Bringing Back the Local Grain Economy
By: Pamela Hunt
Blair Marvin and Andrew Heyn of Elmore Mountain Bread have been baking together for 14 years. They’ve spent years researching and fine-tuning their recipes and processes to make the best bread possible—loaves that are full of taste yet equally full of nutrition. Seeking a challenge, and perhaps a change of pace, they decided to start milling their grains fresh, to ensure they capture the flour’s peak vitality in their products. “We weren’t necessarily interested in making more bread,” says Blair. “What we wanted was to learn how to make better bread and to grow in that sense. It made sense to us to naturally figure out how to build our relationship with our primary ingredient.”
Inspiration in the Wrinkles from Past
Andrew sought advice from a baker friend, Fulton Forde of Boulted Bread in Raleigh, North Carolina, about what features to look for in a mill. Although Fulton already owned an Austrian-built model, he was tinkering around with building his own mill to better meet his needs. The two collaborated over ideas and designs. Then, using his carpentry and metal-working skills acquired from doing work around the house, Andrew built his first mill in 2014.
For ideas and inspiration, Andrew and Blair looked at existing mills and pored through books—some from as far back as the 1800s—to learn from those who had gone before. “They have pretty good descriptions,” says Andrew of these antique resources. “They’re a bit old-timey, but they’re fun to read.” One tome they found particularly interesting sports an unusual title: The Book of Wrinkles. “It turns out, a ‘wrinkle’ is a tidbit of information that’s shared between millers and millwrights to produce better flour,” explains Blair.
Fellow bakers who saw Andrew’s and Fulton’s mills expressed interest, and several were sold through word of mouth. New American Stone Mills—with Andrew producing the larger 36-plus-inch models and Fulton the 26-inch ones—was born. Early in 2017, however, Fulton stepped away from the collaboration, leaving Andrew as the sole proprietor.
Although the millstones on the model Andrew built for Elmore Mountain Bread are hewn from Carolina pink granite, he uses Vermont granite in the mills he builds for New American Stone Mills. “We teamed up with Trow and Holden, one of the oldest granite-cutting companies in the world, out of Barre,” says Blair. The stones come as flat, precut blanks with a hole drilled in the middle. Then Andrew dresses the stones himself, using angle grinders with diamond blades and a stone-sculpting air hammer, following designs developed from studying the old masters. He also teaches bakers who purchase a mill how to dress their own stones. Unlike millstones made of composite material, which tends to be self-sharpening, the granite stones eventually wear each other smooth. “You just take an air hammer,” he says, “and pucker the surface.”
The design of the mills is an ongoing process. Andrew and Blair credit their customers, many of whom are friends, with helping to guide the machines’ development. “They’re open with feedback… and criticism,” Blair explains. And the intimate knowledge Andrew has of each part and how they all work together, as well as hands-on knowledge they’ve acquired while helping buyers set up and troubleshoot mills, has enabled the couple to efficiently help customers get started with milling.
Strengthening the Local Grain Economy
“Because we are miller/bakers and millwrights, this has given us insight into the whole process from start to finish,” Blair says. “It’s kind of a stepping-stone into working with local farmers. Once you have your milling in-house, the natural progression is to start looking to source your grain closer. So then you potentially develop a relationship with a local farmer, which allows you to learn more about the growing process, and you’re supporting the farmer. So the mills are turning into a tool that enables the rebuilding of our local grain economy. It’s a bigger-picture thing here.”
New American Stone Mills has sold mills to several bakers across the country, including a 48-inch model for Baker’s Field Flour & Bread, a small-scale artisan mill in Minneapolis, Minnesota, ironically the home of industrial giant, General Mills. So far, only one other Vermont baker—Adam Wilson, owner of Running Stone Bread in Huntington—is using one of their mills. However, these Green Mountain–made machines have attracted the attention of another Vermont grain grower, but for a purpose outside the traditional bread bakers’ world.
Another collaboration arose when Todd Hardie, founder of Caledonia Spirits, recently launched a new venture called Thornhill Farm where he grows barley and rye. “We’re making a bread now with his organic rye, which is awesome. But we’re also milling it for the distillery. Once a month, Todd comes and we mill up quite a bit.”
“Usually 100 pounds of rye, 15 pounds of barley,” Andrew adds, noting that this process takes about four hours. “We’re just cracking the grain,” he explains, rather than milling it to a finer flour.
“This project is neat because the rye is grown in Greensboro, then milled here in Elmore, then taken back to Hardwick to be distilled. It’s just about the coolest thing we can imagine—in three years, we’re going to be able to sit down and have a sip of rye whiskey that was grown just down the road, that we milled, and it was made super close to us.”
Growing the Business
With five mills in the process of being assembled and ten more on a waiting list, business is definitely picking up for Andrew. A pair of mills waiting to be shipped sits in the couple’s garage, in which everything is dusted with a fine coating of flour—testament to the morning milling of flour for that day’s baking. The mills’ frames are powder coated in Colchester, and with more than a 150 colors to choose from, customers can order a mill to suit any décor.
Since building their first mill, Andrew has outgrown the existing workspace in the couple’s garage. Plus, the unheated building didn’t offer the best working conditions during Vermont’s cold winters. Therefore, in June 2017, the pair laid the foundation for a new workshop, specially designed for building the mills.
“We designed the new workshop for Andrew’s efficiency, for him to be able to crank out the mills a little faster,” says Blair. Although they initially considered renting industrial space in nearby Morrisville for the business, they decided that keeping Andrew onsite was more important. “I need Andrew available to help in the bakery,” Blair says. “We’ve worked together for a long time here. The thought of him leaving to go work somewhere else…it didn’t feel right. It’s a lifestyle thing. Our work is entirely our life.” Plus, having the mills produced on their property, just outside of the bakery and next to their own mill, allows them to demonstrate to visitors what a working miller/baker can do. “We can show them the flour the mill has produced, then walk 50 feet to the bakery and show them the bread that the flour produces. That’s something that’s hard to find. For most people, flour comes out of a 50-pound brown bag that you tear open.”
Grain Enters the Locavore Vocabulary
For Andrew and Blair, venturing into the world of milling has been exciting, exhausting, and educational. Despite being bakers for nearly two decades, they had not thought of flour as having the same characteristics that other locally produced foods offer. “I never would have used descriptors like ‘terroir’ about flour,” says Blair. “But people are now talking about grain in the same way they talk about hops or coffee or dairy products, as having a taste of place.”
By showing people that flour doesn’t have to come from a bag that has sat on a shelf for six months, Andrew and Marvin are part of the movement to revitalize Vermont’s, and the country’s, grain economy and shift away from industrialized, homogenous product we’ve all become used to. “Grain is the last frontier in the locavore movement. The demand from the public for higher-quality breads, higher-quality grains, fresh-milled flour, local flour—it’s happening,” Blair says with a smile.
The website for Elmore Mountain Bread is: elmoremountainbread.com.