Rising Tide: The New Local Grain Economy Could Bring Delicious Results

  • By Anna Roth
  • Wed Dec 4th, 2013 4:00am
  • DiningEat
A map of local suppliers on Mission Pie's wall can now include local flour.

Local grains are so hot right now. At least that was the premise of my cover story last week on the rise of artisanal flour (yes, it's a thing; no, it's not as ridiculous as it sounds). We live in a city where listing farms on menus is so overdone it's passé, and yet until recently California-grown wheat and other grains weren't even a twinkle in the most ardent locavore's eye.

This is about to change. A growing number of San Francisco chefs, bakers, brewers, and distillers have become interested in sourcing organic heirloom grains, and are hooking up with the small farms and mills willing to grow and process them. The burgeoning grain economy in California has a few obstacles to tackle before it becomes de rigeur to ask your waiter where the restaurant sources its flour, but here's the exciting news: When local grains do catch on, it could mean a whole new world of flavors emerging in everything from bread to beer.

One of the reasons that bakeries and restaurants aren't 100 percent reliant on local grain is simple: There isn't enough of it. California was a wheat state in its infancy, but once it figured out irrigation, the land became used for much more valuable crops like fruit, salad greens, nuts, and wine grapes that the rest of the country couldn't grow as well. Not only that, but the wheat that is known to grow well here — like soft Sonoran white, brought by the missionaries and great for tortilla-making — isn't necessarily the kind of high-protein flour that bread-makers like (a robust gluten structure is what leads to that glorious rise). And bakers who have built a business around consistency can run into trouble relying on a single farm's output, if their crop doesn't happen to be as robust one year as the year before.

All of these are major obstacles for a baker like Steve Sullivan, co-owner of Acme Bread. Acme is one of the biggest bread-makers in the area, serving San Francisco, the East Bay, and the Peninsula, but it started as a single Berkeley shop in 1983. Before opening Acme, Sullivan baked bread at Chez Panisse, so the idea of local sourcing is not exactly foreign. Acme currently uses local wheat in one product, its Edible Schoolyard loaf, though Sullivan wishes he could do more. “We would love for there to be more organic wheat grown in California,” he says. A few years back, he tried to figure out if it were even possible for Acme to source its roughly 100,000 weekly pounds of organic flour from inside the state. It was not. The picture has not radically changed since.

Lack of supply is also a problem that has faced local brewers, like Jesse Friedman at Almanac Beer. Locally-sourced wheat fits in nicely with the brewery's “farm-to-bottle” ethos, but though Almanac has experimented with wheat from Masa Organics in Chico, the farm grew wheat in such small quantities that it was hard to get as much as the brewery needed. Almanac does use a fair amount of local barley, but there it runs into a larger infrastructure issue: Most grain needs to be sprouted, or “malted,” in order for it to process the sugar to turn into the alcohol, and there are no malting facilities in California.

The missing malting house is an impediment not only to Friedman, but also to master distiller Lance Winters at St. George's Spirits in Alameda, home of Hanger One vodka, Terroir gin, and St. George's Absinthe, among others. Winters uses local Douglas fir sprigs in his gin and California sugarcane in his rum, but says that the lack of local grains in his spirits isn't from a lack of desire. “There's no reason why we couldn't [make California bourbon] as well or better than any of the distilleries in Kentucky. … We'd relish the opportunity,” he says. There is hope on the horizon, though: Winters is working with a partner to create the state's first malting house in Sonoma, which would radically change the local beer-and-spirits-making landscape.

On the local restaurant scene, some of the city's best chefs are also starting to get into local and heirloom grains. Brett Cooper at Outerlands, Chris Stoll at Delfina, and Thomas McNaughton of Flour + Water have all been experimenting with different grains in pastas, breads, and salads. McNaughton even hopes to have his own flour mill in the near future where he can grind and experiment with different grains for the Flour + Water menu.

All of this tinkering, or at least potential for tinkering, means that you and I will be able to taste different varieties of wheat and other grains that we've never tried before. It means that some of the city's best culinary talent will push the boundaries of breads, pastas, pastries, and alcohol in new and exciting ways. It also means that some of these experiments will cost more — “There are limits to how much people want to pay for bread, so there's a limit on how much you can pay for the flour,” says Acme's Sullivan — but many diners are already willing to pay extra for pasture-raised chicken, organic burrata, and biodynamic wine. It's just a question of realigning customer expectations.

And, ultimately, it means that we'll have one more piece of knowledge about where our food comes from. At Mission Pie, a sunny café a block south of the 24th Street BART station, there's a giant map of California on one wall with all of the local suppliers mapped out. Now, along with local apples and walnuts and butter, owners Karen Heisler and Krystin Rubin are able to source part of their flour from one farm too, as they did recently with Healdsburg's Front Porch Farms through Oakland's Community Grains. “That was a really nice fit for us, because that's what we're trying to do — tell people where what they're eating is coming from. So that was magic,” says Heisler.

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