Flour, water, salt and yeast: the four ingredients needed to make a loaf of bread, by the standard modern reckoning.
But you can scratch one of those ingredients off the list: According to a few top bakers in Denver and Boulder counties, yeast isn’t needed. At least not in the form that most of us know: those tiny tan granules that puff up a ball of dough in an hour or so and lend a distinct aroma to fresh-baked bread. Packaged yeast — a strain of good old Saccharomyces cerevisiae, or brewer’s yeast — is a relatively recent invention, a shortcut that has been a blessing and a time-saver for home bakers but has also resulted in the slow decline in the complex flavors (and nutritional value, many point out) of traditional bread fermented with naturally occurring microorganisms. The French have a term for this latter style, as they do for anything food-related: pain au levain.
In Colorado, a few practitioners of the time-honored technique can trace their efforts back to two important events in the early 1990s. The first of those was the opening of Boulder’s Daily Bread by baker Ian Duffy; the second was a move from Italy to Colorado by Maurizio Negrini, raised in Bologna as the son and grandson of professional bakers. “I grew up with the smell of bread,” Negrini explains. “I have memories of my father coming home in his white baker’s hat, falling asleep still covered in flour.”
As a young man, Negrini didn’t want to follow in his family’s dusty footsteps. The thoughtful, soft-spoken baker notes that in his early twenties, he had a farm in Italy where he grew vegetables and made wine; eventually, though, he accepted that baking was his destiny. “It was always fundamental in my life,” he says.
Negrini arrived in Boulder in 1996 and began working at Daily Bread. Not long afterward, the company was purchased by Whole Foods, which turned Daily Bread into its house bakery. Negrini stayed on for a short time but was soon presented with another option.
Several years earlier, Udi Baron had started a sandwich company bearing his name — Udi the Sandwich Man — and he’d been buying loaves for his sandwiches from Daily Bread. After the Whole Foods acquisition, Baron needed a new bread source, so he started his own bakery, naming it Udiyon. “I became a baker out of necessity,” he recalls. But he remembered how good the Daily Bread product had been, so Baron eventually contacted Negrini in 2001 and offered him a job. (Duffy had since moved on to California.) Negrini has been with the company ever since and is now a partner. The bakery division of the U Baron Group (which also runs several restaurants) even bears Maurizio’s nickname: Izzio.
While Negrini now has an executive title, he can still be found on the bakery floor shaping loaves by hand, coated in white dust. (His eyeglasses resemble an Arctic explorer’s blizzard goggles, so caked are they in flour.) Under his direction, Izzio Bakery uses nine distinct (by aroma alone, if nothing else) natural starters — all cultured in-house — to leaven artisan breads, some of which contain a blend of two or three of those cultures, which are commonly known as sourdough starters but which impart many flavors other than the traditional tang of classic San Francisco bread.
Etai Baron, son of Udi, explains that the flour is milled by Bay State Milling in Platteville from several varieties of hard red winter wheat grown on 25 farms in northeastern Colorado. Three or four trucks from Bay State deliver flour to the Louisville bakery each week; each truck carries about 40,000 pounds of flour. “It’s hard to work with fresh-milled grain,” Etai explains, “but it provides more interesting flavors.”
Much of the company’s output is frozen and shipped around the country, but all of the bread products are made without additives, stabilizers or preservatives. Some are leavened with standard baker’s yeast, but even those use a minimal amount and are slow-fermented over a time period measured in hours (often more than a day), not minutes. The artisan breads — about 10 percent of the total production and sold throughout the Denver region — can take three days to ferment before being baked in state-of-the-art ovens. Also state-of-the-art are the primary mixers, high-tech models custom-made in Italy, but the original mixer from the 1990s is still in use, as is a sixty-year-old model from Dimmers, a local bakery that the U Baron Group recently purchased.
Andy Clark had just moved to Boulder when the first bubbles of its bread scene were beginning to form. As a high-schooler, he’d worked in a sandwich shop in Vermont, where he fell in love with baking. When Clark started with Daily Bread in 1994, he says, “They wouldn’t let me make bread because I was too novice.” He was also just seventeen. But he got a chance to work with Negrini and stayed on once Whole Foods took over, serving at the helm for fifteen years and helping launch the bread program at the Cherry Creek Whole Foods in 2001.
Three years ago, Clark moved from Whole Foods to Baron’s bakery, just before the name change to Izzio. “I’d known Udi for years and became COO there,” he explains. But he soon moved on again: “I was yearning to be a smaller, neighborhood baker again,” Clark explains, and he opened Moxie Bread Company just over a year ago in a circa 1880 home in Louisville. At Moxie, Clark uses the pain au levain methods he’s been mastering for years. “Maurizio has always been a great inspiration and mentor,” he notes.
Clark has become an expert and mentor to others in his own right. While at Udi’s, he introduced kouign-amann, a tricky laminated pastry that originated in the Breton region of France; his version resembles a cross between a croissant and a muffin. Clark’s kouign-amann earned almost instant recognition when Moxie opened last year, and the shop was named one of the five best new bakeries in America by Bon Appétit in August.
Clark owes the quality of his breads to high hydration levels (the ratio of water to flour) and long fermentation times, which help break down the proteins in the wheat and make for bread that tastes better and is easier to digest. “We aim to satisfy the soul and nourish the body,” he says.
But he also attributes Moxie’s success to “a pretty extensive training program for our baristas.... Coffee is a big component, too.” His mentor’s son, Amadeo Negrini, can be found at the shop, making espresso drinks, selling bread and charming customers.
Two other bakers have passed through the Udi’s/Izzio bakery on their way to independent projects: Steve Scott and David Kaminer. Kaminer was already at Udi’s when Scott arrived, but Scott left first, headed for a new bakery setup at the Med in Boulder. He took Kaminer with him, and the two baked together there for nearly three years before Scott left to found Babettes Bakery at the Source in 2013.
Scott had begun baking in Santa Rosa, California, and was an executive pastry chef in San Francisco before he landed a job at Della Fattoria in Petaluma, one of California’s instigators in the rustic-bread revival. After moving to Boulder, he worked at Breadworks and was the executive pastry chef for the University of Colorado.
As the visionary behind Babettes, Scott is blazing a new trail in Denver based on old ways. “It’s techniques that have been around for three, four, five hundred years,” he explains. And although he has read plenty of books on the subject and studied under some of the finest — “[Negrini] is easily one of America’s best bakers,” Scott notes — the baker has found experience to be the best teacher. “The formulas are all there, but the skills just come through time and practice,” Scott says.
Scott, like Clark, says high hydration and long fermentation times are crucial to great bread. Time and temperature in the oven are also critical, so the breads at Babettes come out dark and crusty (some say too dark, but Scott cites history as his advocate). He also makes a beautiful kouign-amann, along with other traditional French pastries.
The first three years are only the beginning for Babettes. “We have so many different ideas,” Scott says. “We’ll be making things that can’t be found in Denver. We’re having a profound impact on the industry as well as on ourselves.” In fact, he’s aiming for the type of food that would win a Michelin star in bigger cities. He’s also working on a cookbook that will be published in the fall of 2018.
Kaminer’s route has taken him in a slightly different direction. He got his start as a baker in Pennsylvania before attending culinary school and coming to Colorado for an externship at the Broadmoor Hotel. After working as a chef, he decided baking was more to his liking and made bread at Udi’s and the Med for several years before opening a cottage bakery in his own house in the summer of 2014, taking advantage of Denver’s recent laws allowing the production of certain foods made at home on a small scale. He created the Raleigh Street Bakery in his garage, building a wood- and gas-burning oven at one end with a large baker’s bench in the middle.
Kaminer still recalls Maurizio Negrini’s words when he was first hired at Udi’s: “He said, ‘It’s hard work, but you can have your own production bakery in two years if you pay attention.’ Maurizio is such a nurturing, compassionate person — he’s probably the best you can learn from in the state.”
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At his own bakery, Kaminer can explore the ever-changing nature of artisan baking. Flour, some of which he mills himself, changes with each batch; his long, natural fermentation methods result in no two batches coming out quite the same. “Even now, my baking is still improving,” he says. “It’s a tiny miracle when it comes out exactly the way you were expecting.”
Kaminer loves the problem-solving of small-batch baking, the connection to the process, the three-day commitment. But he also likes working alone at his own pace, dividing his time between his bakery and his family commitments. Raleigh Street Bakery uses only about 400 pounds of flour a month (not even an afternoon’s work at Izzio), and Kaminer sells all of his loaves himself: on Mondays at Call to Arms Brewing, on Tennyson Street just south of his cottage bakery; on Fridays from home (much of it in pre-orders); and on Saturdays at the Union Station Farmers’ Market.
At some point, Kaminer says, he will expand into a more commercial operation. But that can wait until after his wife gives birth to their first child; the hours can be tough on a family. And time is one thing that can’t be cut out of the baking process, not without cheating the bread and the customer. “That’s what good bread is all about,” he concludes. “Finding the time and being patient.”