Bread Quality: If it was easy, everyone would do it.
Date Matt Salis - Owner, Great Harvest Bread Co. of Denver
Our three-year-old, Andrew, loves big machines. We cannot walk past a construction site in our neighborhood without stopping to gawk at the cement mixer or backhoe. Cranes working on downtown skyscraper projects are amazing to Andrew, farm equipment working in the fields along the highway always catch his eye and fire trucks with lights and sirens blazing throw him into sensory overload. Every time he comes into the bakery he races over to our giant Hobart mixer to see what is in the bowl. If the mixer is not mixing, he settles for staring at the rapidly firing blades of the bread slicer with all of its glorious jackhammer-like sound effects. It is no wonder that Andrew’s favorite videos are educational documentaries with knee nibbler appropriate narration about big machines and the work that they do. Andrew has three older siblings. We know that he will soon trade his infatuation with three story tall dump trucks for a cartoon yellow sponge that can talk and works in an under-the-sea fast food grease pit. My wife and I both cling with both hands to this time when learning about how salt is mined or how trees are turned into lumber creates huge eyes and an astonished look of amazement. That is just my reaction…Andrew seems to really like what he is learning too.
Andrew and I recently watched one of these big machine educational videos about how big factory mass produced bread is made. We have been in the bread business for ten years now. I know how Wonder or Orowheat makes bread. Most of you have a pretty good idea about it too. Still, it amazed me to watch this process that started with flour and water make it all the way through to a bagged loaf of sliced bread without a single encounter from a single human being. No one adjusted the temperature of the water or other ingredients to account for the atmospheric variables like changes to air temperature or humidity levels. Each field of wheat produces grains with different moisture contents and protein levels. This has to be accounted for with adjustments made during the bread making process. Yet, no one felt the dough after mixing to consider adding more flour or water. Like everything in this 100% automated process, proof time was machine controlled. No on put their hand on top of the loaves to feel yeast activity or decide if proof volume meant the bread was ready for the oven. Certainly no one looked at or felt the loaves coming out of the oven to use multiple senses to determine if the bread was baked to perfection.
I am not trying to make it sound like baking bread is rocket science. It is not. In fact, it is not a science at all. It is an art. To make great bread starting with ingredients that are found naturally within the earth’s bounty you have to artistically maneuver through the variables that things that grow in dirt for several months of changing weather in Montana have. While we have tried whispering to the bees, we have been unable to eliminate variation from honey. When you make bread from 100% stone ground whole wheat, water, honey, yeast and salt, you have to know what to look for, feel for and even smell for to make your loaf a work of art. The alternative is to grind wheat, pull stuff out of it (including most of the nutrients), add stuff back (like artificial nutrients in exact proportions), use dough conditioners and stabilizers, insert variable battling additives and preservatives, keep the costs down by including fillers and use computers and other machines to regulate things and eliminate variables.
The artist making bread from wheat, water, honey, yeast and salt embraces variables because he or she sees the beauty in them and can convince them to work together to create great things. The big factory mass producing bakery’s mere existence depends on its ability to eliminate variables and duplicate the same thing over and over and over and over again without any room for creativity and certainly without any room for nature.
Making natural, delicious, nutritious, beautiful bread is absolutely an art form. It did not take a big machine video about factory bread production to convince me of this fact (although it was interesting to be reminded of the differences between us and our competition). It took a really bad spring and early summer of battling variables and making some pretty crappy bread to permanently ingrain in us both an intense fear and a firm belief that artistically making bread is not for everyone…and it is certainly not easy. If you will please excuse my dramatic cliché, this spring we faced a perfect storm of ingredient variables the likes of which we have not seen in our ten years of wheat grinding and bread baking experience. Our wheat was great wheat. Our honey was great honey. Our bakers were and still are great people with literally decades of experience between them. This new batch of wheat we received this spring when mixed with this a new batch of honey yielded less than great results. It took us weeks to identify that variable that were causing us issues and weeks of trial and error experiments to get our bread back on track. In the mean time, our bread works of art looked like Andrew’s finger paintings. We had odd shaped loaves, loaves with holes throughout, slumped over loaves and loaves that crumbled way too easily. It was a stressful and disappointing time in the life of our happy little bakery. However, it was a time that is best described with one more cliché…that which does not kill us makes us stronger.
And stronger we now are. We understand what our wheat and our honey need to again bake works of art in which we take great pride. In fact, all this attention to our wheat grinding, dough mixing, kneading, proofing and baking has made us better and more observant. I would argue that our little bakery has never made better bread than we are making right now. It is funny how if you take for granted something you think you have mastered it can all go terribly wrong. If you give it constant attention, however, you can improve to a place you did not previously know existed. This sounds like bragging. I suppose it is a little. Really this has been a most humbling experience.
We are sharing our challenges because it is the right thing to do. Maybe you were not the lucky recipient of a good loaf from a bad batch. Maybe you received a mediocre or worse loaf of bread and wondered what was up. Maybe you started to think we changed the recipe to cut costs or increase productivity. Maybe you thought we took our eye off the ball a little. Maybe you thought we just did not care as much any more. Maybe you stopped thinking the bread was worth it…worth the extra stop or worth the price or worth getting harassed about taking a slice of bread from the bread board. Maybe we are telling you of our difficulties because we need you to know that we know that we struggled for a while. We also need you to know we are back to proudly and with expertise stone grinding the finest high plains wheat and baking it into works of art.
We would like the opportunity to prove it to you. If you received a loaf that was a disappointment, please come to our bakery and let us make it up to you. If our bread was not on its own compelling you into the bakery for more bread when you finished a loaf, please listen to what our current bread has to say. If we have just dropped out of your routine or you have kind of forgotten about us, please let us refresh your memory. Even if you have remained devoutly loyal during our challenging spring and early summer, please let us thank you for your business. We want to give you all a loaf of bread.
Anyone who visits us in our bakery on South Colorado Boulevard and references this e-mail between now and Saturday, September 21, 2013 will receive a free loaf of Honey Whole Wheat. All you have to do to receive your gift loaf is to remember the five 100% natural ingredients we use to artistically hand craft it for you: wheat, water, honey, yeast and salt. That is it…no strings attached. Just say those five magic words and we will be honored that you continue to support us as we ask if you would like your loaf sliced or unsliced. We are excited to give each family who reads this one loaf of bread. We are doing this on the honor system. We have great customers and we trust you.
Big machines are impressive…to three-year-olds and forty-year-olds alike. They remind us of how powerful human invention and ingenuity can be. In the case of the machines in the big mass producing bread factories, they also remind us how impersonal and unnatural much of our food has become. They make bread from processed ingredients and food chemical for whoever living wherever. At Great Harvest, we make bread by hand from ingredients harvested from nature for our friends and neighbors living in our Denver neighborhoods. There is a difference. It is a difference your body and soul can feel and taste. Please let us prove it to you. Come in for your free loaf soon. Our bakery artists will be ready for you.
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Great Harvest Bread Co.
765 South Colorado Boulevard
Denver, Colorado 80246
Open Mon. - Fri. 6am - 3pm
Sat. 8am - 3pm, Closed Sun.