Inside the weathered, white barn that sits at the end of a gravel road, huge vats encompass the room — gravity boxes that hold up to 300 bushels each — filled with soft and hard wheats, oats, spelt, open-pollinated corn, emmer, and einkorn. The dust and particles from the grain turns the air cloudy. Breathe deep and it smells rich, nutty, and sweet. A milling room tucks around the corner from the stored grain, a well-lit, spotless space framed by metal shelving stacked with flour-filled plastic containers. In the center, a mill sits on display like a museum piece, except it sees plenty of use.
As demand continues to grow, a tension has arisen between bakers and distillers over the acquisition of quality grain.
With vats of grain and this mill, you'd think that Weatherbury Farm was gearing up to provide local bakers and pastry chefs with the flour and soft wheats needed to bake country loaves, baguettes, tarts, and croissants. But mostly, Weatherbury Farm is growing grain for booze. The farm sells 50 percent of its grain to distillers, 25 percent to members of CSAs, and the rest to bakers.
For small, organic farmers like the Tudors, distilleries make preferable clients for several reasons. First, growers need reliable buyers, and with consumers more willing to shell out for booze than bread, distilleries can offer grain farmers at least double the purchasing power. Distilleries are also less demanding than bakers in that they can use grain that has more varied protein levels and falling numbers — a term for the degree of sprouting damage caused by humidity and rain. Bakeries, on the other hand, require high grade, high-protein, very clean wheat.
The rise of both craft bakeries and distilleries has introduced diners to more flavorful, interesting grain-based products than ever before. Yet as the market and demand for grain continues to grow, a tension has arisen over the acquisition of quality grain, one that's affecting bakers' progress — in some markets — in the short term. Is there enough quality grain to go around? And how are some businesses, bakers, and distillers working together to ensure local quality grains are accessible and affordable?
The fall of heirloom grains
Prioritizing grain for distilleries represents a departure from historical precedent. From the Levant through the Mediterranean to the Americas, bread held a position at the center of the table. What kind of bread a person ate showed whether he lived in the city or country and whether he was rich or poor. Lower classes ate dark breads or bread made from millet, while city dwellers ate wheat breads: The whiter the flour, the higher a person's position. As a result, distillers were last in line when it came to divvying out grain. Bakers and brewers held priority, followed by animals — feed for livestock was prioritized because the distillation process neutralized impurities. (For the uninitiated, distilleries need starch in the form of grains like corn, rye, or wheat, which is turned into a mash, fermented, distilled, blended and aged before it results in a ready-to-drink spirit.)
Staple grains — wheat, barley and rice — had been the foundation for cuisine around the world and a factor in the rise and fall of empires, Clifford Wright writes in A Mediterranean Feast. Much of this grain was later introduced to the New World. The U.S. hosted hundreds of varieties of heirloom wheat, from the red and white lammas wheats imported from Europe, Scottish fife, Spanish durum, German hard winter wheat, and a range of French and Italian wheats.
"We are lacking a basic grain literacy. It’s because most bakers, and everyone else, were trained to use commodity flour."
Heritage grains' stronghold changed with the rise of automation in the 20th century, which ensured that, generation by generation, Americans in particular would lose literacy about such an essential ingredient. "We miss the point over and over again," says Glenn Roberts, the grain guru who founded Anson Mills, a leader in bringing back heritage varieties of rice, corn, wheat, and oats. Roberts was talking about one of the last stretches during which demand for interesting grains increased the U.S. — right after World War II, when soldiers returned from France and demanded crusty breads and baguettes like those created in the kitchens abroad.
"We are lacking a basic grain literacy even among professionals," says June Russell, manager of farm inspections and strategic development for GrowNYC. Since 2009, she's headed up the Regional Grain Project, which requires that any baked good sold at the Greenmarkets contain 15 percent regionally-grown grain. "People don't know the difference between winter and spring wheat, or what to do with flours of varying gluten quality. It's because most bakers, and everyone else, were trained to use commodity flour."
Roller-milled white flour — the kind that's sold in five-pound bags for $5 to $7 — is produced by large mills, and the $2 and $3 bread loaves sold in grocery stores are among the most processed foods on store shelves. Bleached or not, cheap flour can contain potassium bromate, a stabilizer classified as a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and banned for use in food products in the European Union, Canada, and China. It's not just the flour that's problematic. Some bakeries leave out the fermentation process altogether, adding dough conditioners, an additive that lengthens shelf life and makes over-worked dough less dense. This results in bread that's hard to digest, and the additives ensure high gluten levels.
The grain revival — propelled in part by consumers' desire for naturally-leavened bread made from quality grain — is the last frontier in a locavore movement that's just beginning to take shape, led by wheat breeders, farmers, and bakers like Dave Miller of Miller's Bake House in Butte County, California and Dave Bauer of Farm & Sparrow in Asheville, NC. But according to Russell, both quality-grain processors and the bakers interested in using the grain are still on a "learning curve." She recounts a story about a baker who ordered fresh-milled quality grains, only to find that a good percentage of it had excessive starch damage, rendering it unusable. "That would never happen with a commercial mill. The miller would recognize it. There would be lab tests; it wouldn't even even leave the building," she says. "It's a reality check of where the 'system' is, which is still developing and professionalizing."
It's not just professionals who have a lot to learn, it's consumers. People balk at paying close to $10 for a loaf of bread made with quality grain that, minus commercial yeast and preservatives, actually lasts for days. Yet they'll pay $15 or more for a whiskey drink that's lucky to last an hour — which provides an incentive for distilleries to jump into the game.
Distilleries take the lead
Quality grain needs a bigger audience, and it's finding one in distilling. The last time craft distilleries used quality grains was before Prohibition; because industrialized flour wiped those grains out starting mid-century, these kinds of distilleries did not come back until recently — though it's a niche industry. Starting around 2008 and gaining momentum in 2011, more distillers wanted to experiment with small-batch distilling and explore whether spirits could have terroir.
The Greenmarket staff did not foresee the degree to which distilleries are the reason many grain farmers stay afloat. Neither did the farmers. "I'm lucky to have started milling the same year that the distillery act was passed," says Thor Oechsner, owner of Enfield, New York's Oechsner Farms and founding partner of Farmer Ground Flour in Trumansburg. That 2007 distillery law made it easier for small distillers to make a go of it, provided they're using a certain percentage of ingredients from New York state. This, combined with the 2014 Craft New York Act, loosened up requirements for local craft brewers, wineries, and distilleries. Combined with prior legislation, it benefits distilleries most.
"Had I known that when I started this business, I would have gone right to the booze."
Oechsner, who ships grain to Brooklyn Brewery in Williamsburg as well as Brooklyn Distilling, says that "New York's humidity and wet weather makes it harder to grow grain suitable for baking and brewing, but it's perfect for distilleries. Distilleries by a long shot are going to have an easier time of sourcing grain in New York. Had I known that when I started this business, I would have gone right to the booze."
So far, the Greenmarket is not having a problem meeting demands for its baked goods and flour, in part because it's sourcing from the entire Northeast region. "In general, there are more grains being grown and more is available for all markets," Russell says. Amber Lamke, president of Maine Grains in Skowhegan and a supplier to Greenmarket, confirms that "Maine has plenty [grain] to go around." Maine has a handful of distilleries, but as a miller, Lamke doesn't work with them, likely because many distilleries process their own. But Maine Grains does work with brewers, which is pretty progressive compared to many states. Lots of brewing communities haven't even tapped the quality grain market yet.
"I wouldn't be surprised if the brewer to baker ratio for sales are about fifty-fifty," says Lamke of a region that has roughly 1,000 to 1,500 acres devoted to food-grade grains. (That ratio may be a little higher in favor of brewer markets for the 70 or so microbreweries in the state.) "We're not maxed out at this point," Lamke says. "There's open farmland to the north with room to grow."
There may be enough grain to go around — for now — but it's more expensive for some customers. Some bakers don't love the fact that they're often shelling out close to $2 per pound for grains or flour, while the purchasing power of distilleries allows them to buy at prices under $1 per pound. The result is that distillers can walk right in front of bakers in line because they're more reliable customers. From the point of view of farmers, says Russell, "having distillers in the mix is really a godsend."
And some regions, like western Pennsylvania, could soon experience a scarcity of organic quality grains. Wigle Whiskey — pronounced "wiggle" and named for Philip Wigle, the Pennsylvania man who allegedly helped spark the Whiskey Rebellion in the Colonial era — opened in the Strip District neighborhood of Pittsburgh in 2011 with the goal of reintroducing terroir to spirits.
According to co-founder Meredith Grelli, bringing back Monongahela rye was a company goal. Old Overholt, before it was produced by Jim Beam, is the most widespread example of this Pennsylvania rye that may have earned its reputation by accident. In post-colonial times, whiskey was often imbibed soon after it was distilled, but this changed as the rye was shipped east, which resulted in aging that made for a better product.
In 2010, before Wigle opened, Grelli, her father, Mark Meyer and her brother Eric reached out to farmers when they decided they wanted to go organic. "We knew we'd be consuming a lot of grain," she says. "One of the best ways to influence regional grain production, protect the health of workers, and improve the quality of whiskey is to make an organic product."
"We anticipate more farmers and malting facilities getting into the game, and already, farmers can’t keep up."
Four years after making its first batch, Wigle Whiskey went through 140,000 pounds of corn, wheat, and rye. For 2017, Grelli projects Wigle will go through 400,000 pounds of grain. The sheer volume that a local distillery requires makes it a desirable client for farmers: Compare Wigle's numbers to that of a bakery that uses quality organic wheat. If a bakery is using 2,000 pounds in a month, that's pretty good, according to Jane Russell.
With growth such as Wigle's among the 12 or so distilleries in western Pennsylvania alone, Grelli is concerned about supply in the near future. "We anticipate more farmers and malting facilities getting into the game," she says. Wigle sources from five farms in Pennsylvania and one in Ohio. But already, "farmers can't keep up."
Not every new distillery that considers itself progressive is using organic grain. In Washington, DC, Republic Restoratives opened May 8 in Ivy City, a neighborhood that's becoming a food and drink hub. The woman-run distillery from Rachel Gardner, who has a background in sustainable natural resource development, and Pia Carusone, with a background in politics, debuted its line of Civic vodka opening week, but haven't made a batch of whiskey yet. Republic has secured its milling from a Maryland spot and they've sussed out projections for the first year. But one thing's for sure: Gardner, Carusone, and advisor/distilling expert Berle "Rusty" Figgins have come to the conclusion that there isn't enough organic grain in the Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia area to go around. So rather than use it to make spirits, they're shaping their practices by the belief that organic grains are meant for eating.
Why don't more small farmers grow quality grain?
Heritage and ancient grains like einkorn and emmer — whether or not it's organic — can get expensive. For organic certification, farmers have to jump through the hoops to comply with the requirements, which costs thousands of dollars in changeovers on the farm. Farmers also have to factor in equipment like seed cleaners and threshers that separate grain from husks along with infrastructure for storage.
"It's the immaturity of the system," says Dr. Stephen Jones, the geneticist, wheat breeder, and head of the Bread Lab, the think tank and baking laboratory at Washington State University. The Bread Lab is the epicenter for the coolest things going on in bread baking, as a team of researchers identifies and nurtures grains that are accessible and affordable for farmers and bakers in particular. It's a destination for visionaries like Arizona's Chris Bianco of Pizzeria Bianco, Dan Barber the chef/author at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, and Chad Robertson of Tartine Bakery.
According to Jones, the same potential shortages that can exist in a market like western Pennsylvania don't exist in his region, in part because farmers, distillers, bakers, and wheat breeders, have taken a different approach as well as planting more diversified crops. "The needs for bread are first," he says, "followed by distilleries, which will take grains for bread as well as lower-protein grain, since they're mainly looking for a starch source."
In Charleston, a symbiotic relationship is brewing between a local bakery and distillery.
Down south closer to Glenn Roberts territory, baker Chris Wilkins has been forced to get creative in sourcing grain. Last year, he opened a boutique bakery, Root Baking Co., on John's Island, SC, where he and his wife only use quality grains milled in-house — a practice becoming increasingly common among bread bakers. Fresh milled flour delivers an astonishing range of flavors, but in-house milling can also be marginally less expensive for small bakeries that don't have the resources for a bigger staff.
When he first opened, Wilkins immediately noted the lack of buying power he has compared to distilleries, and he sought advice from Roberts as well as experts at Clemson University. And he's also getting help from an unlikely ally: the Charleston-based High Wire Distillery.
High Wire Distilling, founded by husband-and-wife team Scott Blackwell and Ann Marshall in 2013, processes 1,000 pounds of grains a day, some of which are organic. With that kind of purchasing power, their weight holds sway with local farmers. By looping in Wilkins, he can ask farms to plant high-protein wheat suitable for baking that, if weather doesn't cooperate, will instead go to the distillery. "It's becoming a symbiotic relationship," Wilkins says of working with High Wire.
Back in Avella, the Tudors have convinced a conventional farmer next door to grow organic grains. "It's worth the switch if there's a stable customer," Tudor says. But while distilleries remain more reliable customers than bakers, the Tudors are gradually seeing more bakeries buying their flour. And Nigel says he's getting something different in his selling to bakers. "When I sell to distilleries," he says, "I don't get any feedback about my grain, compared to bakers, who wax euphoric about the flavor."
Melissa McCart is a restaurant columnist for Newsday; you can also find her recent work in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Saveur, and Eater.
Lead photo: Montgomery County Planning/Flickr
Editor: Erin DeJesus