Have you ever thought about what flour tastes like? Probably not. Most of us regard flour (if we regard it at all) as a bland delivery system for the flavorful things we really crave: butter, sugar, chocolate, cheese. That’s because the vast majority of baked goods are made with all-purpose flour, a highly refined, commoditized product that doesn’t taste like much of anything.
But a guy named David Kaisel wants to change all that. Working out of a tiny storefront in the Capay Valley, he mills fresh flour from heritage grains, then sells it online and at farmers markets and a handful of retail stores. His customers past and present include the buzzy Faria bakery in Oak Park and Masullo pizzeria in Land Park as well as some of the Bay Area’s leading restaurants: Atelier, Lazy Bear, Delfina.
A Bay Area native, Kaisel worked in product design and global development until a health issue a decade ago caused him to re-evaluate his life. Looking for a career that would challenge him and allow him to work outdoors, he enrolled in California Farm Academy, a Woodland-based training program for aspiring farmers. Unlike fellow trainees who wanted to grow tomatoes or strawberries, he was intrigued by grains. “It’s such a fundamental food, which fascinated me,” he explains.
In 2015, Kaisel founded a micromill called Capay Mills, where he produces small batches of fresh flour. He uses a traditional European stone mill to crush wheat between two stones, which keeps all parts of the grain—the germ, bran and endosperm—intact. Kaisel handles everything from growing the grain (or some of it, at least; he also sources from local farms) to milling, packaging, marketing and selling it.
A voluble and enthusiastic advocate for heritage flours, Kaisel is, to put it plainly, a grain geek. He can talk forever about the benefits of heirloom flour: for the individual who consumes it, the baker who bakes with it, the farmer who grows it and the community that supports and is supported by it. For many consumers, it’s mostly about flavor and texture. “Historical and heirloom wheats have personality in the same way that a cabernet grape has, or a pinot noir,” he says.
At the highly regarded East Sacramento restaurant Joon Market (unfortunately now closed), Seth Helmly made bread with Capay Mills’ heritage flours. “The aroma, the texture,” he recalls, practically swooning at the memory. He didn’t mind the challenges posed by the products’ inconsistent moisture levels. Bread made from heirloom wheat, he says, is “a more interesting product that has, for lack of a better word, terroir.”
Erin Alderson is another fan of heirloom flours. A former food blogger who now publishes the quarterly vegetarian food zine Casual, Alderson would choose small-batch flour over all-purpose any day of the week. “Bread from freshly milled flour is completely different,” she notes. For her, it’s less about taste and more about gluten content and protein level, which differ from variety to variety. Her favorite varieties have evocative names: Sonora White, a hard white whole-grain flour that she uses for making pastries and tortillas; Chiddam Blanc de Mars, a French heirloom soft white wheat, for pizza dough; and Red Bug Nouveau, a blended rustic whole grain flour, for breads.
For people obsessed with pét-nat wines and artisanal chocolate, heirloom flour is the new frontier in the farm-to-fork experience. “It’s exciting to be a part of it,” says Kaisel, who is working to create a regional grain economy. During the pandemic, that got a boost when people stuck at home began baking bread. “Our sales in 2020 were phenomenal,” Kaisel says. “We were milling nonstop to keep up.”
Recently, Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op started selling bags of freshly milled flour from Capay Mills. The products are more nutritious than the all-purpose stuff you buy in the supermarket. They are also, says Kaisel, a vital part of a sustainable agriculture system and a vibrant local economy. That’s something our forebears instinctively knew, which is why every prosperous town in America once had a mill—about 22,000 of them in the mid 19th century. Now, flour production is concentrated among a small number of large producers.
Taking on Big Flour is a tough task, but Kaisel is optimistic. “When I was a kid, wine was Gallo, coffee was Folgers and chocolate was Hershey’s. Those were the three brands,” he says. “Look at those sectors today. We’re in a similar moment with grains and flours.”