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Though 2017 has arrived at this artisanal bakery as elsewhere, Hewn, 810 Dempster St., has in many ways turned its clock back instead of forward. From the rustic, recycled décor to the use of locally sourced organic ingredients and a slow-acting leavening agent, the past seems firmly ingrained here. Co-owner and Director of Business Operations Julie Matthei says the bakery is “hearkening back to the way things used to be.”
Head baker Ellen King, a trained chef and Ms. Matthei’s business partner, delved into the history of farming and the ancient craft of bread making and found inspiration for Hewn’s artisanal loaves. Remembering the thrill of discovering a hand-cut beam that helped date a centuries-old Maine house, Ms. King chose the name Hewn for its allusion to the notion of “hand-wrought.“ Human hands, not machines, mix and shape Hewn loaves and pastries.
No commercial yeast goes into the bread. Hewn is committed to an unhurried fermentation process using the sourdough starter Ms. King created several years ago.
The goal is to recapture the natural flavors that prevailed before the “Green Revolution,” when technology transformed food production in post-World War II United States. This “revolution” focused on feeding the multitudes through mass farming, Ms. King says. To that end, she says, seed companies introduced engineered varieties of wheat to replace the ones that for centuries had been propagated by seed saved from each year’s crop.
Hewn has forged ties with organic farmers in the area. Three years ago, Ms. King began talking with Andy Hazzard of Hazzard Free Farm in Pecatonica, Ill., about a small-scale effort to return heritage grains to cultivation.
They obtained two pounds of Marquis wheat seed from a professor at North Dakota State University. Ms. King’s research in farm journals indicated Marquis, which originated in Ukraine, was imported to the upper Midwest in the late 19th century and thrived. Midwestern families enjoyed bread made with Marquis wheat flour until the 1940s, she learned, when farmers switched to grains geared to the new pesticides and fertilizers.
No one knew whether Marquis wheat would work in the 21st century. But it did. With the two pounds of seed, Ms. Hazzard planted three rows of Marquis wheat, each 150 feet long. The first crop was so small they harvested it with scissors. The original two pounds of seed yielded 30 pounds. Last spring, Ms. Hazzard planted that seed and last fall, was able to harvest a second crop with farm equipment.
The day of the RoundTable interview, Hewn was marking a milestone. That day only, they had 14 loaves of Marquis bread for sale – the entire 2016 crop. Ms. King had to stretch the Marquis flour by blending it with Orleans, another heritage variety, but reported, “The flavor is great.”
Hewn bread has just four basic ingredients – flour, water, salt, and starter. “You are tasting the natural flavor of flour,” Ms. King says. Using starter instead of instant yeast adds a slightly sour flavor and “allows a richer, more complex flavor to develop,” she says. The starter also “acts as a natural preservative” and when combined with organic flour, “makes [Hewn] bread easier to digest,” she adds. She says this means some gluten-intolerant customers find they can eat Hewn bread.
From hand mixing to baking, the bread making process takes 20 hours – a lengthy but not leisurely period Ms. King calls “a tricky part of the business.” Preparation for a bake must begin two days in advance and allow for variations in conditions like air temperature and humidity. Bakers use touch to decide how much water to add. All this makes for “a routine that is never routine,” she says, and necessitates a flexible approach to planning.
There are “tight times,” Ms. King says, such as the four-hour period when the bread must be turned every 30 minutes before it is shaped and left to rise naturally overnight. So much attention is required, Ms. King says, “It’s like being a parent to a loaf of bread.” In the toddler stage, she says, the bread “sometimes does what it wants to do, but hopefully, it will be a nice adult.”
In June, Ms. Matthei drew on past experience with construction and oversaw a remodel that incorporated the building next door to double the bakery’s size. A window now lets customers see the four bread bakers and three pastry chefs at work.
“There’s almost always someone here,” Ms. Matthei says. Bakers operate in shifts during a bakery day that begins at 11 p.m., when they divide the baguettes and ciabatta. More help arrives at 2 a.m. A pastry bake is scheduled for 3:30 a.m., and at 5 a.m., bakers mix breads for the next day’s bake. Work continues until 5 p.m., when all the bakers leave.
It takes experience to plan for the right number of loaves and pastries, each of which amounts to half Hewn’s business. The owners say their main focus is avoiding food waste. But they also dread running short, and the long lead-time means it is not possible to make more bread if they do. They typically make 200-300 loaves a day on weekdays. Though they say they “on occasion sell out,” experience has helped them better estimate the demand. Hewn’s most popular bread is their signature Country loaf, 80% bread flour and 20% whole wheat. A sure sell-out is their weekends-only monkey bread. Ms. Matthei says since realizing “if the weather is nice, people come out,” they have become weather-watchers.
The owners’ varied life experiences prove valuable both in front and in back of the bakery. Ms. King earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history, trained at the Seattle Culinary Academy, and worked in Seattle restaurants and grocery stores. Ms. Matthei’s background as educator and guidance counselor helps in interactions with the mostly young employees.
The owners say they love their customers, “down-to-earth people,” who “embrace you” and “want you to succeed.” They praise the area’s “wonderful community of food people,” whom they find “not hyper-competitive.”
But their “most treasured asset,” they agree, is their employees. Attentive to their welfare, she says, “We don’t make them stay late.” But she admits that given how much she and Ms. King “love what we do,” keeping a balance in their own lives remains a challenge.