In its 27-year history, La Brea Bakery has arguably become synonymous nationwide with artisanal breads and baked goods. The Los Angeles-based company became the largest artisanal bakery in the US when it built its Van Nuys, CA, production plant in 1998. La Brea’s breads began making their way into supermarket bakeries, spreading from Southern California into the rest of the nation. The company’s success is strong enough to validate its self-billing as North America’s No. 1 artisan bread brand.
Now, La Brea is looking to top itself, recently unveiling a line of artisan breads made from single origin heirloom grains. La Brea Bakery Reserve is the first nationally available farm-to-table artisan bread.
“Single-origin heirloom wheat is a really exciting and important part of La Brea Bakery Reserve,” says Jonathan Davis, senior vice president of innovation for ARYZTA North America, the company that has owned La Brea since 2001. “When developing our new line, we knew we wanted to work with the absolute best wheat possible. Our resounding message for this line has been ‘Wheat with a purpose.’ We truly believe that great breads come from great grains grown by passionate people in special places.”
Facing the challenges
Farm-to-table bread hits a wide range of consumers’ current purchasing drivers and, as a result, has become a figurative hot item on supermarket shelves and around in-store bakeries. But developing and producing the first nationally available farm-to-table bread presents its share of hurdles.
For starters, there’s the simple fact that making single-heirloom grain requires sourcing ingredients at a scale that hasn’t been done in the artisan bread community. La Brea developed a relationship with Wheat Montana, a family-owned and operated farm in Three Forks, MT. Wheat Montana’s Fortuna Wheat — a non-GMO heirloom grain grown for flavor and not yield — is the basis for the new La Brea Reserve line.
“Bringing the farm-to-table movement to our breads is not without its challenges,” says Davis. “Simply from a supply chain perspective, our Fortuna supply is subject to weather and vintage conditions, where most of that specificity on a year-to-year basis in traditional baking is blended away. Although it does provide some variation, it also creates some interesting and subtle variances in the finished loaves.”
Another challenge is increasing the level of production for such a high-end type of bread. “Producing this level of bread in our bakeries is another challenge,” Davis says. “We have been making world-class breads in our bakeries for years and are used to extended levels of proofing and fermentation, but we took it even a step further on La Brea Bakery Reserve.”
That means, for the first time, La Brea has introduced basket proofing to help support the breads during the important step of production. “It also gives our La Brea Bakery Reserve breads their signature look,” Davis says, noting the rustic attractiveness of the loaves.
After the single-heirloom wheat is shipped to La Brea’s facilities — the company has a Los Angeles bakery and two larger bakeries in Van Nuys, CA, and Swedesboro, NJ — Davis and Matt McDonald (La Brea’s director of culinary innovation) immediately begin working with unique and patented starters to create true farm-to-table bread. Each of the three breads in the line — Pain de Campagne, Struan, and Fortuna Wheat Loaf — uses a different grain mix and flavor profile.
While La Brea declined to comment on which suppliers are used in their facilities, Davis pointed out that the company is continuously looking for new relationships. “The technology to make our La Brea Bakery Reserve breads has been implemented in multiple bakeries,” he says. “Our equipment decisions are driven by the visions we have for our breads and not the other way around. We work with a variety of suppliers to imitate a true artisan baking technique — gentle handling, long fermentations and our original starter.
“We are always looking to new suppliers and equipment to raise the quality of our breads. Being the best and striving for even better is what drives us every single day.”
One area that has not presented any new challenges is logistics, where past experience has seamlessly found its way into the new line. “The logistics of bread distribution and anything perishable are always difficult, but it is something we have perfected over the last 25 years,” Davis says. “We are fortunate to have great partners across the US. We are excited to bring a new level of transparency and quality to bread in the in-store bakery.”
Reaping the rewards
To put it simply, producing a nationally available, farm-to-table, single-origin bread isn’t exactly a breeze.
“Using ancient grains is certainly not the easiest or most cost effective way, but it produces the best bread possible, and that’s why we’re using it for La Brea Bakery Reserve,” says Davis.
In other words, it’s well worth the effort. With Fortuna wheat’s classification of “vintage” or “heirloom,” Davis says it has the capability to set La Brea Bakery reserve apart from other breads. Not only does it result in the most flavorful bread possible, he says, but the vintage wheat and the longer fermentation process makes nutrient-rich bread, through the use of wholegrains, possible as well. In fact, Fortuna Wheat is specifically known for having high protein content.
The search for the perfect Fortuna led straight to Wheat Montana Farms, which sits on incredibly fertile land that produces significant flavor instead of maximum yield.
“The terroir is unsurpassed,” Davis says. “Knowing that terroir is as important for breads as it is with wine, we researched the best conditions for growing wheat. This led us to Montana, specifically Wheat Montana Farms.”
Wheat Montana’s location near Three Forks, in the southwestern part of the state, places it near the headwaters of the Missouri River, where three rivers converge. The region’s high elevation — one of the highest grain-growing areas in North America — combines with cool nights, hot days and extremely low rainfall to stress the grain and produce some of the highest quality wheat in the world.
“La Brea Bakery was simply interested in harvesting the absolute best wheat and grains possible,” Davis says. “And Wheat Montana Farms was a natural choice when everything was considered.”
On Wheat Montana’s end, the company continued to grow Fortuna Wheat long after the grain had been forgotten by most farmers. “It doesn’t produce spectacular yield,” Davis says. “The varietal has a significant yield ceiling when compared to the modern selection, which is why farmers don’t typically grow this, or other heirloom varietals, anymore. Fortunately, though, Wheat Montana Farms saw the potential to make something truly special with advanced flavors and nutritional quality and continued to grow and harvest Fortuna Wheat.”
La Brea Bakery Reserve continues to roll out nationwide and is available in select markets and on Amazon Fresh.