Luciano Repetto: Coffee Roaster

14 February, 2011: Luciano Repetto: Graffeo Coffee Roasting Co.

San Francisco. Of my predilections, I suppose this is true: I am a coffee snob. While I am not proud of this admission, I too often find myself in nebbish conversations about the black stuff, and the qualities separating the good versus bad. Convenience versus craft, diner versus hotel, drip versus instant, espresso versus French press, black versus the über sweet concoctions rolling off the Starbucks assembly lines coast to coast. A dissertation on the minutiae would not be lost on me, or out of the question for this modest blog.

Besides evolving my craft as a home barista, over the years I’ve begun roasting my own coffee beans. Because I am a coffee snob, seeking out the best commercial roaster I can find perhaps makes less sense for TJP than it does for my own edification. This is why I’m paying a visit to Graffeo Coffee Roasters in San Francisco, more precisely in the old world neighborhood of North Beach aka Little Italy.

I discovered North Beach in the mid nineties, while visiting a friend in San Francisco. What began as a day of exploring the city proper by lunchtime had become a fixation on the burgh: Cafe Trieste and other sidewalk cafes, cozy old bars with slices of virtuous pizza, basement record stores hawking stacks of vintage stereo gear, the landmark City Lights Books. By evening we were a couple Irish coffees in and strolling the steep avenues to Coit Tower, puffing Nat Shermans and enjoying the nighttime view over the Bay.

A decade later, I find myself in North Beach on a somewhat regular basis. Being that a particular Dirty Jobs host lives in San Francisco, we are often shooting segments in and around the city. When we are, the crew takes up residence on Broadway, where Chinatown holds hands with North Beach in an eclectic union of culinary opportunity that we adore. In six years we’ve made some favorite haunts for noodles, pasta, tapas, beer, wine … And coffee.

It is only by coincidence that my favorite coffee roaster resides in this same neighborhood. Or should I say, it’s a coincidence that the DJ crew has taken up their particular residence in the same neighborhood as my favorite roaster. This happenstance has its origin in 2001, when close friend (and DJ cameraman) Doug Glover was putting together his wedding in the nearby Stinson Beach area. In his travels to and from, he followed up on a referral to Graffeo’s San Rafael location, where he procured some Dark Roast. Being the thoughtful gentleman he is, Doug brought some home to his best man in Los Angeles …

More than a decade later, I still recall the unfolding of that brown bag, and the token act of putting my nose inside for the ‘whiff’ of what would I figured would be some good stuff. But this was a special. There was a deep robustness here, yet no smokiness or acidity typical of “freshly roasted” beans. It was as if the oils were alive in the air without the sensation of assault. On the contrary, the subtle sweetness that lingered in the nostrils soothed in a way that contradicts a caffeine infusion. I am honest when I say I’ve yet to find this sensation with another roast.

At the time, my barista skills were virginal. I spent what I thought was a lot of money on a used DeLonghi Sorrento, a passive, entry level espresso machine with a steam wand for frothing milk. Despite chopping my beans to dust in a $20 nut grinder (a connoisseur’s no-no) , the Graffeo roast produced a tasty espresso and an Americano on par with a fine French press coffee. I would not improve upon this combo until I later upgraded my knowledge and equipment. But more on that in a future post.

As my snobbery has grown, Doug and I have continued to pick up fresh roast for each other when visits to the Bay area permit, with the locale in SF/North Beach usually more convenient than the San Rafael one. As my skill as a barista has advanced and my attention to refinement has evolved, I’ve held Graffeo as the gold standard of superlative beans, expertly roasted. To date, few roasters (Intelligentsia, Blue Bottle) have consistently offered this snob such inspired roasts, prompting the question: What is Graffeo’s secret?

* * * *

Luciano Repetto greets me on this rainy morning with skepticism. I am not surprised. I’d anticipated some difficulty based on our phone conversations three days prior (while driving across the Utah desert, asking questions about quality and technique in an attempt to garner a spot of credibility), where I was met with a surliness I couldn’t fathom. The man on the phone had seemed at once bothered by my inquiry, answering my questions with a shortness I figured was due to some slight. Ironically, Luciano had no intention of hanging up on me– at least not until he convinced me what makes coffee good. There was no mystery, he assured me, and it certainly wasn’t worthy of photographs. There’s one way to roast, and that’s the best way. Frustrated by my refusal to settle for that, I encouraged Luciano to take some time to think it over. After several hours thinking it over, apparently the notion of my visit seemed a good opportunity to set the record straight: to show what makes a superior roast. “And that will take half an hour,” he said. I’d like a full day, I countered. He snorted. “I’ll see you Wednesday.”

The small retail front of the establishment is well lit, with a vintage roaster and a strange theatre-prop-like display of a slanted table with large cappuccino cups in the window. The place smells of heaven (that is, if coffee is served beyond the pearly gates). Now that we’re face-to-face, Luciano leans on the counter and sizes me up. He’s a grandfatherly sort, dressed in a tasteful collared sweater. “So you want to see the process, huh? This’ll be quick.”

Already Luciano is heading through the adjoining room, where his shop manager is filling retail bags of fresh roast from a 50-gallon trash can of dark, oily beans, toward another room full of shiny machinery. I pause momentarily, long enough to drink in the aroma of all the beans and to ponder the surface area of fresh roast filling my nostrils.

By the time I catch up to Luciano, he’s pressing a button on the control panel of a massive stainless steel contraption, and it whirs to life with a rush of air and rattle of what I presume is coffee beans inside. He steps aside, and from what I can gather, we are witnessing the creation of another batch of product. After a couple of minutes, he opens a porthole so I can see the innards at work: airborne beans bathed in a warm orange glow, always in agitation to prevent burning against the steel walls of the roaster. The cacophony of the process has rendered communication impossible, but I do my best to follow along. Luciano points out a kiosk-like apparatus that is plotting lines onto a disk of paper. It looks like something Cal Tech would use to monitor earth movement, but what it’s really doing is tracking temperature change over time. This is vital to the process, as evidenced by the rapid cooling phase whereby the heat is cut and the chamber blasted with fresh air to stop the roasting as quickly as possible. A moment later, Luciano is emptying the beans from a hatch and into a trash barrel, filling the room with a blast of rich, roasted aroma. The machine goes quiet. He gestures to the bounty.

“No smoke,” he says. “Beans will continue to roast, and that makes control impossible … Unless you arrest the process.”

Though I don’t grasp the significance of this quite yet, I do understand that this is big information and I’d best pay attention. By the way, it is interesting that there is no smoke after such a violent, hot process.

Luciano has just left the room, pushing the can before him. I catch up.

“And that’s it,” he says.

“Okay, let me get my camera set up and we’ll do it again.”

He nods to the bagging operation still in process.

“That’s our light roast for the day, and this is our dark. We’re done roasting until tomorrow.”

Done? I laugh. It’s really all I can do.

“Luciano. I’m here to take pictures.”

The front bell rings, and Luciano returns to the retail desk to assist a customer. The shop manager, hard at work filling mail and website orders, offers me a knowing smile.

When Luciano returns, I’ve got my camera set up and I’m shooting the beans, the glorious beans.

He resumes. “So that’s really all there is to it. I told you it wasn’t anything photogenic.”

“I’ll come back tomorrow if I have to, but I need shots of you operating that machine. And I need to understand it and what makes it so special.”

The shop manager is grinning. Luciano caves. “Okay, okay,” he says.

* * * *

We’re back in the roast room. Satisfied that I do, in fact, care about this process, Luciano has shifted gears. He has slowed down, resigned to an obligation that we now share. We begin by doing a second round of dark roast, preceded by a dry run without power or heat.

Luciano’s baby, aka the Grand Apparatus, is a fluid bed roaster of 15 years age, one of a handful of such machines in existence, designed and built to spec by coffee roasting luminary Mike Sivetz of Corvalis, Oregon. Mr. Sivetz is a retired chemical engineer and “the world’s leading authority on coffee roasting.” Even in his 80’s, Mr. Sivetz continues to experiment and refine the principles he and Luciano hold as vital to proper roasting: Complete temperature control of the bean, right up to the ‘set point’ (or target temperature) of the roast; an effective arrest of the roasting process, followed by immediate cooling; and, inclusive to the preceding steps, continuous ventilation throughout the process.

A roast in its essential form should not be smoky. (At the risk of compromising your coffee cred, don’t tell Luciano you like a smoky roast.) Besides a smoky environment, killers of quality include less-than-spotless equipment and inaccurate gauges for monitoring and controlling temperature.

Throughout this rather matter-of-fact dissertation, I find myself relating to the objectives of Luciano’s time-proven process with my own attempts at home roasting (with a rotisserie nut roaster, made in China and modified by my DIY friend Jerry to accept coffee beans). I ask some pretty naïve questions, which Luciano endures: How do you know when a roast is done? (A: When the bean reaches uniform color throughout); What temperature is best to roast at? (A: Graffeo’s Light Roast is a 13-minute process to a 434-degree set point; the Dark Roast is a 14-minute process to a 464-degree set point; the non-chemical Swiss Water Decaf varies by batch due to fluctuations in moisture retention, as monitored by weight and appearance); Is the grind more–or is it less–important than the roast? (A: The roast is everything. And freshness has no substitute.)

As I become acquainted with Luciano and his ethic, I realize that his pointed answers are less a result of surliness and due more to what I’m growing to appreciate in every professional I meet who is at the top of their game: unadorned conviction. Patience is a virtue that becomes less useful to the practiced; expediency is golden. For artisans like Luciano, my presence represents a distraction that, until I prove myself worthy of higher wisdom, is mere nuisance.

Over a ‘worthy Graffeo espresso’ across the street at Mario’s Bohemian, we discuss origins. Born in Naples, Italy in 1944, Luciano was raised in the northern seaside town of Liguria, Portofino. An only child, he immigrated to the US with his father, Giovanni, post war. After working at a pasta factory for several years, Giovanni took his knowledge of coffee roasting (handed down by his own father, a merchant marine who roasted beans at sea) and in 1954 bought the roasting company in North Beach, an establishment originally opened by Giovanni Graffeo in 1935. In 1978, Luciano took over operations. Since that time, Graffeo Coffee Roasting has thrived on repeat customers, some with loyalties dating back four decades. Luciano knows he’s doing something right, yet he doesn’t get caught up in wild aspirations. Now roasting in two locations (San Rafael and San Francisco) with website customers around the world, Luciano has the flexibility to consolidate. In 2010 he closed a Beverly Hills retail space: “My manager was retiring anyway; it was easier to close the shop than to replace him.”

Even at the age of 66, Luciano has no plans for his own retirement. “I don’t know what I’d do with my time.” Especially where refinement takes time, and time is a commodity not to be squandered. Upgrades are key, in both tech and know-how. Walking back into the shop, Luciano pauses at the old roaster in the window.

“If you live in the past, you have no future,” Luciano says. “When the set point is everything, a roaster like this is a dinosaur. You must have control and consistency.”

“Otherwise you may as well use a nut roaster in your kitchen,” I say.

“You have no control, but you have a hobby,” he says. “And if it works for you, and you like you’re coffee, then that’s enough.”

“But I want control and consistency,” I say. “That’s the only way I can improve my roast.”

Luciano laughs.

“Pay a visit to Mike Sivetz,” he says. “He’ll design you a roaster. Take your checkbook.”

* * * *

Anything done well is an art, but coffee roasting is first a science served by technology. –Luciano Repetto

In memory of Michael Sivetz, 1922-2012. I regret not making it to Corvalis in time.

Graffeo Coffee Roasting Company: www.graffeo.com

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28 September, 2012

Taos. I’ll begin by stating the obvious. For over a year The Journeyman Project has been dark, its production relegated to the back burner.

When I started this photo essay late in 2010, I had every intention of spending a healthy portion of my time traveling and meeting the American workers who remain committed to the ethic that made this country great, those tradesmen, craftsmen, and artisans who exhibit the character to persevere in this challenging time of ours. A year-and-a-half later I remain committed to that mission, even if the time available to me has lessened.

In the first year of the Project, I was enlightened by the ethos of the professionals I had the privilege of spending time with. From the Midwest and the Great Recession’s ground zero zone of Detroit, through Old World Columbus, to the frontier of Utah, I found myself educated and inspired–as an artist, yes–but also as another kind of guy: A guy who likes to build things, who appreciates history, detail, quality, and the grace at the core of these values.

While working as a cameraman on Dirty Jobs has familiarized me with the cause of the tradesman, the hustle of a traveling TV production could hardly prepare me for a delicate aspect which resonates from each of my portraiture subjects: an unspoken ethic which, if you pay attention and watch and listen closely, you will feel. This characteristic is difficult to label, but I here venture to describe it as a selfless expression of love. This love is for one’s work, where there exists a selfless state of activity resulting in excellence, the nature of which inspires further the love for one’s work. Thus, as the worker works, that work propagates the work. It is a perfect machine, of sorts.

As a photographer, cameraman, filmmaker, documentarian, storyteller–whatever it is I do around here–I can report a similar state of satisfaction in the work that I do. I would do better to describe it as a state of being. Really, it is the act of doing that I find particularly rewarding, as opposed to the product of my efforts. In this way I relate to my subjects wholeheartedly, regardless of their vocation. I am simpatico with Allen Feaster the shoe shine expert because he exemplifies this sublime way of being. In fact, Allen brings such inspiration to his craft that I am captivated, as if in the aura of divine knowledge. Are shoes really so important? When Allen’s at work, they are. Absolutely. (Allen’s story has yet to be posted on this blog.)

In Tibetan Buddhism, the unification of subject, object, and action is said to be the experience of Vipassana, or ‘the state of intense inspiration and clear insight.’ I cannot better suggest this state of being. When Allan the Shoe Doctor (the subject) works on a boot (the object) by plying his expertise and interest through his technique (the action), the effect is one of quiet transcendence (not to mention a killer pair of boots).

As the subjects I’ve managed to meet exude this character, I remain motivated in the direction of this photo essay. I am truly inspired to meet individuals who are energized by the work they do as much as the work they do is energized by their innate excellence.

Those fortunate enough to manifest such a relationship with ‘work’ seem to have found their calling. The choice to pursue that calling often takes precedence over alternative choices with greater economic reward, which makes a compelling case for the values of integrity and character. Yes, if my experience means anything, it seems as if my subjects have solved a fundamental mystery of life: while money might be nice, it isn’t necessarily the goal.

The seminal tome of Studs Terkel, Working, cast a wider net in interviewing the American worker at large. Published in 1972, Terkel’s survey captured the gamut of the skilled and unskilled, the educated and the uneducated, the delights and frustrations of every social class that strove to earn a living. While the consensus of attitudes towards ‘the job’ was obviously vast, only a minority of individuals reported “a meaning to their work well over and beyond the reward of the paycheck.”

To date, I can report that the tradesmen represented in this blog are of this distinction.

Alas, I’ve been chomping at the bit to get back to TJP. It would be easy but narrow minded to consider the past year-and-half a waste of time (for the project, that is), as the time away has proven valuable in my recognizing some things. First, the course of one’s life is often beyond the control of one’s plans. At the outset of the project I figured there’d be some fifty-plus subjects in the can by year two, enough work to warrant a book of some sort. Being that I’ve yet to photograph twenty workers, the notion of any kind of formal compilation remains elusive.

Instead of succumbing to frustration, I am reminded of the importance of quality and the need for integrity that TJP represents, and that the responsibility of producing this project allows me the right, if not luxury, to take as long as I need to get it right.

Second, becoming a father has a profound effect on one’s priorities. A difficult pregnancy required a particular attention on the home front, followed by those delicate first months of a child’s life and the orientation of parenthood. Being able to realign my work and travel aspirations was a luxury I could afford only because I work on a project-by-project basis as contract labor in the TV biz, or am otherwise self-employed. Now that we’ve got a beautiful, healthy 8-month old and are in a groove of domesticity, looking outward is again feasible.

Josephine 6 months

Josephine Lindsey-Paff at 6 months

In that my worldview has expanded by two facets to allow foster the perspective of father and head of a household, I am ever sensitive to our troubled economy and how the ongoing unemployment trends in this country motivates the purpose of TJP. Where principles of American quality and pride continue to be compromised by cheap manufacturing and labor, it remains vital to uphold the ethic of tradesmen, craftsmen, and artisans who are finding it ever more difficult to ply their specialties. While it might seem this is a dying breed of professional, I hope we are perhaps near a turning point where the values embodied by their standard of work will again take precedence, if not preserve the American way.

I would value the input of the readers of TJP to weigh in on this aspect of the project. With today’s globalization an undisputed reality, are the values of the ‘journeyman’ relevant? Should we uphold the role of these individuals in our society, or allow economic entropy to run it’s course?

* * * *

As I am recently returned from a two month production job in the Florida Keys, in the coming weeks I intend to re-rail the Journeyman Project. I will do so while reconciling my ongoing commitment to Mike Rowe and Dirty Jobs (for whatever adventures await our intrepid crew), the pursuit of other nonfiction television production work, and my new responsibilities as a dad.

If you’re reading this, you’re likely a supporter of this blog and the mission that this project seeks to uphold. For that, I thank you. Big thanks also for your patience, and for the posts and emails of support. I hope they’ll continue.

Coming up, I have several Journeyman shoots from 2011 that I’m looking forward to sharing: A two part series on the coffee trade featuring a bean roaster and espresso machine purveyor, both from San Francisco; shoe shine expert and DJ alum Allen Feaster, known appropriately as the Shoe Doctor; and, finally, another DJ alum and perennial favorite, pig farmer Bob Combs.

Stay tuned.

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Bill Oblock: Baker

9 February, 2011: Bill Oblock: Crumb Brothers Artisan Bread

Logan, Utah. “It’s all in the crumb.” That’s the take home message from a day spent learning the finer points of bread making from Bill Oblock, master baker and owner of the aptly named Crumb Brothers Artisan Bread. While that sounds convenient, and maybe even obvious, I’m here to report that crumb isn’t what the layman (ie., non-baking me) thinks crumb is. Confused? I was too. Yes, crumb does refer to those bits of loose bread that falls from the loaf, from your fingers and mouth, hangs out on your beard and litters the tablecloth (thus necessitating the need for the crumber). But more on that later.

Crumb Brothers’ bakery resides in a modern, architect-designed building customized with geothermal heat exchange and passive solar to augment the heat generated by a large oven. Low-E windows and functional blinds work in tandem to regulate airflow and fills the space with natural light. Outdoor landscaping is primarily native and water-conserving. In these ways, the bakery is a commercial pioneer in Logan, making small demands on the grid and providing an example for local construction projects. This conscientious approach to operation mirrors the approach to creating bread.

When I arrive at the bakery, Bill is settling on the recipe he’s going to use with an experimental stone ground flour he’s received from one of his vendors. He’s only got a small amount of it, and from some online research decides that starting the bread with a liquid leaven in lieu of a stiff leaven (or a combination thereof) will improve its outcome. Because the quality of the bread correlates to the ‘floor time’ it receives, we are quick to get started on what Bill is calling the Petra Italiano, otherwise known as a French leaven style of bread. Sports car, fashion model, or loaf of bread, it just sounds sexy.

The mixing process combines the four basic ingredients that comprises bread: flour, water, salt, and yeast. The manner in which the yeast is presented is known as the starter, which might be an overnight variety created from the mundane instant yeast one can buy in the grocery store or a perpetual starter which is fed/replenished with flour and water for continuous use. Sourdough is known for this latter approach to starters, where the waste product of a friendly bacteria imparts the characteristic sourness.

Bill’s goal is to keep his perpetual starters more on the warm side, closer to room temperature, in favor of a cooler starter one might produce with refrigeration. “A warmer approach encourages a lactic acid response, yielding more of a buttery flavor. Retarding the starter with refrigeration results in a sour flavor.”

Ah, the particular-ness of the connoisseur comes forth. Besides the attention paid to temperature, there is an obsession with ingredients. Bill favors locally sourced organic flour, and takes pride in the fact that the mill he uses generates a premium product to Crumb Brothers’ spec. Because Central Milling Company is right down the street, Bill can play an active role in quality control. This convenience of close collaboration helps the mill as much as it does the bakery.

Once the mixture of starter, flour, water, and salt (and here a bit of malt) comes to rest in the bowl, Bill wets a hand and lifts a handful to the light. He pulls it into a thin membrane for careful inspection, and gazes at the product with the intensity of a tea leaf reader. He pulls some more. Sensing the implicit significance of this moment, and fearful of the potential of my missing something, I lay bare my ignorance. I ask the question: “So, Bill. Is this … Dough?”

Now at this early point in our day, Bill has yet to entrust me with the confidence of a collaborator, never mind a person of reasonable intelligence. The gaze I receive is part reticence, part wonder. I figure I’d best elaborate.

“What I mean is that there is nothing more to do with it, other than bake it. I mean, ultimately, that’s our complete bread in an unbaked form. In other words, it’s no longer in need of anything, the process is complete, so it’s officially dough.”

“Uhhh … Yes.” Bill says.

Clearly I’ve done little to groom my credibility. Bill shifts his attention back to The Dough. Still analyzing, he continues: “But we can’t just bake it.”

“I guess it needs to rise first,” I say. Now I’m really talking shop. “What are you looking at?”

“The protein in wheat, when hydrated, develops bonds in a network with elastic and retractive characteristics.” He gives the dough a bit of a pull. It’s springy. “That’s what gluten is. The more you handle the dough, the denser the bread will be. This, with the amount of water added to the dough, affects the crumb of the loaf.”

The crumb of the …? The plot thickens. I feel like I should know what Bill’s referring to here. I mean, I’ve baked before. Maybe not bread, but I can make a decent scone. My scones definitely have crumbs … Ah well, I figure it’ll become clear.

Bill gathers up the rest of the dough and gently lays it into a plastic tub. He covers the tub with a weathered sheet of plywood, being careful to segregate the tub from other stacks of tubs in the room. Thus begins what Bill calls floor time.

Bill strives for a four-hour floor time, which is quite long when compared to factory bread. Typical factory bread receives no floor time, resulting in a comparatively boring loaf. This crucial period allows for fermentation to occur, where lactic acid generates carbon dioxide as a bi-product. “And this,” Bill emphasizes, “develops flavor and affects the crumb of the loaf.”

Bill starts turning over boards to reveal variations of dough in various stages of floor time. He gently pushes the surface of one mass to demonstrate its lack of readiness; the pliability isn’t quite resolved. The board goes back over, and we move on. I see flatter dough, rounder dough, darker dough, lighter dough. Dough with seeds, dough without seeds. Or is that whole grain? And behind him, assistant mixer Alicia is mixing up a batch of polenta dough. It strikes me as very yellow for bread, and corn-mealy, and Bill agrees that while it is not a purist’s loaf, it is a customer favorite.

I’m considering my strategy into addressing this crumb thing when Bill announces that we now have down time, because the dough can’t be rushed. Not at Crumb Brothers. Later on, after lunch, we will form and, at last, bake. Until then, would I care to see the mill up the road?

On the way to the mill, which takes all of five minutes to drive to, I learn about the origin of Crumb Brothers. In 2002, friends Josh Archibald, John Reichert, and Bill Oblock combined their passion for hand-crafted, artisan bread making with a commitment to build an environmentally and socially responsible business in Northern Utah. Bill’s unique slant as a successful restaurateur provided a solid foundation on which to do this; in fact, his commitment to the bakery’s success predicated closing one of the top restaurants in Logan.

“The restaurant lifestyle owns you. With a wife and two young daughters, I was ready to pursue a better quality of life in a similar field.”

It seems that Bill has achieved that. No longer needing to work ungodly hours in conventional food service, and able to approach the work day with a pleasant predictability in a field ripe for refinement and growth, Bill has been able to build a strong reputation in the region, with a growing demand for Crumb Brothers bread in greater Salt Lake City and beyond. Josh and John have since bowed out of active duty, leaving Bill as the owner and head baker. Now the bakery is more of a family business. Wife Diane does bookkeeping, brother David handles sales, and even his daughters chip in seasonally to join other college students and several full-timers as assistants on the floor.

After the mill field trip (a walk back in time which proves yet again that they don’t build machines like they used to) and a photo op on the roof, we break for lunch. In Crumb Brother’s adjoining cafe, I join some old friends for one of the best turkey sandwiches of my life. The secret? It’s the bread, silly. I had a killer ciabatta. It’s got tooth, texture, flavor, tug … I could go on.

In the closing throes of my sandwich ecstasy I am gathered once again by Bill, who announces that forming is about to commence. We make our way to the kitchen. On the floor, flanking both sides of a large table, is bread manager Kevin Willeto and a team of college students readied for … some kind of big process.

Bill takes up a spot next to a gal with a dough knife and a scale, and suddenly they’re off: no sooner is a massive mound of dough laid out like some kind of offering does the gal start lopping off large chunks of it, hefting them onto the scale and adjusting weight with smaller bits, and then heaving the final revision toward the center of the table, where one of the supporting players grabs it with flour-dusted hands and lays it quickly-yet-oh-so-gently into a round whicker basket, and then re-dusts hands just in time to collect the next glob of flying dough. In minutes the process is complete, and the scores of baskets are transferred to rolling racks.

This batch of loaves will be Polenta Jack and will retain the roundness determined by the baskets. The next batch of dough, Sunflower Oat, will be laid laterally between folds of linen couche (cloth), resulting in an elongated oval loaf, and so on.

“And now we bake them?” I ask.

There are snickers.

“Not these loaves,” Bill says. “These have to proof for awhile.”

What’s that? I’m thinking maybe I have time for an afternoon coffee.

Bill continues: “We strive for a six- to eight-hour period on the proofing racks before baking. Proofing achieves maximum volume and the development of interesting flavor components.”

I definitely have time for an afternoon coffee.

Bill flips the cover back on one of a small army of proofing racks. “But we’ll bake some loaves that are finished proofing, and the Petra will be ready soon.”

So much for the afternoon coffee.

Over the next hour, Bill empties proofed loaves of various shapes onto a large gurney and preps them for their respective durations in the oven. Many are split with a razor blade to control bursting and enhance curb appeal. Bill and Alicia work fast, and it’s very exciting. Finally, after the textbook goal of perfect golden is attained, Bill uses a massive peel to remove the loaves. There is a particular grace to the whole proceeding, but nothing beats the beauty of the completed loaves. They are like little sculptures … sculptures that smell amazing.

Bill wipes his hands on his apron and grabs one each of five cooling loaves. “Follow me,” he says.

We make our way to a small tasting kitchen just off the hallway to the main floor. Bill puts the loaves on a large cutting board, and with a long, serrated knife slices through golden crust and into the steamy tenderness of warm French leaven. He slides a small dish over to the cutting board. It holds a quarter stick of butter–room temperature, still in its wrapper. But not for long.

“This is not only the inspiration for the name of the bakery,” he says, spreading a knife full of butter across the white of the bread. “It’s what we strive to perfect with every loaf.”

The butter disappears into the slice like slow magic, the delicate, fibrous voids in white embracing the golden fat. Delicious. The crust has a delicate crack to it. This is surely why someone invented the word crust in the first place. And then the velvet and tang of the white, and its perfect resistance to chewing. Then it occurs to me… The white? No, the crumb! I understand!

The crumb is itself sublime, but, then, it suddenly serves to emphasize the toastiness and snap of the crust. And so forth, the crust elevates the crumb. Like a double helix of taste and texture, this simple yet elusive construct–bread–is here a journey, and that journey is a revelation.

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