GRATEFUL BREAD COMPANY OWNERS ARE SWEET ON THEIR SOURDOUGH
Denver’s Grateful Bread Company rises to celebrate the occasion of National Sourdough Day
Mom-and-pop business owners Jeff Cleary and Kathy Mullen pay homage to sourdough every day at their artisan bakery, Grateful Bread Company, in Golden.
April 1 is National Sourdough Day. No fooling.
The curators at NationalDayCalendar.com mark occasions to commemorate every day, and Saturday is sourdough’s turn. (Today, you could toast lemon chiffon cake, manatees and mom-and-pop business owners, for instance.)
Of course, mom-and-pop business owners Jeff Cleary and Kathy Mullen pay homage to sourdough every day at their artisan bakery, Grateful Bread Company, in Golden.
This Saturday, the bread-mongers will step up their ongoing tribute to sourdough with a large variety of fresh baked breads and pastries featuring the special ingredient they’ve been carefully cultivating since Y2K: their all-natural sourdough starter.
Seven days a week, they bake for local chefs, but on Saturdays Grateful Bread also opens to the public from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Perfect timing for National Sourdough Day.
“We make both milder flavored and stronger San Francisco-style sourdoughs using in-house stonemilled organic flours mixed with bread flour from King Arthur,” said Cleary, Grateful Bread’s founder and
head baker. “The lavender sourdough we make for chef Jennifer Jasinski’s restaurant Rioja has a stronger sourdough flavor, and our peat-smoked barley has a more subtle tang, for example.”
The bakers at Grateful Bread also make eight types of pastries with sourdough, including a dazzling dark Belgian chocolate babka. All are made with natural and organic ingredients, largely from local sources like Motherlove Organic Farm in Fort Collins, Vivian Farms in Littleton, and Beeyond the Hive honey farm in Elizabeth.
The bakery’s 23 trained artisans are busy bees themselves, working around the clock in three shifts, 365 days a year making sourdoughs and other breads for more than 80 chef-driven restaurants in Denver and Boulder. Cleary launched the company in 2005 in a tiny cabin in Evergreen, working to gain enough clients to hire help and lease the current 8,000-squarefoot space off West Colfax Avenue.
A team of delivery truck drivers transport Grateful Bread’s fresh-baked loaves, baguettes, epis, rolls and boules twice daily to restaurants like Acorn, Fruition, Guard & Grace and Tables in time for lunch and again for dinner service in a bee-line pattern efficiency experts would frown on.
“Our guiding principle is quality above everything else,” said Mullen. “From the beginning, we committed to results over profits. So rather than finding the fastest, cheapest ways to produce and sell bread, we chose artisan techniques for a business approach we can take pride in.”
To that end, Cleary imported a custombuilt artisan stone mill from Austria in 2015 for even more quality control. Employee Luke Holland was inspired to learn the milling process to become the company’s head miller.
“I love it,” Holland said. “I get to be one of the few artisan millers in Colorado, using this beautiful pinewood stone mill to make the best flours in town.”
The person entrusted with one of the most important jobs in the bakery is Ashlee Brinkerhoff — or “Mrs. B,” as Cleary calls her. Brinkerhoff came to Grateful Bread as an intern from Johnson & Wales University’s baking and pastry arts program six years ago, and never left. She is one of the few who tends to the bakery’s nine large buckets of sourdough starter, the source of the magic.
Bakers speak about their starters as living characters with exacting temperaments. They strive to keep them well-fed and warm, and they listen to them, because “the starter tells you when it’s happy.” Cleary said the smell of a starter changes throughout the year due to weather conditions. “At its best, it smells like green apples.”
Starter is a simple mix of unbleached flour and filtered warm water that has attracted wild yeast spores from the surrounding atmosphere. The spores are microscopic living organisms that feed on the mix, causing it to ferment and, over time, with proper care and feeding it will eventually sour. Carbon dioxide bubbles develop in the mix when the process is working. At that point, a portion can be taken and added to more flour, water and salt to start a sour bread dough that will rise. Without starter, you get flat bread.
Grateful Bread keeps two types of starter: a wet starter for milder products and a firm one for stronger flavored breads.
Brinkerhoff meticulously charts temperatures to calculate the precise formulas needed to maintain the starters’ optimal ratios. Using large mixers, she creates the dough for orders that will bake in three days, following a disciplined routine of mixing, resting, turning and ultimately dividing the dough for bakers to shape by hand into hundreds of individual pieces. Good Mixers like Mrs. B have solid math skills, strong focus, endurance and an artist’s touch.
Finishing breads has become second nature for a.m. head baker John Groundwater, who gives each raw loaf a final dusting of flour and maybe a few quick decorative slashes before pushing them into the deck oven. At just the right time and temp, he deftly slides them back out with a long handled wooden peel, making it look easy.
“It takes a lot of repetition and practice to get good at it,” Cleary said. “Baking is a science. You experiment until you find the right balance and then you stick to the formula.”
Science has yet to confirm the claims of those who believe sourdough breads are as good as gluten-free for people with sensitivities to the proteins in wheat products. Anecdotally, Mullen says numerous customers have told her sourdoughs don’t bother them the way other breads do. Speculation centers around sourdough’s longer fermentation time, suggesting the process results in a healthier product.
“Sourdough is an area of enormous controversy,” states the King Arthur Flour website, not only regarding its nutritional benefits but also in terms of the best techniques for making it. America’s oldest flour company has a hotline for home bread-bakers, sourdough questions being a top subject they address daily at kingarthurflour.com.
Denver Wellness and Nutrition Team dietician Jessica Crandall, RDN, advises her gluten-sensitive patients to watch serving size, and remember everyone has a different tolerance level. “Low processed foods are great, fermented foods can be beneficial, but bread is still bread,” said Crandall, who believes the oven likely kills whatever good bacteria exists in sourdoughs. While she doesn’t view sourdough as a health food, she personally loves it for the flavor. “It’s delicious!”
Sourdough has been around since biblical times, when it was just called bread. The lack of it has caused riots over the centuries, and inspired poets like Neruda and Browning and quotes from the likes of Julia Child, who Cleary had the privilege of cooking for in 1995. Child famously asked, “How can a nation be called great if its bread tastes like kleenex?”
Grateful Bread seeks to answer that challenge daily, training a new generation of bakers and millers in an ancient practice to make American bread great again.
Baker John Groundwater takes fresh loaves out of the oven at the Grateful Bread Company in Golden.
Head baker John Groundwater readies freshly made ciabatta bread dough into the oven at the Grateful Bread Company. The family-owned, artisan bakery uses all natural and organic ingredients, including milling its own flour with an Austrian stone flour mill. Photos by Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post
Luke Holland pours rye into an Austrian flour mill to grind at The Grateful Bread Company.