If you’ve recently seen the name “Barton Springs Mill” pop up on restaurant menus across Austin, you’re not alone.
For two months, the newly opened mill near Dripping Springs has been selling flour to restaurants across the area on the day the grains are milled. Chefs hadn’t been able to buy that kind of fresh flour locally, and that means Barton Springs Mill owner James Brown is an even busier man than he thought he’d be a year ago when he hatched this idea.
For now, Brown has two jobs. He is the director of worship at First Presbyterian Church and director of the Saint Cecilia Music Series, which focuses on early music from composers on the verge of being forgotten. He is also a pipe organist and plays the viola da gamba, a stringed instrument that faded from popularity in the 16th century.
But on Fridays and Saturdays, he’s milling flour with Cody Hendricks, a part-time employee who was a baker at local restaurants including Easy Tiger and Bufalina.
This isn’t the first time Brown has worked in food. He got a culinary degree from the Art Institute in Houston and ran several kitchens there — after working under Certified Master Chef Fritch Gitchner, no less — before moving to New York City to pursue a doctorate in historical musicology.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, he and his then-wife decided that it was time to move back to Texas. They landed in Austin, where Brown took the job at First Presbyterian. They later divorced, but Brown continued his work in the church.
Brown remarried, and a few years ago, he and Valerie started looking ahead to what their next project might be. She was nearing early retirement with the state. Brown had developed tinnitus, which affected his job in music, and though he missed the culinary industry, at age 52 he didn’t want to get back on the line at a restaurant.
Brown had been baking bread for fun, but he started to get more serious about it after discovering Chad Robertson’s groundbreaking “Tartine Bread” cookbook, which came out in 2010. Brown’s bread was good, but he knew it could be better. He also was a fervent reader of the Perfect Loaf (theperfectloaf.com), whose author was milling his own grains in an effort to produce the best loaf possible.
Brown wanted to grind wheat berries at home for fresh flour but was unable to find organic grain for sale to an everyday consumer like him. Homestead Heritage outside Waco and Richardson Farm northeast of Austin sell some stone-ground flours but in limited quantities and varieties.
So, with his affinity for all things ancient, Brown started researching heritage and landrace wheat varieties that historically have been grown in North America. Heritage, or heirloom, wheat includes what Brown calls proto-grains such as kamut and einkorn. Landrace grains are hybrids or the product of many years of farmer selection.
To find out which varieties might grow well here, Brown consulted the first Texas crop report, published in 1919. One of the biggest wheat crops that year was turkey red, a heritage grain brought over by a wave of Mennonites in the 1870s who emigrated from Russia to the Midwest, mostly Kansas, with trunks, crocks and even skirt hems filled with seeds.
Texas farmers are still growing wheat, but not many of them are growing it organically, much less in the varieties that Brown was after. “I found every farmer in the state that had ever mentioned they’d grown wheat organically,” he says. “I called 45 of them and met 10 of them in one long weekend” to see if they would grow grain for him.
Brown had already started talking to other possible grain-buyers in Austin, including Jester King Brewery and the soon-to-open distillery Still Austin. He knew that in order to get the quantity and variety of grain that he wanted, with some kind of local sourcing in place, he’d have to go directly to the farmers. To set up those meetings last summer, however, he had to alter his pitch.
“At first, I said, ‘I’m part of a grain-based initiative based in Austin,’ and they would hang up. What I’ve learned from these guys is they get so many phone calls, so much BS, so many promises that don’t come true, they just tune it out. I really had to refine my message to say, ‘I want to buy your wheat.’”
Once he met them face-to-face, each one agreed to his proposal.
“I said, ‘I’ll show up with all the seed you need. I will show up the day of harvest, and I will take it from the end of the farm road. I’ll send you a Christmas card, and you won’t hear from me until the next year’.”
To set his plan in motion, he reached out to organic farmers around the country to buy enough grain — in varieties such as sonora, turkey red, red fife and marquis — to launch his mill and also to deliver to those Texas farmers for planting in places such as Tokio, Miles and Lamesa.
In November, those four of those 10 farmers planted 150 acres of wheat destined for Austin. (He didn’t expect for them all to be so open to working with him, so he could only partner with a handful.) In June, that should yield about 150 tons of grain that Brown will pay to have trucked to his mill and storage facility. Some of his partners in the booze industry will take about 50 tons of it, but the rest he’ll store in one-ton totes stacked three stories high in his warehouse.
“I’ll have more wheat than I know what to do with,” he says, but the demand for the product has been so high that “before it all shakes out, there ought to be four of me in the state of Texas to have enough.”
When stored properly, that grain can last years, but, just two months into the wholesale business, Brown has enough customers that he’s milling hundreds of pounds of grain a week for local chefs and bakers.
“I wanted to start with wholesale only to work in larger amounts to dial in the process, work with professionals and get feedback on the product,” he says.
Brown reached out to the owners of Grist & Toll, an urban flour mill in Pasadena, and Hayden Flour Mill in Phoenix for support when he was researching the concept. He says they were incredibly forthcoming with knowledge about the industry, even though the millers knew that they’d probably lose business from Central Texas chefs who currently order from them.
Both of those businesses are built around the same type mill that Brown bought from Austria that uses two 48-inch composite stones that weigh 1,500 pounds each to crush and grind the whole wheat berries.
In the warehouse that stores the grain, the mill sits next to a sifter stacked with boxes of screens. Once the wheat berries in the hopper drop into the mill and come out a chute on the side as fresh flour, either Brown or Hendricks scoops the flour into the sifter to remove some of the bran and germ. The more bran and germ that you remove, the finer the flour. The heartiest whole wheat, with most of the germ and bran still mixed in, has more nutritional value than if all the germ and bran are removed, but that kind of flour isn’t appealing to all palates or bakers.
For some customers, Brown sifts the flour all the way to “00,” from the Italian milling system where flours are ranked 1, 0 and 00. It takes two pounds of freshly ground whole wheat flour to make one pound of 00 flour, but the result is a light, soft flour that is perfect for pasta and pizza. That pizza and pasta will carry more color than you might expect, but Brown hopes that home customers, like the chefs, will appreciate the complexity of taste and nutritional value of whole wheat flour. “I’m never going to be your unbleached flour guy,” he says.
Olamaie, Emmer & Rye, Apis, Pizzeria Sorellina, Odd Duck, Barley Swine and La Condesa are some of the Austin-area restaurants where you can already find Barton Springs Mill flour, and home bakers can soon buy it at places like Salt & Time, Metier and local farmers markets. For now, it’s only available in 2.5- and 5-pound bags from the mill near Dripping Springs. Prices range from $6 to $28.
Brown says he thinks the rising reports of gluten intolerance are a sign that something is wrong with the way we are growing and processing wheat, including the wide use of pesticides and insecticides. Conventionally raised wheat, he says, is usually treated with one last spray of insecticide before it goes into storage to reduce the prevalence of weevils. He has friends struggling with gluten intolerance who are able to eat his organic bread made with heritage grains without the same problems they have with conventional bread.
Wheat, unlike corn, is a crop that — as of yet, and to Brown’s relief — is not being genetically modified in the commercial market. However, GMO wheat exists, and illegal samples of it have popped up in small quantities in at least three states in recent years.
David Norman, the head baker at Easy Tiger, has been thinking about where flour comes from and how it’s milled for decades. Much of the flour used at the bake shop and beer garden comes from Central Milling in Utah, which similarly contracts with farmers to grow select varieties of wheat and other grains, paying the farmers a premium so that we can have better tasting flour.
Central Milling sells both bleached and unbleached flours from grains grown across the country. White flour benefits from aging, he says, but freshly milled whole grain flour is best fresh because the germ and its oils can spoil over time.
Norman was thinking about setting up a mill in the new Easy Tiger headquarters that will open later this year.
“Then James came by for a visit and explained that he planned to buy the same type of mill from Austria that I was thinking about,” he says. After hearing Brown’s shared passion for the art of milling and good grain sourcing, Norman decided not to pursue setting up his own system.
Now, Norman is one of Brown’s biggest customers. He’s buying hundreds of pounds of whole wheat flour from Barton Springs Mill each week and developing new whole grain breads that incorporate some of the specialty rye and other flours Barton Springs will be producing in the coming year.
Brown isn’t only in the wheat business, however. To grow that wheat in a sustainable way, the farmers plant rotation crops, including legumes, to keep the soil balanced. When Brown was at one of the farms last year, he posted to Instagram a photo of some of the peanuts that one farmer had in the ground. Before he got back to Austin, Zach Hunter, who was with Fixe and is now preparing to open the Brewer’s Table, messaged him about how he could buy some.
When other chefs found out they could get fresh peanuts, they all started calling. “My peanuts are in just about every restaurant in town right now. I bought one ton of peanuts, but I should have bought five,” Brown says.
He realized that rotation crops, which farmers usually just plow into the ground or turn into livestock feed, could be high-value crops, too. Those farmers just needed a buyer who saw their value.
“There’s no reason for them to turn it into cow food,” he says. “I got into this business because I wanted to make a tasty loaf of bread, but somewhere along the way, I accidentally became an activist. You don’t have to be in the business long to see how bad things are for the farmer. I understand why when I called them, they thought I was another person trying to take advantage of them.”
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the name of “Tartine Bread” author Chad Robertson and the number of farmers growing Brown’s wheat.