When it comes to experimenting with unfamiliar ingredients, I’ve never been much of an incrementalist. Even if something is good on the first try, I move from there quite broadly to establish the ends of the spectrum.
Maybe that first try does turn out to be the best. But you won’t know unless you have others with which to compare. Once the range is established, it’s a relatively simple process (but often time consuming) to work your way to what you want. That was the plan as I began working with “barm”—originally, the waste from a brewery’s fermentation tanks that contains yeast—as the leavening agent for bread.
Recent trends, as you likely know unless you’ve been radically lobotomized, include a return to all things “artisanal,” i.e., how things were done in the past. Yes, “artisanal” is word that even Domino’s Pizza has claimed, and their definition reflects the majority of the population’s: “fresh” (another diluted term) with a nod to the traditional—meaning herbs, spices, and some higher-quality ingredients. Which is a good thing. Really. It is. Not sayin’ I’m buyin’ Domino’s pizza, folks, but at least there’s an attempt by a national franchise corporation—as grudgingly executed as it might be—to make a slightly better product.
But what “artisanal” still means to me is hand-crafted goodies, formed by old methods in which the critical ingredient is time. By “time,” I mean A LOT of it.
Which leads to another food trend, one that’s proving long-lasting. I’m talking fermentation, folks. Great cheese, great aged meats, great beer (and hard liquors), all manner of pickled vegetables and fruits and a bunch of other really great stuff is produced by the careful management of rot. That includes bread, namely sourdough cultures.
I work for a bakery that specializes in sourdoughs (Saint Agnes Baking Co.) and my tenure there has led me to keep my own sourdough culture in my home fridge that I bake from regularly (no, I don’t have a name for the starter, because that’s ridiculous). A real-deal sourdough (i.e. no added yeast + long fermentation time) is a spectacular thing, and once I started baking in that method I began to research other ways breads were naturally leavened beyond the sourdough culture. That research eventually led me to the book, “English Bread and Yeast Cookery,” by Elizabeth David. In it, David gives a history of bread making in England and writes a bit about “barm.”
As mentioned above, actual “barm” is a bi-product of the beer brewing process; the term historically referred to the scum skimmed off the nascent beer during the fermentation process, which contained some liquid and yeast. Back a few hundred years ago in Europe, it wasn’t uncommon to find the town bakery adjacent to the brewery. (One can assume the bakers within Renaissance-era monasteries took advantage of their proximity to their legendary brewing counterparts.)
In Europe “barm” is a familiar term, and occasionally used to refer to a sourdough culture. But, historically, the vast majority of the time the word refers to the skimmed tank scum.
Nowadays, one might say that “barm” is the yeast that has settled out to the conical bottom of the fermentation tanks in the modern brewery. And that yeast has some of the beer from the tanks mixed in, of course.
For our purposes on this blog, I’ll use the term to refer to that fermentation tank goop. Barm is not, nor does it contain, spent grains. Spent grains are what you picture: the waste plant material (barley and other grains) steeped during the initial brewing process.
Spent grains have been a popular item of late, written about in articles and recipes for use in breads and pizza crusts. But, frankly, the practice didn’t interest me. I’m not someone who enjoys a whole lot of roughage or seeds inside a loaf of bread. Further, after some direct experience (as witness and taster) I can definitively say, “Don’t bother” with spent grains.
In early summer, our pastry chef at Saint Agnes, Kris Hennessy, received a bucket of spent grains from a home-brewer friend and baked off a few regular loaves and quick breads and the results, while not spat into the garbage can, weren’t anything worth repeating. The texture of the spent grains also varied, and some were tooth-pickingly unpleasant.
To put the final nail in the spent-grains coffin, I chatted with Mark Stutrud, the founder of Summit Brewing Co. in St. Paul. He said if the brewer is any good, all flavors have been extracted from the grains, and all you’re left with is roughage—which, as stated above, can be quite rough, indeed.
Extrapolating from that, if the brewer is not so good, you might get flavor, but whatever you get from them will likely vary wildly, which is bad when you are trying to develop a consistent loaf.
And that’s what we want with bread: consistency. If our local bakery’s sourdough varies in sourness from day to day, we won’t be buying it long. Likewise with any other bread, from a straight-up white bread to a caraway rye.
One way to attempt consistency is to create your own barm, which involves combining beer, yeast, flour and fermentation time. I fiddled with that at home and then I and Saint Agnes’s CEO Dan “Klecko” McGleno experimented with the process at the bakery, using Guinness (we had it on hand) and then Summit Pale Ale. The Guinness loaf was good, the Summit loaf even better, but duplicating that Summit loaf proved difficult. In baking, without a reliable formula, it’s not worth the trouble since improvisation to correct problem is not an option. At home I went so far as to create a barm using a beer with a bottle-conditioned beer (Chimay). And it was good. But different than, say, dumping a bottle of beer in good sourdough formula? Can’t say that’s the case.
So, back to that real-deal barm and consistency. I remained intrigued with the historical idea of procuring yeast from the brewer, and imagined some bread flavor nirvana. But bakers centuries ago that used barm out of necessity weren’t striving for a beer-ish flavor. They needed yeast. It was what it was. They often drained, rinsed and/or dried the yeast to—you guessed it—achieve consistency in production and flavor, processes which would also remove any funk—good and bad—from the barm.
The whole point of this exercise, however, is to create a bread with a unique flavor profile, or, at the very least, a base “umami”-type effect on which to build a great bread.
My first barm sample, about a gallon-plus, was most graciously given to me by Andy Grage, the owner of Vine Park Brewing in St. Paul. It was a hoppy soup, likely from an IPA tank. Plenty of beer in the container, the yeast suspended, creating a smooth tan slurry.
Not knowing where to start, I mixed a starter, taking the flours in the same amounts that I used to feed my sourdough starter. Instead of adding water to the flour mixture, however, I added the same amount of the barm, and wound up adding more to reach similar consistency as my regular starter. That’s the rub when working with this stuff: one must retain some flexibility and adjust moisture (as in add more, given much of the weight of the barm is yeast, not liquid) as needed.
Activity started immediately. I also fed my regular sourdough starter for use—I wanted a comparison—and, because I did this in the evening, refrigerated both staters overnight.
At 7:30 a.m. the next day I pulled the starters from the fridge and set them on the kitchen counter. Both had light activity with the barm slightly more. When I checked at 10:30 a.m., the barm starter was twice the size as my sourdough. I water tested the barm starter—it was good to go. Mixed the dough, gave it a 25 minute autolyse, added the salt and mixed, and set it up for a four-hour ferment—the same as if I were prepping a sourdough.
At about 12:30, the sourdough starter was ready—the loaves wound up being staggered an hour apart. Both loaves were a basic recipe using bread (high-gluten) flour and a little whole wheat thrown in. Use your own go-to sourdough recipe.
Both got four hours to ferment with one turn each, then a quick shaping, and proof. With shaping, I really didn’t want to work the barm dough too hard since I didn’t know how much energy was left (turns out there was plenty) but that’s the great thing about baking at home using a cast iron pot or dutch oven: there’s much margin for error and you can get away with a loose, high-moisture dough—take advantage of that.
Both baked at 450 degrees F for 20 covered, then 20 uncovered. The results very good, although the sourdough had a lower profile than the barm. The barm had thinner, more delicate crust, both had great color. They had a similar crumb and creamy texture, but the barm was a bit lighter and lacked the tell-tale sourdough scent, but it did have a certain depth, and the taste was lightly nutty, slightly sweet, and without the tinge of salt that held in the sourdough loaf.
Basically, the barm loaf was good-flavored with nice texture. If the person devouring it weren’t told, however, would they know it contained beer and beer yeast? I doubt it.
So back to that whole “ends of the spectrum” idea a-way back up there. The next round I mixed the dough with straight barm in place of the “starter” and the water used in the recipe. I had to add an additional amount (50 grams) to get the dough mixed enough for the autolyse. The dough did relax, but still added a splash to mix in the salt after the autolyse.
With fermentation, activity was immediate. I let the dough an hour before turning by hand; it had increased in size by about 1/3 with large gas bubbles forming. Odor was richly beer-y. Overall, it doubled in size, and with shaping held together well. (Again, with these experiments, I err on the side of too much moisture, since I’m tossing them into a cast-iron pot anyway.) The dough proofed one hour, then into the pot. Same drill: 450 degrees F, 20 minutes covered, 20 minutes (or thereabouts) uncovered.
And… as you can see below, nice. Smelled rich and beer-y, in a most pleasant way. The interior was exceptionally moist, the crumb aerated with a network that would meet any food photographer’s definition of “artisanal.” That photogenic quality isn’t great for practical things like, say, supporting butter or jam you might spread on it. Or a gilled cheese sandwich. I prefer a tighter, lighter crumb in a day-to-day bread.
The dark color was entirely the result of the barm, as the amount of wheat flour I used in the mix wasn’t significant. The taste was deeply rich; one is definitely chewing on something unique. And then at the end…whoosh, in came the hops, bringing an astringent finish. It was a potent concentration in the crust, which, honestly, would be unpleasant for many.
Still, there was something really good going on. And to reinforce that there was some tremendous potential, my wife cut a slice off without knowing what my latest experiment was and used it for her morning toast, loading it with strawberry preserves. “This is good,” she declared, and packed up the rest of the loaf for our July 4 weekend trek.