In the four years since it opened, Moxie Bread Co. has developed an outsize presence in Colorado. It’s not just that people flock to Andy Clark’s bakery outside Boulder for the bread and pastries, though they are delicious. The wheat varietals he’s using are standouts in terms of quality and flavor, such as Turkey Red and blue emmer: heirlooms that might as well be a different species than the stuff you’d find in your average supermarket bread.
They grow differently, bake differently, and digest differently — enough of the latter even to convert gluten abstainers back to gluten. Clark said customers he’d lost to gluten sensitivities have returned since he transitioned his bakery to heirloom wheat, saying they can tolerate the new formulations. That’s consistent with research suggesting that people who identify as gluten-intolerant have a sensitivity to many gluten-containing foods, but not necessarily to gluten itself.
While your average Wonder bread is hard to digest and has a high glycemic index, naturally fermented bread made from quality grains has lower gluten levels, potentially even matching those of gluten-free products. The brief explanation is that the long, slow fermentation allows live cultures to feed on gluten, a process that the use of dough conditioners and mass production baking skip over.
There’s some evidence to back this up. “Now research shows us that lacto-fermentation of wheat has the potential to drastically reduce gluten levels,” writes the Boston-based Old Ways Whole Grain Council, a finding based on three studies, including one from 2007 and recurring studies in 2013 and 2014 from National Center for Biotechnology Information, a division of the NIH.
Clark said customers he’d lost to gluten sensitivities have returned since he transitioned his bakery to heirloom wheat, saying they can tolerate the new formulations. That’s consistent with research suggesting that people who identify as gluten-intolerant have a sensitivity to many gluten-containing foods, but not necessarily to gluten itself.
Grain advocates like Clark are drawn to the grains themselves, but also to the opportunities they offer to revolutionize local economies and food systems. Clark began sourcing heirloom wheat directly from a Kansas farmer; that’s become a steady relationship, and he’s continuously cultivating other partnerships with farmers throughout the region.
Just as farmers markets have brought locally grown produce and dairy to communities around the country, there’s interest in building that farm-to-table connection for grains as well. But grains are a specialized kind of crop that require massive infrastructure — milling equipment, for example, to turn the grain into flour — that fruits and vegetables don’t. Clark belongs to a strong and growing network of community players dedicated to establishing a local grain economy in the semi-arid, mountains-meet-plains state of Colorado.
“Our agricultural system has focused on yields and similarity and not a lot of originality in flavor and nutrition. We’ve lost all of that in wheat, my goodness, and in grains in general,” said Nanna Meyer, health sciences professor at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, who’s led the university’s efforts to restore heritage grain production in the Rocky Mountain West.
Meyer, who worked in Olympic sport nutrition for two decades before coming to focus on the nutritional benefits of whole grains, helped UCCS launch the Grain School in collaboration with the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance in 2016. Research into what grains used to be grown in the area was followed by getting their hands on physical seeds from seed banks around the world. “We started trials of things we didn’t even know existed,” she said.
Thus began a slowly unfolding experiment to transform the theoretical — the region’s agricultural history, identified on paper — into the practical — crops that people can actually use. That involved myriad steps, including multiplying the handfuls of stored seeds into supplies big enough for farmers to plant fields with. Meyer worked with over a dozen backyard gardeners to grow out the early batches, then handed those seed harvests off to larger-scale growers; now, about 70 growers are testing out more than 150 varieties of heirloom grains in the region, such as einkorn, emmer, red fife, and khorasan.
Two years ago, Mona Esposito, who heads the newly formed Colorado Grain Chain, had to figure out what to do with 15,000 pounds of Turkey Red wheat that a Boulder farmer had experimented with growing. In today’s agricultural supply chain, that amount is a no-man’s land: It’s way too small for standard industry facilities to process, but too big to handle by hand. It wasn’t always this way. Over a hundred years ago, the U.S. had nearly 25,000 flour mills responsible for transforming wheat from a crop into a flour. Today, fewer than 200 remain, according to Dr. Stephen Jones, wheat breeder and director of The Bread Lab at Washington State.
That lost capacity is what the growers and bakers in Colorado and elsewhere are trying to rebuild. “The mission is to restore these heritage and ancient grains to Colorado, and with that the entire infrastructure that was lost,” said Esposito.
Founded initially with a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it’s designed to operate like a trade organization working to connect growers, businesses, and consumers to build the local grain economy. The idea — both the key to its success and its biggest challenge — is to build supply and demand at the same time.
At Moxie Bread, this is what Clark has slowly been doing on his own on a much smaller scale. He recently started selling bags of heritage grain flour for customers to bake with at home. He mills flour for a number of Denver and Boulder restaurants and for local pasta company Pastificio. He helped Whole Foods develop bread recipes, and he’s talking with the grocer about doing a pop-up milling demonstration at some point.
The spirits industry has also played a role in building demand, and to some extent in encouraging supply: Distilleries such as Dry Land Distillers, Leopold Bros., and Laws Whiskey have formulated liquor blends using the grains that Meyer and others are working with farmers to try to grow. In the food industry, with heritage grains, “there’s a mini gold rush in the sense that there’s an opportunity to differentiate your restaurant from everybody else’s,” said Leopold Bros. distiller Todd Leopold, who’s asked local farmers to grow certain heirloom grains that he uses to impart unique and complex flavors to his whiskeys. “What we’re doing here is very much along those same lines.”
In establishing a local grain network, Colorado is hardly the first. The Maine Grain Alliance, the Heritage Grain Conservancy in New York, the Tehachapi Heritage Grain Project in southern California, and others have all been working to restore some of the grain-growing history from each region’s past. They’re all focused on local grains for the flavorful, carbon-saving, and local economy-boosting reasons that local produce has gained traction, as well as to foster greater diversity in the food system and build better soil for the planet.
For all the enthusiasm around heirloom grains, though, there are some unanswered questions. Chief among them are around crop yields, and their ripple effects on land use and cost.
Dr. Stephen Jones has become something of a celebrity in the culinary world for the wheat and other grain varieties developed at The Bread Lab he founded at Washington State University. He frowns upon modern wheat as much as the heirloom proponents do, but he also stands somewhat firmly against using heirloom grains. He views them as a solid starting point for breeding, but not something to grow as-is.
With the escalating challenges of climate change and land scarcity, he argues the planet can’t afford to grow heirloom grains that haven’t been improved for today’s conditions — their yields are too low. Heirloom wheats produce a thousand or so pounds per acre, while his best wheats get to 10,000 pounds. Kernza, a perennial grain with deep roots touted as a savior of soil and tool for battling climate change, is even lower — closer to 100 pounds.
“It’s about the best use of land,” he said during an interview at a conference last year. The deep roots of perennials, he argued, don’t justify the vast amounts of land that would be needed to grow the same amount of wheat as a more modern variety. “If you want to sequester carbon, plant a tree.”
Low yields also drive high prices. One of his projects, The Bread Lab Collective, is focused on developing an affordable loaf with a broad appeal in taste. His work is widely recognized — by Bill Gates, in The New York Times Magazine, and in partnership with famed chef Dan Barber, among other places — but he’s also faced fierce resistance from heirloom loyalists. “New is bad, old is good,” he said of the arguments he hears. “I get it all the time.”
Esposito, though, said what The Bread Lab is doing is “amazing.” As the lab releases more varieties — last year it released one that’s now grown in the Pacific Northwest, New York, and elsewhere, and Jones expects to release five more by the end of next year — Esposito said the Colorado community will be eager to test them out locally. For her, what varieties to grow are just one of the questions the larger community is trying to figure out. Ultimately, success means fundamentally shifting cultural attitudes toward what bread is or should be.
“You really can’t equate these [heirloom] breads with what we’ve gotten used to at commodity prices for white bread that’s been produced in an industrialized way that has no nutritional value. It’s got to be somewhere in the middle,” she said. Price-wise, that means falling somewhere between an elite $10 bread and the expectations many people have for a cheap $2 loaf. But if people can learn to expect more from their bread, maybe they’ll be willing to pay a little more for it, too.
“Bread is something that hasn’t been super valued as something full of nutrition in the last however many years,” Esposito said. We treat it as a source of filling calories, when it can be made from grains that are a wealth of vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants, and more.
“You get bread at the table when you go to a restaurant; it’s like this sideshow,” she said. “It’s not the main attraction. It can be.”
Rachel Cernansky is a journalist in Denver. She writes about food, the environment, health, science and other things. Find her, occasionally, on Twitter.