Barton Springs Mill Is Changing Austin's Relationship With Grain
Time to start thinking about where your bread came from
Barton Springs Mill owner James Brown has his heart set on reminding people where their bread comes from. "I think heirloom grains are sort of the last frontier in this movement toward better taste, better nutrition, sustainability, all those things. We eat a loaf of bread and don't think about what it takes to get there, but I think that's slowly changing," he says.
A former working musician, Brown is a somewhat unlikely evangelist. Although he has a culinary background, he had little working knowledge of operating a mill, or sourcing heirloom grains. "I started from nowhere, nothing," he says. But after some Google research and perusing the Agrilicious website, he began cold-calling farmers. With little expectation that he'd land many – or any – deals, Brown made plans with four farmers – three in the Panhandle and one outside of Fredericksburg. He ordered his Osttiroler A1200 mill from Austria and ended up with 5,000 square feet of space in Dripping Springs, as opposed to his projected 1,200 square feet in Downtown Austin. Fortunately, "the operations were scalable, and now BSM is currently sitting on about 100 tons of wheat, rye, buckwheat, and corn."
Now Barton Springs Mill is a three-person operation, with Thursday/Friday mill days and Friday/Saturday retail days. Brown says, "We have a huge observation window from the retail space into the mill room. I wanted to make sure that we're super transparent and people can see what we're doing." While mills that do not adhere to organic practices accelerate harvest season with Roundup, herbicides, and insecticides, Brown is operating in overdrive developing "methodologies for safely storing the wheat because there are insect pressures even at the point of storage. We're using a state-of-the-art modified atmospheric packaging system so that we're able to safely store the wheat and protect it from susceptibility from insect pressures without using any chemicals."
His seed stock traveled from Arizona, Canada, and upstate New York. Brown explains, "We started looking at the 1919 crop report, which was the first of its kind done in the United States. They went through every county in the state of Texas and said what kind of wheat was growing there and what the percentages were. So we decided to take that as sort of our touchstone and see if we could source some of those grains. Some of them are virtually extinct, but we managed to get some from a seed plasm bank."
Brown is part of a grain revival group, along with Sandeep Gyawali of Miche Bread, the owners of Still Austin Distillery, and food and beverage consultant Valerie Broussard. He says, "If we go back to those [heirloom] varieties as a basis for new varieties going forward, then we have the ability to take a second stab at that, and sort of flip the script on what the priorities are for new varieties of wheat. Rather than disease resistance, high yield, and drought tolerance, maybe nutrition and flavor and baking or milling tolerances could be closer to the top of those priorities. Maybe that means that ultimately grain is going to be more expensive. But we pay more for an heirloom tomato, why wouldn't we pay more for a loaf of bread made from a type of wheat that's better for you and tastes better?"
"Each heritage grain varietal has unique characteristics, which can be very different from their commodity cousins ... heritage varietals can taste more nutty, or grassy, or spicy, or even chocolatey," says Gyawali, who uses BSM grains in his sought-after loaves. Some make a bright yellow dough, while others look like charcoal. They tend to require more thought and finesse to use properly since they have their unique quirks.
"While I've been milling grains for many years," Gyawali continues, "the quality of flour milled by BSM is in a different league. They're some of the finest whole grain flours I've ever used, and they make a noticeable improvement in my products. ... We're also helping a bit by lowering our carbon footprint by reducing resource use for transportation. We're all playing a part in revitalizing the growth and use of heritage grains, which adds diversity to the local and global food pool and reduces our reliance on monocrops." He adds, "I'm amazed by the amount of progress that James, and the farmers he works with, have made toward establishing a local heritage grain economy. It's the single most important work being done to positively influence our regional food system."
The grains may also be easier on the body. "I have lots of personal experience seeing people getting loaves of bread made with these older varieties, and they have no problem tolerating it," Brown says. "People who haven't eaten bread in years are sitting down and eating a whole loaf in one sitting and having no problem. There's been a huge resurgence of people wanting to take control of the bread they consume, and that coupled with people perceiving they have a gluten intolerance or have issues with grains, has really made a demand for locally, regionally sourced grains milled with transparency."
Much like the whole animal utilization approach, Brown and his squad are taking extra measures to ensure that every last bit of the wheat is thoughtfully purposed. "Adam Brick at Apis and Sorellina in Spicewood has gone way out of his way to help me find a home for every part of the grain so that we have total utilization. He's been instrumental in that, and I consider him one of my strongest allies," says Brown. Brick's team uses five different types of Brown's wheat: buckwheat for an Apis dessert and the remaining four to create the Sorellina dough. Through test kitchen work, Brick discovered that the standard Caputo double-zero flour wasn't necessary and produced a significant amount of waste. By using a coarser mill, and embracing the speckles and texture of whole grains, not only is the product more delicious and nutritious, it's more sustainable as well. Bucking tradition "didn't affect quality or hydration of the dough," says Brick. "I like the looks of an entirely whole grain product. When you have these different composites the pizza dough has this mosaic [effect] because it's whole grain – it's golden brown with gray and green flecks in it.
"The kids aren't thinking about eating this whole grain that has a whole backstory, but they are," Brick continues. "That's sort of the beauty of Sorellina. If you want to look at it as a basic family restaurant that serves basic family needs, we have a pizza and salad and we serve ranch. You can have that and be on your way, but if you want to look a little deeper, it's a sourdough pizza and we make everything ourselves. If you want to look even deeper, we make salumi ourselves from our ranch – we actually trap and tame these wild boars and put them in the cattle pens and let them eat for six months. Then, if you look even deeper, there's James Brown and he is the backbone of our business. Pizza is a very simple thing and it all starts with the crust," he says. "Pizza doesn't have to be junk food."
Another part of the total utilization plan is finding a place for the byproduct. About five miles down the road from Apis is TerraPurezza, a regenerative agriculture institute and farm started by a young husband and wife team, Tina and Orion Weldon of Austin, with some start-up money from Apis. Named for the Italian translation of "pure earth," the farm has chickens, eggs, two types of pigs, lambs, quail, and plans for pheasants in the fall. They also care for all of Apis' namesake bees and the restaurant's vegetables, which both grow in a small on-site raised-bed show garden (Apis is on a cliff, which prevents digging). TerraPurezza's farm doesn't use traditional irrigation for their fruit tree groves or acre of raised beds, but rather a strategically designed berms and swales pattern. The majority of BSM's spent grain and hulls are used as a compostable material, topped with mulch and topsoil, meaning their crops are growing on decomposing wheat hulls.
As if these efforts weren't impressive enough, Brick and Brown, along with Apis chef/owner Taylor Hall, are also busy orchestrating the moving parts for their next venture (hopefully) later this year: a totally integrated beef and wheat life cycle. Hall's family runs a cattle ranch in North Texas, and the trio aspires to implement their plan to take the cows through their life cycle in a manner that coincides directly with the growth of the four crops of Brown's wheat that comprise Sorellina's dough. In short, the plots, divided by the same percentage used in the dough, will start wheat shoots and the cows will dine while using their hooves as natural tillers until the sun peaks through winter, at which point the cows will travel to a nearby pasture to allow the wheat to mature. Once it's ready, the fields will be harvested, Brown will mill, and the byproducts will be combined with corn and leftover wheat berries to create a nutrient-rich feed subsidy. Meanwhile, the cows will return and eat the heirloom crops' remaining stalks down to the ground, tilling all the while. In the death cycle, the cattle will finish on the same wheat they were eating in the green life cycle. Inspiring the crews that have been working that land since the Fifties to shift direction, however, requires a steady, data-driven plan focused on savings and product improvement. "It's a better story, that will produce a better cow, that will produce a better price margin, and it should, in theory, create a better product," explains Brick.
"The long and short of it is I just wanted a good tasting loaf of bread, which seems like an extreme to go to get that," Brown jokes. "Just drive out to Dripping Springs to get it. It's worth it. It's radically different than what most people expect."