Show me the bread!
If anyone had told me 30 years ago that one day, you could walk into any cafe and order sourdough in any manner of menu items, I'd have asked to have some of whatever it was you were smoking.
Back then, I was struggling to figure out how to make a decent loaf of naturally leavened bread. It simply didn't exist beyond very special niches. There was no internet, and sourcing even the most basic information was excruciatingly difficult.
I pretty much had to figure it out for myself. Once I had, I was on a roller coaster ride between success and failure every time I baked. Good old trial and error got me to where I needed to be, eventually, but it really took some years before I could actually make a decent loaf of bread. Of course, each new batch was delicious, and eagerly consumed by an ever growing legion of friends and relatives - and for good reason. I used all the best organic and bio dynamic ingredients, coupled with some deeply esoteric beliefs that guided my process. For a long time, I only baked in heatproof glass bowls, for example - so every loaf was, to my mind anyway, deeply nutritious and environmentally positive.
At a certain point I was convinced by everyone around me to start baking commercially, simply because people craved yummy bread, and apparently mine was yummy. The roller coaster ride continued for many more years to come, as I slowly learned the bakery business from scratch. More trial and error - not just in baking, but in business too. I learned about the three C's of baking - Consistency, Consistency and Consistency. You could be consistently bad, or good; as long as you were consistent.
I dived right in, and within about seven or eight years, my little bakery (by this time I had relocated a number of times, from home kitchens to a fully professional bread factory in the Blue Mountains of NSW) was pumping out many tonnes of sourdough artisan bread each week. It seemed to just keep growing and growing, I thought this pattern would continue forever, and as a result I would eventually become hugely wealthy.
By this time, the bread we were making was pretty good, but I had no one to really compare my product to, because I was the only game in town. Over time, this changed, and some pretty decent competition started to emerge. In my woolly eyed naivete, I saw this competition as a good thing. I still didn't really have my head around business. I was partly right - the more artisan bread there was, the better, as eventually the market for this bread would grow. But as any first year business student will tell you, growing a market requires lots of time and money. Initially, each new player meant a decent erosion of my customer base. I had to grow new business constantly, so as to keep paying for the infrastructure my bakery had invested in.
I was very much on the hamster wheel. My bakery machine never stopped. At least, not until the hamster (me) did. And I did stop, eventually. Gravity kicked in, and I found myself wondering where all the fun had gone. I had worked my little backside into what was rapidly becoming a life sentence: I was making more bread but not making more money. And, I had worn out all my equipment because I had worked it too hard. I was endlessly trying to get more money so I could maintain my output. Bakery life is brutal on not only the baker.
It should be pretty obvious by now that I wasn't doing it for the money. I was doing it, I thought, because somebody had to do it. It seemed to me to be pretty important. So for all this time, I just kept keeping my bread machine rolling until it couldn't roll any more.
Somebody needed to show me the bread! About that time I coined the famous phrase: If I wasn't making so much bread, I would probably be making some bread.
(You can substitute the word 'dough' for 'bread' and it means exactly the same thing.)
Needless to say, making naturally leavened bread, and especially in that bakery, presented me with a steep learning curve. And since then, I have had plenty of opportunity to think about what I did, and what I would do differently if I had another go at it. I'll say that when I started out, I had a house. I no longer had one at the end of that bakery. All because I thought the world needed good bread, and therefore I should be the one to knead it for them. Eventually, one has to pay the piper.
My baking practice today represents what I have learned from this, and quite a few other bakeries and cafes I have operated in my thirty years as a baker. It is also still a work in progress. I have chosen to continue baking, but I have gone through a very thorough process to 're make' my bread.
In short, I have removed anything I don't need from my breadmaking practice. That comes right down to the micro level - flour, water, salt, fire. Only four things. No refined yeast, no bread improvers, no fat, no sugar. And the flour itself is chosen for lots of reasons - not just because the mill is good at what they do, but because the company milling it have a similar ethic to me, so I support them through my flour purchases.
This relentless editing process I have done is also on the level of equipment. I have a wood fired oven which I designed to be 'third world simple', in that if it ever breaks, I can fix it with simple tools. You don't need to ring up the oven repair company in the middle of the night with your first born child at the ready as a down payment for the repair bill.
All my equipment has been purchased very carefully, so I don't have an overdraft at all. This means it has been chosen for its robustness and price. I don't have many bread tins, for example; they take up space, get really dirty, and contain the 'bloom' in the oven - bread tins are like training wheels. I use wooden boards to hold dough instead. I make them myself, and can be replaced with a trip to the hardware store. I bake on the sole of the oven. The bread isn't constrained by a tin and the crust on the bread is another level of amazing.
I choose to retail at the weekend local markets in my region, rather than have a bricks and mortar shop. I’ve also had some success at supplying my customers directly though a subscription model, and lately I’ve returned to this as a means of dealing with the various issues which come and go around selling through growers’ markets.
I don't supply restaurants and cafes any more because I don't want another overdraft. Why would supplying wholesale lead to an overdraft? New players in the bakery business often provide their wholesale customers with 7 day accounts. This is all well and good at first, but down the track things can get tricky for many reasons. One of them is the fact that the more wholesale customers you have, the more 7 day accounts you have. You have to pay for all your costs pretty much up front - flour, electricity, phone, fuel etc - but when you carry lots of wholesale accounts, even for 7 days, you are effectively providing your customers with credit. I’m not a bank, I’m a baker! There are lots of other good reasons why I don’t do accounts, based on experience; these are numerous and possibly the subject of another blog post down the track.
My bakery business these days is very straightforward and simple. I know where I stand after I’ve counted the cash from every bake, and I like it much better than not knowing where the earth beneath me is at any given time of day or night.
One thing I have added to my pared back bakery model, though, is time. I take a lot longer to make a loaf of bread these days. Somewhere between 72 and 96 hours is my current comfort zone. I like the flavour you get when the process of fermentation is slowed right down. It's stronger, and the bread keeps better too. My customers regularly inform me that 'they can eat this bread'; to my amusement, as one would expect one can eat the bread you buy. I mean, it's food, isn't it? But apparently, these people are not used to actually being able to eat bread. The bread they usually experience is filled with yeast foods and caramelising agents and watnot. Turns out, this type of bread has been killing them slowly, and their bodies have become so attuned to their poisonous effects that to actually eat bread that doesn't produce them is, for them, almost a miracle which needs to be spoken out loud.
I find this very satisfying. Needless to say, I teach people to go slowly when they return to bread. That way, their digestive systems have time to adapt to change. It’s probably not necessary, but at least if the bread does effect them negatively, they can identify the issue and make adjustments.
Another good thing is the technique I use allows for quite a bit of flexibility - so the baker can arrange their breadmaking practice around their life, and not the other way around. I never start work before the sun comes up, for example - to do so is kind of romantic at first, but the romance wears off after a decade or so of sleep deprivation. Nowadays I work in the late evenings and send my bread out after it has been packed and cooled for sale the very next morning.
All these things are also woven into the techniques I teach today. Home bakers get the thrill of sole baking, and the endlessly fascinating process of fermentation and proofing , which provides not only food for the tummy, but also the mind. Professional bakers and others who come to learn how to make a living from baking great bread get the benefits of my flexible technique, and low capital infrastructure, so they aren't pushing that overdraft as hard as I once did. Everybody eats well, as this food is arguably one of human kind's most precious, sustainable and health giving meals, no matter how you slice things.
I guess the School of Sourdough should have the slogan 'How to make bread for not much bread'. If you are interested in making the tree change to a professional micro baking lifestyle, why not come to a 300 Series Master Baker Workshop? These four day intensive workshops walk you through the entire baking process from a commercial perspective, as well as the bakery business itself. The Masterbaker workshops, held every few months at my own micro bakery, have assisted many home bakers to transition to a business model. My set up is relatively cheap to copy, and I cover all the basics to get you started. I also offer Bakery Support once you are up and running, so you don’t ever have to feel like it’s all too hard. And if you already have a bakery and want to transition into Artisan products, I can help here too, with training and consultation services.
Why not get in touch to discuss your plans with me? It’s free, and I’ll be happy to help in any way I can. I can be contacted on 0409 480 750 during daylight hours any time you like.