Where's the dough in artisan bread?

The run-of-the-mill British loaf is being put to shame by the exotic output of more caring bakers - and their 'gastronaut' customers are staying loyal despite the downturn. But are there easier ways to make a crust?

by Rhymer Rigby
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Those who frequent farmers' markets and delicatessens might assume that the long-running food revolution has finally caught up with our daily bread. Visit London's Borough Market and you'll find stalls for outfits like Flour Power City and De Gustibus groaning with lovely looking loaves and toothsome baked treats. Their breads are things of beauty - huge sourdoughs shaped by hand, dense, chewy ryes and focaccias glistening with olive oil and salt. They're about as far from a loaf of industrial sliced white as Parma ham is from Spam.

Of course, beautiful bread costs. A basic supermarket medium white loaf, made using the high-speed, industrial Chorleywood bread process, is about 75p. Its artisanal equivalent is likely to be around £2 - and the more esoteric breads, notably the sourdoughs, are usually a lot more. However, it's a price that the middle-class gastronauts who form the bulk of shoppers at these places seem happy to pay. Perhaps the ultimate in upmarket artisan bread is found at the Hobbs House Bakery in the Cotswolds. Here, Britain's most expensive loaf retails at £21, but it is a 2kg monster and the price includes courier delivery.

But are these upmarket loaves really evidence of a genuine revolution in the bread we eat? Or is talk of large-scale change a case of the metrocentric, middle-class foodies projecting their values on the Mother's Pride-loving masses? And, given the prices these loaves command, is baking artisan bread an easy way to make lots of dough?

If there is a bread revolution, then it's early days. For decades now, Britain's bread market has been one of the most highly industrialised and commoditised. According to the Federation of Bakers, hungry Brits buy £3.4bn worth of bread a year, and nearly 11 million loaves are sold per day. Of these, 78% by value come from large industrial bakers, and 17% from in-store bakeries in supermarkets.

Some 80% of bread eaten in the UK is sold sliced and wrapped. A mere 5% comes from master bakers (independents and craft bakers), and not all of them are commonly considered to be artisan bakers. Although there is little agreement on what constitutes artisan bread (see page 59), the best that can be said is that artisan market commands less than one-twentieth of the market by value (and less than one-thirtieth by volume, given the hefty prices). In some European countries, by contrast, the figures are reversed - 80% of the bread comes from local independents.

Those who like to imagine that artisan bakers spend their nights baking in rustic stone buildings in the shires will be disappointed. On a grey and rainy winter day recently, I went to an industrial estate near Millwall in south-east London to visit Flour Power City. Like most food production facilities, the bakery is all clean, modern hygienic surfaces - steel, a specialised flooring and giant ovens - inside a plain industrial unit. What surprises, though, is how simple it all is: two giant mixers, a prover, where the bread rises, and a couple of ovens. There are specialised areas for non-bread products such as croissants (where dough has vast slabs of butter beaten into it), pastries and the company's celebrated brownies.

What sets bakeries such as Flour Power City apart from their market-bestriding industrial brethren, explains founder Matt Jones, is an emphasis on quality ingredients and time rather than quantity, speed and price. It's a labour-intensive business and the breads are allowed to rise naturally, without being hurried along with extra yeast. 'If Flour Power City was an industrial bakery,' he says, 'we'd employ three or four people and it would all be automated.' The process is as much art as science; it can be scaled up, but there is a limit to how far you can go before you lose the art.

The operation has recently expanded, adds Jones, doubling its floorspace to 10,000 sq ft, and MT columnist Luke Johnson is now an investor. 'When we moved in here it seemed like an aircraft hangar. Now, it seems tiny.' The company has come a long way since it started in 1999 in Hoxton. 'Then, we were essentially a one-man band. Now we employ 50 people.' Turnover is about £3m a year.

There are many other bakeries of a similar size and ethos. In Oxfordshire, Dan Schickentanz employs 40 people at De Gustibus bakery; his sourdough was recently named one of Britain's best breads by the Economist's Intelligent Life magazine. Meanwhile, in north London, Paul O'Connell runs the Flourish bakery, which he co-founded in 2000; it employs 40 people and turns over about £1.8m. 'It's a very small community,' says O'Connell. 'Of course there's competition, but we all know each other and keep in contact.'

Unsurprisingly, the artisan market has a strong metropolitan focus. The reason is simple. London has by far the greatest concentration of customers - on the wholesale side, the restaurants and delis. 'Just look at the number of restaurants in London,' says O'Connell. 'Outside, it can be a 20 or 30-minute journey between deliveries; in London, it's often less than five - there's so much demand inside the M25.'

Retail is either bakery-owned shops - such as De Gustibus's at London Bridge - or farmers' markets. The bakeries vary in their customers: Flourish is overwhelmingly wholesale, Flour Power skewed about 60/40 in favour of wholesale. 'Wholesale,' says Jones, 'is more reliable. (Farmers') markets are affected by things like the weather - though they are very good for showcasing your bakery products.'

The recession hasn't affected business much. Growth for some has slowed, but the financial crisis hasn't really hurt the upmarket breadmakers; all say trade is pretty good. The recent rises in commodity prices have had more mixed effects. The cost of flour is relatively small compared with that of labour, but Jones has felt the impact in items such as brownies. 'We saw butter double in price in a couple of weeks, and cocoa is four times what it was 10 years ago.'

So why have sales of what seems a discretionary purchase vulnerable to economising held up so well? Partly because the market is both small and in its infancy. Customers tend to be very loyal, and suppliers find that in metropolises such as London there is a ready demand for anything they produce, as long as the quality is good.

For most of Britain's population, however, artisan bread might as well not exist. At De Gustibus, Schickentanz says this is because the big industrials destroyed the local bakery market so comprehensively in the 1960s, '70s and '80s that a whole generation has grown up with no concept of what good bread is. And Jones of Flour Power City notes: 'Even in London, a lot of our retail sales are to Europeans who won't eat supermarket crap.'

So, even in the capital, the most developed market in the UK, there's plenty of room for new entrants. 'If the quality is right, it's bound to succeed,' says artisan baking consultant Maurice Chaplais. 'A good bakery is gold-plated - even in wealthy towns like Cheltenham there's no bakery.'

So why don't more people do it? There are several reasons, he explains. 'First, the initial costs are very high. Assuming you have the premises, a very basic set-up will cost £100,000, minimum. An oven alone is £35,000 to £40,000.' Second, it's not an easy life. You make decent money, but it's a lot harder than, say, an equally lucrative career in IT or marketing.

'It's very manual,' confirms Jones. 'There's a lot of lifting and pushing and shoving.' The hours are long and often anti-social. If you are not passionate about bread, it is not an obvious vocation.

Perhaps, too, the artisan baking industry does not lend itself well to the British business model - build a brand, expand like mad, then exit. Rather than a fast buck, baking is a solid business that provides a good income over time and requires a commitment to quality and a belief in the product. Indeed, the quality consideration seems to limit the practical size of artisan bakeries. The fact that Germany is full of them and the UK is not suggests that artisan baking is better suited to the Teutonic business culture.

None of this means that we won't see more of those beautiful, aspirational loaves around - the market is so small at the moment that, like a good dough, sales can only rise. But if artisan bread is to become more widely available across the UK - never mind capturing a doorstep slice of the total market - it has a long journey ahead.

Says Schickentanz: 'The food revolution has only affected a small minority who are middle class. I can't see our bread becoming mainstream unless we sacrifice quality. It will always be niche. In Germany, there's a deep and widespread appreciation for good food. Here we're celebrity-led and obsessed by the next big thing.'

It's a fair point. In Britain, Borough Market is a place of pilgrimage for foodies in the largest city in Europe. In many continental countries, it would be unremarkable in cities the size of Newcastle.

Even so, there's plenty of untapped demand. Says Jones: 'If artisan bakers could get even 10% of the market, it would be huge.'

ARTISAN BREAD: A CUT ABOVE YOUR AVERAGE LOAF

There seems to be no firm agreement on what constitutes artisan bread. Is it a tiny bakery producing 50 loaves a day? Is it a bigger one producing 500? Is it the high end of what a supermarket bakes in-store? Where do you draw the line? 'Everyone has their own opinion,' says Paul O'Connell, co-founder of the Flourish bakery.

Broadly, the term seems to imply the use of good-quality, natural ingredients, that the bread is given a long time to prove and that it is shaped by hand. In the early days, many artisan breads were also organic, but the focus now seems to be on quality rather than satisfying organic specifications - and it's worth noting that there's plenty of bad organic bread out there. Sourdough, which uses an ongoing bread culture rather than added yeast, has a distinct sour taste and usually takes days to prove, is often considered the quintessential artisan bread. Within these vague bounds, there's plenty of disagreement and ambiguity.

Adds O'Connell: 'For me, it is when the bakery that is producing it is doing everything it can to achieve the best possible results. It's not cutting corners.'

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