Chow Bella

Flour Power: Phoenix Emerges as a New Capital of Artisan Bread-Making

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"In the end, it all comes down to this mill, one mill," says Ben Butler.

He sits on a stool, one arm resting on an archaic-­looking machine in a small back room of Pane Bianco in Central Phoenix.

The Osttiroler Getreidemühlen mill, one of only a few in the Southwest, came to Phoenix by way of Austria. The hulking piece of machinery is made almost entirely of pinewood, except for the two 300­-pound stones responsible for slicing wheat berries into fine flour.

It is the heart of the whole Hayden Flour Mills operation, yet it barely fits inside the room that's been its home for the past three years.

"Even small orders make it crazy because it's all happening on this little machine with one person," Butler says.

He's referring to himself. During the busy season, the bearded, blue-­eyed young miller might spend 50 hours a week in this room turning bags of wheat berries into soft, white flour. The space once was a roomy office for the restaurant but now serves as one of the hot spots of the local bread movement: It's home to one of the city's best artisan bakers, Marco Bianco, and one of the city's only flour mills.

The fact that the milling company has outgrown the room is a testament to how far it's come. The space was an invaluable contribution from Chris Bianco when Hayden Flour Mills was starting out.

Or rather, starting over.

Charles Hayden founded the original Hayden Flour Mills in 1874. For more than a century, until it went out of business in 1998, the company name was synonymous with its most popular flour brand, Arizona Rose. The most recently built Hayden Flour Mills factory (two previous ones were lost in fires) still sits vacant on the north end of Mill Avenue in Tempe.

For many Arizonans, both the structure and the company name evoke strong memories, so when Jeff Zimmerman found the Hayden Flour Mill brand name hadn't been renewed in years, he bought it for himself with the plan to bring freshly milled flour back to the state.

Though not a farmer, Zimmerman grew up on a farm in North Dakota, where his family raised chickens, pigs, sheep, and cows and grew crops such as grains, soybeans, and corn. He worked in the tech industry -- a fitting career for such a natural innovator -- but speaks knowledgeably and eloquently about all things wheat.

He wanted to get back to his childhood food ways, and while he already was able to get heirloom tomatoes, free-range chickens, and grass­-fed beef, he couldn't find what he needed to get fresh flour. He began to wonder why no one was talking about bringing back ancient types of wheat.

"Over time, we started to see that there were people all over the country asking the same question," he says.

Research eventually led him to Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills in South Carolina. Roberts, a pioneer of the heritage grain movement, had been growing the original grains of the South since 2000 as part of a larger effort to revive the 19th-­century cuisine of the coastal and midland Carolinas and Georgia.

Zimmerman also found similar grain­-focused projects in places including New York, northern California, and Washington State.

Clearly, the idea of milling fresh flour wasn't crazy. But before he could join the movement, he would need seeds.

That breakthrough came thanks to Native Seeds/Search, a nonprofit in Tucson, and renowned agricultural ecologist and writer Gary Nabhan. They introduced Zimmerman to White Sonora wheat and helped get him seeds for growing.

"Charles Hayden was using White Sonora wheat in his mill," Zimmerman says. "So if you wanted to grow heritage, White Sonora would go back as far as you could go, at least for North America."

By 2012, Hayden Flour Mills had harvested its first crop of locally grown heritage grain. But finding farmers willing to take a risk on crops that hadn't been grown on a production scale for decades hadn't been easy. Zimmerman knew these ancient grains would never yield as much wheat as modern hybrids, a huge disincentive to farmers.

Zimmerman needed someone devoted to the cause.

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Lauren Saria
Contact: Lauren Saria