By Anna Thomas Bates | Photos By Jim Klousia 0
Baking balances on the edge where artistry and scientific precision meet. Shaping dough, developing flavors and decoratively slashing bread tops use elements of creativity. But having a keen sense of protein percentages, dough hydration and enzymatic activity are critical too.
Andrew Hutchison, baker and co-owner at Madison Sourdough Company, brings creativity and science together to produce some of Madison’s most delicious breads and pastries.
A visit to Madison Sourdough’s farmers market tent tempts the senses. The stand boasts a glass case stuffed with golden croissants, morning buns and jewel-toned filled Danish. As you bite into one, the layers shatter and melt in your mouth, leaving you with a shirtfront of crumbs and a mouthful of buttery, full-flavored pastry.
Baskets overflow with shaped loaves, miche, baguettes and boules, all adorned with pretty designs. Although each bread has a different shape and pedigree of grains, all have a thin, crackly crust and an interior of chaotic openings. These traits, along with a subtle sourdough tang, let the eater know this isn’t just any common loaf.
Madison Sourdough doesn’t produce a typical loaf, because it is not your typical bakery. Originally started in 1994, Andrew Hutchison and David Lohrentz purchased the business in 2009. The company is vertically integrated and continually evolving. Long-fermented sourdough bread from high-quality, locally sourced grains is their foundation, but the business model includes decadent French pastries, rich ice cream and a bustling café and catering business (led by executive chef and general manager Molly Maciejewski). In 2015, they purchased a mill from Austria to grind their own flour from heritage grains grown by local farmers. The flours are used in Madison Sourdough breads, and they recently announced that a number of their fresh-ground flours are available for sale at their café.
This is not the easy way to do things. Working with local farmers and grinding grain adds a level of variability to the process, and therefore, some risk. When the harvest is brought in, grain is tested for moisture, protein and any potential molds that may cause issues. The results of these lab analyses allow Hutchison to determine how grains will be milled and flours blended for the optimum loaf. “It’s a fun process, but stressful,” he says.
The company has developed relationships with local farmers and grain processors, like Lonesome Stone Milling and Meadowlark Organics, to secure the varieties and types of grains that meet its specifications. While growing wheat is an ancient practice, the knowledge of how to grow older varieties has been diluted over time. Hutchison says local farmers and the two processors are helping revive and share best practices, which is resulting in higher quality grain and better bread. “We’re working together to lay something down for a future generation.”
A traditional long fermentation is one of the ways Madison Sourdough sets itself apart from other bakers. This is the original way of leavening bread and it helps unlock nutrients. Hutchison lists a number of other ways Madison Sourdough is unique: “We pay our staff good wages, everything is made by hand, we use local grains that we mill ourselves, and the bread is pretty delicious.” Hutchison grew up working summer and part-time jobs in the food industry, so he was always comfortable in a kitchen, including working the wee morning hours of an opening baker. “There’s something romantic about it that I enjoy—the solitude, the focus, the discipline of getting up early.”
Hutchison has an art degree and used to regularly spend late-night hours painting in a studio. Baking was being “a night owl in reverse,” and Hutchison was surprised to discover that it was satisfying in similar ways to creating art. But the most gratifying element of creating baked goods is getting to see people’s immediate reaction: that first bite, the closed eyes, the contented sigh. “Indulging people and getting their positive feedback keeps me going.”
Hutchison is proud to be a part of breadmaking history. “It’s so traditional and ancient. I’m part of this community of bakers alive and dead that have contributed to something that is the foundation of society. First civilizations were founded on grain cultivation and being able to feed people by harvesting and storing a surplus of grain.” Madison Sourdough is famous for their hearth breads— beautifully shaped loaves like their monstrous and chocolate-colored miche, or their pleasantly grainy seed loaf with toasted flax, sesame, sunflower seeds and steel cut oats. But recently they have increased production of their sliced pan breads, selling them wholesale to local grocery stores.
Although the hearth breads may be sexier, Hutchison says they’re often more of a special occasion bread for families. The sliced sandwich breads are for every day. “And there’s a lot of integrity in that loaf,” he says. “They are lights-out delicious, and to see this bread used in kids’ lunches—it feels like it has an impact.” Hutchison says it hasn’t lessened the total sales of hearth bread but, instead, has allowed the business to tap into another market of people. “It’s really encouraging.”
With success, however, comes the challenges of scaling up. Maintaining the ideals of a traditionally made product while producing a larger amount as efficiently as possible is not simple, especially when a Madison Sourdough loaf takes 36 hours to produce. Making more bread takes more space and more labor, as most steps are accomplished by hand. Increased production means longer benches for shaping, additional room for loaves to ferment and more oven space for baking.
Diet trends change rapidly, but people experimenting with gluten-free diets out of necessity or curiosity are not a concern for Hutchison. “Four years ago, bread sales stalled. I feel like this was the peak of people going gluten-free. This was when we began seriously sourcing local grain and changed the bread lineup.” People’s questions have shifted as well. Four years ago, customers began asking where the grain was coming from. “Now people are asking how long our fermentation is. That’s the question I want because we’re doing it the right way.”
While Hutchison said Madison Sourdough will never do a gluten-free bread (he would want an entirely separate facility; there’s just too much potential for cross-contamination), he does have customers who can’t eat conventional grocery store bread yet are able to tolerate and enjoy Madison Sourdough’s fermented bread.
New bakeries are opening up in Madison all the time, but this doesn’t bother Hutchison either. “I’m all for competition. As other bakeries have opened, it’s a reminder that we need to continue to perform, push the envelope and maintain quality.”
Hutchison holds up Paris as a bakery culture to aspire to. “If you did a bad baguette in Paris, you wouldn’t make it. There’s so much awful bread in the United States. Once someone tastes the good stuff, people eat it. It’s flavorful and interesting. I would like to see the U.S.’s bakeries swing like craft brewing,” with people becoming more educated about the process and the quality and choosing to spend more of their food dollars on high-quality bread, just like they might for really great beer or coffee.
Look for Madison Sourdough’s beautifully shaped hearth loaves, tangy pan breads and luscious pastries at the Dane County Farmers’ Market, Westside Community Market, Monroe Street Market, local grocery stores and their headquarters and café at 916 Williamson Street. Learn more about them at MadisonSourdough.com.