Why is milling important?
Before 1800, white flour, as we know it, was rare. The process of turning whole wheat into white flour was laborious and expensive. 1878 was a turning point in both milling history and, it would turn out, wheat growing. That is the year the first roller mill was built by the company that would later become General Mills. Roller mills required less upkeep than stone mills and, most importantly, were far better at removing the bran and germ cleanly, to produce white flour.
With this cost effective and efficient method of production, white flour became the standard. Breads became whiter and lighter and at the same time less flavorful and nutritious. Bran and germ became food for livestock instead of people, turning wheat’s flavor into fodder. Wheat breeding changed, too. Since flavor was no longer a factor in the production and marketing of flour, it also didn’t matter to wheat breeders and wheat farmers. New varieties of wheat were bred solely with yield, disease resistance and baking performance in mind.
With the market dominance of industrial roller mills and white, refined flour, many critical components of a healthy, sustainable grain economy vanished from local landscapes. Some of these elements are more obvious to those actively working to reestablish regional grain hubs: heirloom seed resources, smaller scale planting and harvesting equipment, storing and trucking facilities, etc. One other important element we’d like to highlight is the necessary resurgence of regional, independent stone mills.
If we are successful in encouraging local farmers to increase wheat crop diversity by planting more heritage grain, then the next critical step in getting bakers on board will be providing the market place with enough high quality flour to meet that demand with confidence and consistency. Enter the local mill. Modern wheat has been bred for the industrial milling process just as much as it has been bred for the industrial bread process. Roller mills do not like heritage wheat, but stone mills do!
Understanding and controlling the milling process is just as critical to stone milling as it is to roller mills. Everything from the diameter of the millstones and their revolutionary speed to controlling temperature and dust collection has an influence on flour quality. Proper stone milling with the right equipment can create flour with a very fine particle size, while retaining all of the wheat’s nutrition, aroma and flavor. A fine particle size is what gives a baker the most options for how to work with a particular grain. Diversity of color and flavor are big driving forces behind planting more heirloom wheat: controlling temperature is what allows the stone miller to preserve maximum nutritional value and aroma.
Throughout history, most cities grew up with stone mills at the center of local industry. They have always been the bridge between wheat growers and all of us, the end users. Researching wheat varieties, defining wheat quality and teaching bakers how to work with the strengths and weaknesses of local grains are just a few of the miller’s critical roles. Most importantly, in order to distribute higher volumes of local flour into the marketplace, we will need millers and mills to return.