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Sourdough’s roots in the Bay are as old as the city itself and shrouded in a mythology that has fueled its evolution and persisted for hundreds of years

Carolyn Lipka
November 21, 2017

Sourdough bread is having a moment. As the national comedown from the Atkins craze (and increased awareness of gluten insensitivities) has led us to reduced bread service at restaurants, sourdough has become a star alternative to the white rolls of yore: the slow fermentation process mellows chemical components of the bread, making it easier to digest and widely popular among a new class of health-conscious food lovers. Nowhere is this moment more pronounced than the birthplace of artisanal bread-baking in the United States, San Francisco, home to the 150-year-old sourdough starter at Boudin Bakery, the prestigious San Francisco bread institution haralded by Mark Bittman as "the best bakery in the United States."

The renewed interest in sourdough as a sustainable alternative to white and wheat breads for an increasingly gluten-avoidant population has fed a culture of bread makers in San Francisco, where bakers have found a conduit to experiment and push cuisine forward while adding to the loaf's rich history.

“We are proud to be participating in a craft and tradition that humans have participated in for thousands of years. We’re also hungry for more, and we’re trying to push things into the future,” Josey Baker, owner of Josey Baker Bread, said of the baking community in San Francisco.

Sourdough’s roots in the Bay are as old as the city itself and shrouded in a mythology that has fueled its evolution and persisted for hundreds of years.

Striking gold

Basque migrants clutched their sourdough starters to their chests to ensure the living organisms did not freeze during their trek west for gold. They arrived in San Francisco in the early 1800s, and by 1854, there were 63 bakeries in San Francisco that made sourdough, including Boudin Bakery. Bakers claimed that the sourdough made in San Francisco was wholly unique and incapable of replication because of the climate and microbes in the air.

Sourdough bakeries flourished under this premise until the 1950s, when factories began mass-producing white bread; reduced labor costs, added preservatives and frozen ingredients gave Americans lower prices for less flavorful and drier bread. Landmark bakeries struggled to survive in this new climate and were either acquired by foreign companies that outsourced grains, causing their quality to suffer, or spent themselves into bankruptcy. San Francisco looked like it was ready to close the book on sourdough until 1977 when Steve Sullivan, a busboy at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse, tried to replicate bread he ate on a trip to Paris.

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Sullivan rose to head bread-maker at Chez Panisse where he perfected his loaf using techniques he learned from bakers in Europe. In 1983 he opened Acme bread, ushering in an artisanal bread revolution. Soon other Chez Panisse alumni opened bakeries like Grace and Metropolis. This new crop of sourdough bakers integrated the Austrian technique of steaming the bread while it is in the oven to give a glisten and depth to the crust, while moistening the webbed crumb, modernizing the humble San Francisco classic.

A revolution

Today, another sourdough movement has overtaken San Francisco’s bread scene, and leading the charge is master baker Chad Robertson. The mind and hands behind one of the city's most beloved bakeries, Robertson is the co-owner and head baker at Tartine, which sits in the heart of the Mission district, alongside his wife. Robertson is not just a great baker; he’s a bonafide bread rockstar. 

“When I first started making bread, it was right around when Tartine was getting really popular in the bread world, and I mean everybody was trying to make that loaf just straight up copy it,” Jorgen Carlsen, the wunderkind head baker at the Jane recalled.

Tartine opened in 2002 but came to prominence in 2007, just one year before Robertson won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef. Robertson’s focus on the long and slow fermentation, as well as a deep, dark, scored crust, transformed the way it looked and tasted, and his insistence on making a limited amount fresh daily was a departure from the revolution of the '80s. While places like Acme and Semifreddi were producing tens of thousands of loaves a week, Tartine put out 240 a day, every day. By the mid-early 2000s there were 65 micro-bakeries in the Bay Area responsible for making 2.4 million loaves of bread per week.

Now, as artisanal bakers look to push sourdough forward, the focus is on the grain.

“There’s been a huge movement to find whole grains or stuff that’s locally grown or an alternative to straight-up commercial wheat.” Carlsen said.

The Midwife and the Baker, a mainstay at San Francisco farmer’s markets, sells over 2,000 loaves during the three days a week they are available, and they’re all whole wheat. “We try to push whole grains of some sort into our breads with the hope of selling, creating that loaf that’s properly produced predigested with the sourdoughs,” head baker and former instructor at the San Francisco Baking Institute Mac McConnell said. “I think that eating the whole grain and not just the endosperm is the next step. We’re doing our best to produce a whole grain bread that eats like a white bread.”

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Robertson is leading this movement, as well, but not with as much intention as some of his peers. “Our whole country's bread, which is basically our basic white bread, is now 85% extraction, so it’s very close to whole wheat,” he divulged. “I just want people to be choosing to eat it because it tastes great, not necessarily because it’s whole grain.”

The new grain obsession 

Some bakers are taking their focus on the grains to a new level. Josey Baker mills all of his own grains in-house and sources all of his grains from within California. “I got into it because I got curious about whole-grain bread and pretty quickly realized that the age of the flour is really significant because whole-grain flour goes bad compared to white flour, which is basically shelf stable,” Baker explained.

Working with whole grains offers a unique opportunity for the bakers to build symbiotic relationships with farmers and work towards more sustainable farming practices. “You can help a farmer by using an experimental different grain that they want to grow like a rye,” Mac McConnell explained. “If you can spread the risk for them and speak for the price of grain before they harvest it, you can help boost them financially and not leave them hanging with this grain that nobody wants to buy.”

The sourdough baking community in San Francisco is bursting at the seams, and chefs are eager to immerse themselves in the new scene. Robin Song, the head chef at the forthcoming Gibson, offers a fresh-made sourdough on the Bay area-centric menu. “You kind of can’t get away from the classic San Francisco staples without talking about sourdough. Our air, and our native yeast, have played a major role into what people quantify as sourdough,” Song said. “If it weren’t for the community of bakers that exist in this city, there’s no way I’d be able to pull it off.” 

Bakers are eager to name-check each other, their mentors, their influences and anyone who came before them. The community is more focused on competing against themselves than against each other. Robertson reflects on this at the end of our discussion; “Maybe it has something to do with these invisible things, fermentation. We like to share knowledge and ideas and push it all forward. It’s funny you have someone like Steve Sullivan, and he makes bread exactly how he wants it to be, and we do, too.”