Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Meet the Baker: Noah Elbers

Related post: Noah Elbers' Maple-Oatmeal Bread As we were driving home after a visit to Noah's bakery in New Hampshire, I was thinking that if I could have another life and start all over again and be a professional baker, then I would want to start my career at Orchard Hill Breadworks. Not only is it located deep in the woods of New Hampshire which are gorgeous year-round and especially in the fall when we were there (sorry I can't show you more pictures than the ones I took from the car as it rained all the time we were there)...
...but I have never seen such a jolly team of bakers as Noah and his employees. Kurt, one of the full-time workers, was away on a trip but I met the two other permanent members of the team...
...Dave Cody (who used to work with kids with behavorial problems)...
...and Brendan Smith (who started as a home baker when he was working in a consulting firm specializing in renewable energy)... well as Ben Ewing who was replacing Kurt on a temporary basis and who, by trade, is a forester. All three love biking (as does Noah) and I have the feeling that they have no problem finding something to talk about as they work. Dave and Brendan live a mile away on the same road as the bakery. They bike to work most of the time. Every house along the road has a wood stove and they say the air smells delicious as they ride by. They clearly love it here and Noah enjoys the interaction with his employees. A small detail (which I found it endearing): Noah's family has a flock of 50 laying hens and whenever these hens lay, his bakers get free eggs. Now that has nothing to do with baking but it certainly fosters a feeling of belonging...
I am always amazed at and delighted with the diversity of the paths which lead to bread. Noah himself started baking as a teenager when a next-door neighbor built a wood-fire clay oven and recruited him to help make bread. He loved the essential nature of the elements involved, fire and earth, especially in the winter. He enjoyed seeing the dough rise in baskets. He also loved the bread which was excellent. But he didn't see baking as a career. By the time he graduated high school he had pretty much ruled out college and decided to stay home and help his Dad run his farm (he has an apple orchard). The baking neighbor no longer lived next door. They had remained friends however and one day he convinced Noah that he needed to build his own outdoor oven, so that he could bake breads on weekends. The rest is history (or rather a story told here on the bakery's website).
Dave, Brendan and Ben - soon joined by Noah - were shaping the 6-grain bread when I showed up in early morning. As can be seen from the video below, the bakery is a regular beehive:
Noah says he has no illusion about being a master baker. Bread isn't a religion for him and he doesn't live through bread. He likes the idea of leaving space within himself for other interests and hasn't devoted attention to developing a signature bread nearly as much as to trying to make a living for himself, his wife and his two kids. He describes himself as the type of baker who has given a lot of thought to the bread-baking process, tried his best to learn and observe as he went along (he never went for formal training and at the beginning mostly learned from books such as The Bread Builders by Alan Scott as well as from skilled friends) and ends many a shift with a puzzled look on his face. He finds that the complexities of baking are at times well explained by science and at other times simply unexplainable. But he goes with what works for him and obviously cares deeply about the quality of his products.
Most of Noah's breads are naturally leavened except for a couple of sweet breads which benefit from an addition of poolish. He maintains a liquid levain (at 90% hydration) which is fed every 12 hours with a mix of 90% all-purpose flour and 10% freshly cracked rye (he finds that rye adds complexity and takes away some of the more acidic flavors). He uses an old refurbished mixer which is gentle on the dough.
The piece of equipment Noah takes the most delight in is however his oven. Having baked for years, first in an outdoor clay oven (despite the rustic appeal, he certainly doesn't wax nostalgic about the days he had to carry trays of proofed loaves outside in all kinds of weather) then in an Alan Scott brick oven (it could only hold 30 to 40 loaves at a time, and no more than 500 loaves in a day's bake which would take 14 hours to complete), he clearly enjoys his gorgeous Llopis revolving brick oven: it allows him to bake more than 900 loaves in little more than 8 hours.
There are three bake cycles per week (from preferment mixing to bread delivery), each one producing on average 1,000 lbs of dough (total dough production will reach 155,000 lbs this year). Noah is committed to making weekly not only a 100% whole-wheat loaf but also another whole-grain one which changes regularly (rye, Russian rye, whole-spelt with rice, oats and millet, currant rye, etc.) At each bake he also makes a country campagne with 40% whole grain. Although he himself enjoys whole-grain breads, he acknowledges readily that they represent a very small percentage of the total production.
Now for those among you who are passionate bakers and love to delve into the specifics, here is a bit of technical information:
  • Noah doesn't preshape, ever. He has done a lot of side by side comparison and failed to establish that it made a difference
  • All his doughs are pretty well hydrated but not superwet (at least 70% for most white doughs and closer to 85% for the whole-wheat), so that they relax quickly
  • Although most of the white flour he uses (hard red winter wheat) comes from Quebec's La Milanaise, Noah mixes all his preferments with Kansas Heartland Mill flour which, in his experience, seems to have a better tolerance for long fermentation. He regularly uses a blend of 70% Milanaise and 30% Heartland.
  • For the whole wheat, he uses exclusively La Milanaise flour
  • He fires up the oven while mixing the bread (which means that the oven isn't fired every day). When baking, by the time the oven floor is completely loaded with bread, the first loaves are finished and fresh loaves are immediately put in their place. The oven is never less than 80% full.
  • The ceiling of the oven is much higher than in most deck ovens. Due to the high volume of very humid air (coming from the baking loaves), there is no need to add steam
  • Noah uses poolish (together with levain) to give the dough an extra boost whenever it contains a lot of sweetener or milk
Noah also makes specialty breads: one of the most popular is cracked pepper & parmesan but I never made it up to the bakery on a day when this bread is on. So I can't say how it tastes. But the first time I visited the bakery, Noah had just made maple-oat bread. I bought a couple of loaves and brought them back home. It was love at first bite!
The bread is so good that I decided on the spot that I had to interview Noah for Farine and beg him for the formula. He kindly acceded to both requests and I now have the great pleasure of introducing a marvelous specialty bread: Noah Elbers' Maple-Oatmeal Bread.


  1. My wife and I visited Orchard Hill Breadworks on 4 OCT 2011. Despite the rain and rather rough roads, we found the visit to be more than worthwhile. The breads were just as good as you described.
    In particular, the French bread batard demonstrated just how much more practice I need in my own baking. The crust simply shattered into small pieces as I cut the loaf. The crumb was still quite moist, even in the late afternoon after we had returned to my parents' house. For a simple bread, it was impressive in all ways. The maple oatmeal bread made wonderful toast the next morning.
    The cookies that were available that day were excellent as well. The cranberry oatmeal cookie is on my soon to be baked list.
    My wife and I look forward to stopping at the bakery next year when we return to visit New England again.

  2. Hello Postal Grunt! So glad you stopped by the bakery and enjoyed the bread and cookies. Orchard Hill Breadworks definitely deserve to be bookmarked as a must-stop destination when visiting New England...



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