Two Sides of the Bread Basket
in a small room in the Skagit Valley,
the future of grain is being explored
BY TARA AUSTEN WEAVER
The Bread Lab is a room divided, quite literally, by a large workbench that runs up the center.
On one side is a row of scientific machines designed to analyze the qualities of wheat; test tubes hang from a rack on the wall. The other side looks like a craft bakery: shelves of grain, stacks of baskets for loaves of bread, and a stone mill. It might be an unusual juxtaposition, but this room is a physical manifestation of the lab’s mission: to forge a connection between the science and artistry of baking. It’s a mission that puts them at the intersection of flavor, nutrition, farming, and perhaps even the future of our food—at least when it comes to the grainbased portion.
The Bread Lab began in 2013, when Dr. Stephen Jones, director of the Washington State University Research Center at Mount Vernon, converted a horticulture laboratory into one dedicated to grain research. Jones, a plant geneticist, had grown up in a baking family and fallen in love with wheat as a student. But he had become disillusioned with a commodity grain market more concerned with yields than flavor. When he came to Mount Vernon in 2009 and saw grain growing in the Skagit Valley, he was intrigued.
Western Washington in not a place we traditionally associate with grain—the eastern side of the state has the rolling fields of wheat. Skagit grains were mostly used as a rotation crop to avoid the disease cycle of intensive vegetable farming. Harvests were sold off cheaply to the commodity grain market; most farmers had never even tasted the wheat and barley they grew.
Jones, a lifelong baking enthusiast, wanted to change that. His own baking experiments with Skagit wheat revealed flavors new to him, exciting characteristics, and he wanted to experiment further. For that he needed a facility that could merge the scientific with the artisan. He took over an empty room and the Bread Lab was born.
But the Bread Lab is not just a room, it’s also a partnership. “I wasn’t good enough to be taken seriously by professional bakers,” Jones explained. To truly bridge the world of research and science with that of craft baking, he needed a serious baker. He found one in Jonathan Bethony, who had trained at the San Francisco Baking Institute and worked under noted baker Craig Ponsford. Bethony moved to the Skagit Valley two years ago to take the position and their partnership brought the Bread Lab to life.
“The goal is to find the best uses for our local grains,” explains Jones, “it might be tortillas, pizza, pasta, or a really nice laminated dough.” The lab focuses on whole wheat. “We might pull some bran off and roast it,” Jones says, “but we put it back. The key is to use everything there is—for nutrition and flavor—but it has to taste good.”
This means the baker of the Bread Lab needs to be inventive and improvisational. He’s working with different grains—the lab gets samples of wheat from millers around the country, in addition to their own Skagitgrown— and trying to find the best use for them. “That’s part of the education,” Bethony says. “Its amazing to see the transformation that occurs with people’s perception of whole wheat. Some people come in really skeptical, they think it’s going to be a brick.”
This, Bethony explains, stems from the nature of the grain. “Wheat has an unmilled shelf life of 10 years,” he says, “but once it’s milled it’s highly perishable. Most people’s experience with whole wheat is with rancid whole wheat.”
Indeed, the breads that come out of the Bread Lab are deeply flavorful, light, with a burnished crackly crust and a lacey crumb.
There’s not a brick in sight.
“He does things that are basically impossible,” Jones says of Bethony. “He keeps learning and that’s why he’s such a great fit for us. Because we’re a lab and we’re all about discovery; a commercial baker wants it to work the same way each and every time.”
Pushing boundaries and learning is what the Bread Lab is all about. “I try to find what each grain does well,” Bethony says. “They’re not all rockstars, but each one has some great qualities. Chefs come here and are blown away by the variety of what we have and the unique qualities.”
Chefs have been coming from far and wide, drawn by the growing reputation of the Bread Lab. Famed baker Chad Robertson, of San Francisco’s Tartine bakery and cookbooks, has visited the lab several times. Dan Barber, of New York’s Blue Hill restaurants, has spent time here (his recent book, The Third Plate, includes a chapter on Jones).
And Jones and his team have been traveling— to Philadelphia, to work with noted chef Marc Vetri on developing whole-wheat pastas that taste good (“whole-wheat pasta is usually horrible,” says Jones, “and a lot tougher to do right than whole wheat bread”) and to Denmark to study their grain culture. Alliances are being formed among those who are passionate about grains.
“This lab has become a hub for bakers who are excited and into learning and into altruism,” says Bethony. It couldn’t have come at a better time for him, personally. “I was running into a lot of jaded bakers—and I was starting to become one myself—but what we’re about is really a public service. We’re developing a collective of chefs and bakers and people who want to raise our standards around food and make it available to the wider community.”
As he says this, Bethony is arm-deep in a vat of bread dough he’s mixing from grains that need to be used up. The resulting loaves will be donated to the local food bank. “I take pride that some of the healthiest bread around here is going to be available for free at the food pantry,” he says.
The final piece to be added to the Bread Lab equation is community. The work remains academic—even when baked into bread—if it doesn’t transcend the facility that produced it; dissemination is key. Part of this happens when chefs, bakers, students, and journalists come through the lab, but the lab also reaches out.
“We’re working with the La Conner School District,” says Jones, “and the chef there, Georgia Johnson. We’re bringing in whole grains that kids will eat because they taste good.” The lab is working with companies as well, to improve their grain products. A recent project had them helping Chipotle make better tortillas.
But it is the farmer connection that is central to their mission as a research arm of a land grant university. If it doesn’t work for the farmers, it doesn’t work. “We’re working with the farmers to let them know about bakers’ needs and requirements, and we’re working with chefs to help them appreciate that this is a specialty food,” says Bethony. “It’s not just a dead sack on the shelf.”
This summer the Bread Lab will move from the room divided, to a 12,000-square foot new home at the Port of Skagit County devoted to the revival and building of a new grain economy. They will be able to better incorporate the brewing and distilling application of local grains into the program—there is a brewing and distilling micro-lab in the works and Pike Brewing Company, Chuckanut Brewery, and Westland Distillery are all involved.
The culinary program at the new site will be headed up by Blaine Wetzel, James Beard award-winning chef from The Willows Inn on Lummi Island. King Arthur Flour is sponsoring a baking education classroom. There will be a milling room surrounded by windows to allow for observation (“almost everything we do now is fresh milled,” says Jones, “there’s an explosion in milling”). There will be classes for the community, seasonal dinners, a large table to gather around, and a continuation of the annual Grain Gathering Conference held each summer. If the current Bread Lab is unlike any in the world, the new and larger iteration seems poised to push the program forward exponentially.
“We’re looking at what possibilities are in store for the farmer, the miller, the baker, the maltster, the community, and the scientist,” says Bethony. “We want to advance the culinary application of grains. They really merge together in this beautiful way—an artistic expression of science.”
That artistic expression is bound to land on your plate. It’s only a matter of time.