These Bakers Are Leading the Artisanal Bread Revolution
After years of anti-carb hullabaloo, bread is back and arguably better than ever.
Jonathan Bethony, head baker and co-owner of Seylou, in Washington, D.C.’s increasingly trendy Shaw neighborhood, rarely incorporates vegetables into his breads — they threaten the intricate structure of crust and bubbles he works so hard to achieve. But on a Sunday morning in October, he throws caution to the wind. Besides, the Nicola potatoes are particularly lovely, and from a local farmer who provides him with grain.
Bethony, bearded and sinewy, wears a skullcap, black T-shirt and work pants, each dusted with varying degrees of flour. “Look,” he says, summoning two bakers to watch as he gingerly lowers the unbaked loaves onto an oven peel. “You want to turn these.” He rotates the loaves so the seam is to one side, rather than underneath, then pushes the dough into Seylou’s gargantuan, customized oven.
“That’s the classic shape of potato bread,” he says. “You bake it like a bâtard, on its side, so it will rupture when baked.”
He pauses, and smiles at his potato rebellion. “It’s the first time I’ve done that one here.”
That potato bread, and Bethony’s ability to spontaneously produce it, are the culmination of years of patient training on two continents. It contains two hard winter wheat varieties (Alice and Appalachian) and one soft red winter wheat (Pennol), all ground in Seylou’s mill to Bethony’s specifications, which are generally finer and more consistent than those of high-volume commercial mills.
Baker Jonathan Bethony.
Bethony epitomizes the passions and predilections of a new wave of bakers popping up around the United States. An obsessive, soulful tribe, these artisans work with grain varieties sometimes called heritage, heirloom or ancient, and meticulously mill them themselves for a more delicate, fresher flour that behaves just the way they want it to. They also work closely with small farms, often for ethical reasons. It’s a costly, high-maintenance approach, and a striking departure from the autopilot mode that pervades the profession, especially in industrial kitchens. “I’ve taken off a lot of the controls that make baking mechanical and simplistic,” says Bethony. “I have manual control of the essential levers that manipulate all those minute details and create what essentially is a big art project and tap into where the music is.”
For a sample of that music I try one of his croissants. It’s a deep, chestnut brown. I’m anticipating the rough mouthfeel of typical whole-grain bread, but instead, crisp layers give way to a beguiling body of webby honeycombs. Most arresting is what plays out on the palate: There is almost none of the richness of conventional croissants—instead there is the sweet nuttiness of the wheat, only really perceiving butter on the finish.
“In general, in pastry, grain is not considered integral to flavor,” says Bethony. “It’s structural. But when using whole grains they become the star of the show. Normally butter is the key flavor of a croissant; here, the grain is surfing on the butter.”
Why is this upstart baker reinterpreting something as revered as a croissant? Like other worshippers of whole grains, Bethony points to not just their flavor, but also their purity. They are relatively rich in nutrients, don’t subject you to a blood-sugar roller coaster, and leave you fuller (not bloated) longer.
Rolled croissants ready for baking.
Seylou utilizes more than 25 varieties of grain, often mingling them, so the possibilities are endless. There’s nutty, earthy buckwheat in its breads, granola and gluten-free muffins; complex einkorn in its croissants, financiers, tart dough and scones; and cara, a soft white winter wheat, in its autumn holiday pies. Bethony also calls on obscure grains such as the hard red Redeemer and Suntava purple corn, all sourced from farms within a three-hour radius of Seylou.
Some of Seylou’s breads look almost burnt, but looks can be deceiving. To prove it, Bethony pushes on the deep brown crust of a pain au levain, letting it spring back. “See how it’s tender?” he asks. “If it was charred, it would crumble away. This is very well developed crust.”
Another element of control at Bethony’s fingertips is his mill. Most bakeries receive bags of flour. Seylou receives sacks of threshed grain, allowing Bethony to mill to his own specifications for each purpose. Additionally, Bethony and his team use the flour within a day and a half of milling (some bakeries might use flour that’s months old) to preserve liveliness and freshness.
A former musician and singer from Upstate New York, Bethony turned to baking following a spiritual, introspective chain reaction that began while studying drumming in the relative quietude of the Republic of Senegal, West Africa. Back in the United States, down on his luck and at what he calls “rock bottom” and seeking a change, he was intrigued by a bandmate’s bread making, tried his hand at it, and was immediately hooked. From there he set out on a quest for knowledge, training at the San Francisco Baking Institute, researching at Washington State University’s Bread Lab, and flowering in collaboration with chef Dan Barber at the acclaimed Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, New York. He and his wife, visual designer Jessica Azeez, opened Seylou in 2017.
Farmer Heinz Thomet in Newburg, Maryland.
Seylou’s creativity with diverse whole grains requires the right kind of farmer to play along. Among his collaborators, Bethony has found an especially kindred spirit in Swiss-born farmer Heinz Thomet of Next Step Produce in Newburg, Maryland, in Newburg, Maryland, about 45 miles south of D.C. Thomet, whose ample gray beard and expressive blue eyes give him a sage-like presence, quotes farmer-poet Wendell Berry on his website (“What are people for?”), and sees standard agriculture as being at war with nature. His land, once used for tobacco, is now a tapestry of diverse and ever-changing organic crops ranging from tomatoes, ginger and fava beans to grains such as barley, buckwheat, millet, rice and more. His methodology is called regenerative farming, and it uses cover crops, crop rotation and composting to enrich the soil for more nutritious produce. He also believes his labor-intensive practice helps combat climate change by sequestering CO2 in the dirt.
“Jonathan’s bread is a vote for bread made a certain way, supporting certain things,” says Thomet. Bethony recognizes the symbiosis. “I ideally would like a business or farm to do the most ethical thing they can do towards the land and the community with the most integrity possible. Right now I feel like the system is avarice-driven. I’m trying to build an awareness and understanding of how important those farmers are for our survival.”
The relationship between the two men, and many of the threads of this emerging subset of bakers, is neatly summarized by Seylou’s horse bread, a dense, oblong, coffee-colored loaf with seeds visible in its crust, and a flavor Bethony describes as “savory, earthy, hearty yet supple.”
“It encapsulates our philosophy of using the whole farm,” he continues. “It employs a whole cycle of cover crop that Heinz uses when producing wheat—black turtle beans, which help take nitrogen out of the atmosphere and put it back in the soil; sorghum and millet, which are both flavorful and nutritive; Camelina seeds, legumes and barley.”
The bread also underscores the time-warp nature of this community with roots that date back centuries. “All the non-wheat crops were once made into a bread that was fed to livestock,” says Bethony. “If you pulled into a medieval inn, you’d sit down and have your bread and butter and the horse would get the horse bread in the stables.”
Jessica Azeez with Roman pizza.
Bethony and Thomet share the belief that an individual can influence the world around them, and see their work as having the power to—one bite at a time—change how people regard their choices. “I grow food in a way that puts nutrients back in the ground and takes care of the earth,” says Thomet. “Jonathan is the next step in what we are doing; he makes bread that nourishes people, that doesn’t just fill their bellies. We need people who buy, who say, ‘Yes, this is of importance.’”
Bethony, Azeez and Thomet are not alone in their quest for better bread and a better way to honor the planet. It’s hard to say where the current movement started, but an early practitioner was San Francisco-based Josey Baker, an influence on Bethony, who opened Josey Baker Bread in 2010, adding an adjacent mill in 2013. Baker purchases most of his whole grain from farmer Fritz Durst, whose Tule Farms is about 90 miles away in the Sacramento Valley.
Many of these bakers make supporting local farmers a central mission of their work. Baker specifically chose Durst because he wanted “a farmer who was as close to the bakery as possible, who was organic, and ideally with wheat available in quantities that if we wanted to, we could use them year round.”
Baker acknowledges that the extra effort isn’t all about flavor. “If we’re just talking about the eating experience, could I make a bread that’s 85 to 90 percent as good with high-quality whole-grain flour that I didn’t mill yesterday, or a month ago? Yes, that’s totally possible, if you do all the other things right.” Baker doesn’t regard himself as merely a baker, but also a craftsperson, artist and community member. He says all of those roles factor into his business decisions. “The reason I’m doing things the way I’m doing them is all of my priorities.”
Dusting the pain au levain at Seylou.
James Brown, proprietor of Barton Springs Mill in Dripping Springs, Texas, on the outskirts of Austin, finds similar purpose in his work. As he and his wife approached retirement age, Brown—an avid baker who started the mill in 2016 as a “side hustle”—became so consumed with it that, within a year, he quit his job to devote himself to milling full-time. Today, he mills upwards of 60 varieties of wheat and sells to bakeries, restaurants, distilleries and home bakers. He is moving into a new 17,500-square-foot facility, adding an on-site bakery serving retail and wholesale customers.
Best sellers for Brown include Rouge de Bordeaux, a 19th-century bread wheat favored by French bakers for its notes of cinnamon, molasses and baking spices, and an all-purpose flour, comprising Rouge de Bordeaux and Sonora, which boasts what Brown describes as a buttery flavor verging on creamed corn.
David Norman of Easy Tiger Bake Shop and Beer Garden in Austin says he sources all of his flour from Barton Springs mainly for “flavor, flavor, and more flavor,” but also to help foster a local grain economy.
“I started out just wanting a good loaf of bread,” says Brown, whose constant communication with farmers gave him a crash course in their challenges. “I inadvertently became an activist for the farmer and concerned with the plight of the farmer in this day and age.”
Finished pain au levain.
Much of the challenge, for farmer and baker, stems from deep-seated consumer expectation that bread should be dirt cheap, or free. From biblical references to manna from heaven to restaurants’ complimentary bread baskets to inexpensive mass-produced white bread, Americans have been conditioned to devalue even the best, most labor-intensive loaf. “It’s the last piece of the puzzle in the farm-to-table movement,” says Brown. “The price of wheat has not risen in 30 years; how do you expect farmers to stay in business? It’s not possible, or sustainable. I say $8 to $10 for a 1,000-gram [approximately two-pound] boule of bread is where the discussion has to be.”
Back on the east coast, Joshua Bellamy, Sam Kirkpatrick and Fulton Forde launched Boulted Bread in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 2014, and have become known for a small and consistent roster of breads and baked goods. They make their baguettes with organic Turkey Red wheat flour and toasted cornmeal, and their levain with Turkey Red and organic spelt. Why Turkey Red? “It’s super malty and the bran is mild and less bitter than other wheat brans,” says Kirkpatrick. They, too, pride themselves on milling. “The mill is literally front and center in our bakery,” he says. “It’s the first thing you see when you walk in the door, which immediately creates curiosity on the part of our customers.”
For Bellamy, baking is a near addiction that threatens familial and social relationships: “Deep down inside there’s this quest to bake this perfect loaf and you know you’ll never reach that destination. It can drive you a little crazy if you let it.”
Many of these bakers, forced to slow down by the process of milling, proofing, baking and resting, also seem to operate on their own temporal plane at a remove from the modern world. Or maybe that’s what drew them to it. In his previous career, Brown specialized in classical music, specifically from the 17th and 18th centuries. “People who are interested in fresh milled flour or bread are generally interested in things that have been forgotten, or different ways of experiencing the world, at a slower pace and in a very tactile way,” says Kirkpatrick.
Brown hypothesizes that he and his baking soul mates are “trying to evoke a sense of time and place, working with erstwhile varietals, bringing back something about a previous time.”
For Bethony and Azeez, it’s slightly different. “So much is happening that’s unseen, from the bacteria to the starter. Baking is a very contemplative path,” says Azeez. Bethony adds, “It seems obvious and simple and not very involved on the outside, but once you dive in, it’s all about nuance. Baking is sensitivity training. The more sensitive you are, the better baker you will be. It’s a dance with the unseen.”