast, enhancers, and preservatives that can offer a more standardized loaf with a longer shelf life.  

The advantages of working without flour is for the consumer, Michael says. The flavor and texture of the bread is nearly beyond description.

“We like to say our crumb has teeth and bites back because you can taste and feel the components of the grain with every bite,” he says. “The pita bread is perfect to me; it’s versatile, you can use it as a bun or like an English muffin or a small pizza crust.  We size it to fit into the toaster and even after it’s been frozen it comes out of the toaster very much like it came out of our ovens.  Soft, warm and durable, you can stuff our pitas and they don’t fall apart.”

Given that the bread and pita are perishable, the bakery wanted to take its dough and offer something that they could sell to stores and a distributor. For this reason, they came up with crisps, which are rapidly becoming their best-selling product.

Pizza crust is something the bakery developed for its local retail outlet that caught on rapidly. They decided to offer it online “and it’s doing really well for us.”

The bakers also developed a ciabatta, a wrap, a soft pretzel and even a bagel that they are testing at the retail outlet but have not put those items into full production yet.

 “I don’t think gluten is the issue for most people, particularly when it comes to sourdough breads,” Michael says. “I would argue that our industrial food system saw gluten as a component that was useful. As such, it was extracted at an industrial scale and became a binder and you would find gluten in all kinds of foods. That’s changed. And I think that’s a positive.”

When the bakery owner reads gluten sensitivity tests, he notices that researchers gave participants capsules containing gluten to test their sensitivity to gluten and then derived results that showed a high non-celiac sensitivity to gluten. “The problem here is that very few people I know eat a pure unadulterated form of gluten in capsule form,” he says. “This would be like testing sensitivity to apples by extracting fructose, administering it in capsule form then concluding that apples are reactive because they contain fructose.”

Moving forward, Michael says consumer education plays a critical role in his company’s success. Columbia County doesn’t add preservatives, and the bread, pita and pizza crusts freeze very well. They guarantee all product. “If you get our bread and it molds before you get it into your freezer, we’ll reship or refund. Long term, our goal is to limit sales to one day ground shipping.”