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Ancient grains gain traction with consumers

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Story by Maggie Glisan

KANSAS CITY, MO — Flavor isn’t the only way artisan bakers are tinkering with the classics. Consumers are increasingly curious about ancient grains. In a recent survey from Ardent Mills, 63% of respondents said they were either very familiar with ancient grains or had heard of them, while 85% showed interest in the nutritional benefits and 82% said they were interested in the functional benefits. Ancient grains are also of interest to many people with gluten sensitivities as they can often be consumed without difficulties.

Bakers are tapping into that interest and finding a variety of grains to incorporate into their recipes, including spelt, kamut and einkorn — all of which have seen an uptick in popularity.

Ellen King, co-owner and director of baking operations at Chicago-based Hewn, who has been sourcing local and ancient grains for the bakery since it opened in 2013, said she is excited consumers are starting to catch on to the benefits. Today, the majority of Hewn’s grains are locally sourced from Illinois and Wisconsin and stone-milled heritage varieties of wheat are used in all their breads.

“I think people finally have an understanding of what heritage wheat and ancient grains are,” King said. “Maybe they’ve read about them or tried them somewhere. There are still some grains that are foreign to people, but now we even have customers that will come in and ask for the specific variety of wheat we’re baking with, like Turkey Red, Red Fife or Marquis. They’re more open to experimentation and trying different varieties.”

Roxana Jullapat, owner of Friends & Family in Los Angeles, is another baker leading the growing ancient grain trend. Her restaurant and bakery tout a deep roster of domestically sourced ancient and heritage grains such as purple barley, buckwheat, sorghum and rye.

Some artisan bakeries such as Pittsburgh bakery Mediterra Bakehouse are making the move to mill their own flour.

At Independent Bakery Co. in Athens, GA, all the whole grain flour is milled in-house, with half the grain sourced from a nearby farm. And at Gaston’s Bakery & Mill in Boise, ID, bags of milled local grain have become almost as popular as the bakery’s hand-crafted buns, boules and batards.

Bary Yogev, co-owner and head baker of Liv Breads in Millburn, NJ, said this is an exciting shift but added that in-house milling tends to be best suited for small bakeries, as consistency can be a considerable challenge. He also said that when it comes to ancient grains and niche flours, while it’s fun to talk about, he’s not sure the consumer demand is there yet. However, Yogev looks forward to more experimentation among bakers, which will hopefully get more consumers to catch on.

Trends may come and go, but Yogev and King both agree that sourdough and artisan breads aren’t going anywhere.

“Overall, it’s a fun time to be a bread baker,” King said. “Consumers are smart, and they’re curious and want the freshest bread they can get. That’s an exciting opportunity for us to be able to expand upon what we do.”

This story has been adapted from the June | Q2 2023 issue of Craft to Crumb. Read the full story in the digital edition here.

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