Grain is perhaps the most under-explored ingredient in all of beer, and its role in the rest of our foods isn't much of a main-stage either. Whole wheat or white, maybe a bit of rye — that's about as deep as our vocabulary goes. But Dave and Megan Miller of Baker Miller are betting big on the future of grain in the US, buying up old mills, providing seed to farmers, and sharing their vision with the public one savory hand-pie and muffin at a time.
Dave and Megan have developed a business model similar to Intelligentsia's direct trade ethos in coffee, whereby they work with farmers in regions where the best grain can grow, help them shift their practices toward organic and heirloom varieties, and then work to guarantee a full buy-out of the harvest so the farmer is protected. The storefront, a modest little bakery in Chicago's Lincoln Square neighborhood, is a small window into the larger vision for consumers where the Millers get to experiment with the baking side of things — hand pies, pastries, bread and packaged grains. The rest of their customer list looks like a who's-who of Chicago's best restaurants who are just as interested in what these exceptional grains have to offer. But it's a brave new world, even for seasoned pastry chefs, as they re-learn the qualities and characteristics of the heartier, less processed, and often heirloom varietals of corn, wheat, and oats.
Dave took the class through the sourcing and milling of these fine grains, showing how their test mill changes its grind like a brewer's grist with just the turn of the stone. From a toothy grit to a fine powder, even the finest adjustments created a critical difference in the resulting flour. We sorted through a myriad of grains, dug in and pulled fistfuls from the bags, and inhaled the sweet, dusty aromas of so many kernels.
Back in the shop, Megan set up the ingredients for their official chocolate chip cookie recipe. Separating eggs, mixing in molasses and sugar, and of course, their own baking flour, each team worked the dough and spread out a sheet of golf-ball-sized soon-to-be-baked cookies.
While we waited for the cookie aroma to turn into real, gooey goodness, I found myself thinking about the implications of what the Millers were trying to do in the grain industry. Much like craft beer sought to do almost 20 years ago, they're working unbelievably hard — pulling 16 hours days sourcing, milling, and baking — to provide something as humble as a better-tasting grain to the city of Chicago. Like Ken Grossman's Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, or Jeff Lebesch's Fat Tire, they're hoping these humble products will resonate with a few people who are looking for more ways to connect with their food and seeking diversity in our agricultural system. Now imagine they had opened up a taproom the moment they fired up that first batch in the garage. That's what we have with Baker Miller, and it's amazing that it exists at all.
We're celebrating the grand finale of our Slow Ride Sessions this Wednesday night at Kaiser Tiger, where we'll be featuring all of our Slow Ride partners, including Heritage Bicycles, The Rebuilding Exchange, Handcrafted Barbershop, Baker Miller, and screen printer Dan Grzeca. It's a cheap date for a great cause supporting the Rebuilding Exchange's mission to reclaim materials from Chicago's architectural history and put them right back to work in our best bars, restaurants, and homes. We'll have great beer and food. I hope you join us.