By Bread Alone: Orchard Hill Breadworks

Noah Elbers built his business one artisanal loaf at a time.It all began one day in February when Noah Elbers was 17. He remembers Elliot Burch, a friend of his parents, calling to say he was firing up the outdoor oven to bake bread and that Noah could come over to help him if he wanted to.It was a couple of miles away and Noah skied over. He remembers going up the driveway as the snow was falling and seeing the little outdoor oven with its glowing flames and the smell of the dough being worked when he went inside. Something stayed with him from that first encounter with baking bread that never left.A year after Noah graduated from high school, Elliot suggested he build his own oven at the farm that he lived on with his parents and that Elliot would help him build it.”So during the summer of 1997 I had a work party and put up the oven,” Noah says. “It was just going to be the oven for the farm, one we would use to bake pies and bread. A year later I was fully into it. Not as a profession, but I was baking once a week and I was taken with the idea of baking. I was trying all sorts of things.”Noah baked, got married, had a child, and by 2001 was up and running as a full-time wood-fired artisanal bread baker. Now, after 10 years of baking, his Orchard Hill Breadworks has graduated to its third oven, to a new commercial kitchen in the barn and a retail store.The family farm where he bakes his bread is located in southwestern New Hampshire in East Alstead, nestled in rolling green hills near the Vermont border. It was originally bought by Noah’s grandparents and now houses a school, the bakery, his parents and Noah’s young family who live above the kitchen in the barn.What is artisanal bread and what does it take to make it?Noah explains, “Over the years I grew away from the culture of bakers who define it as having hand work involved, touching and forming the loaves individually, and some character built into the product by a less-mechanized process and by a connection between the people producing the product and the person buying it. Ask yourself, ‘Does it taste good, look beautiful and is it made by people who care about it.'”It only takes four ingredients to make bread: flour, water, salt and yeast from some source. Noah doesn’t use commercial yeast in his doughs. He uses a natural one to raise his bread. “Our sourdough starter is maintained perpetually from itself,” he says. “I had three different bakers offer to give me some of their starter when I was first getting going. Our bread process has a long fermentation made from our original sourdough starter. But I try not to bring out the strong sour flavors like a San Francisco sourdough does. I prefer a milder sourdough bread, so our bread process favors bringing out more of the flavor of the grain.” He is not sure which of the three original starters he is still using, but he is very happy with maintaining and growing the one he has.His artisanal bread flies off the shelves as fast as it is delivered to stores in Vermont and New Hampshire, and is the bread is served at LA. Burdick in Walpole. Whether it is his sunny flax seed bread or his fragrant Kalamata olive and rosemary bread or any of the other specialty flavors, all 2,000 loaves a week are made with 100-percent organic ingredients and unrefined sea salt.The uniqueness of his bread versus others is that Noah gives his bread plenty of time to develop. Noah’s bread develops its unique character through slow rising. By allowing the dough to evolve naturally, he is rewarded with an interior that is both lacy and chewy at the same time, with a yumminess factor clearly coming from the nutty flavor of the whole grain, which is enhanced by the wonderfully caramelized crust. This is a wholesome bread with substance and style. Baking in small batches and using traditional techniques with the very best ingredients he can source, Noah is able to achieve exemplary bread redolent of European-style loaves. They are delivered fresh on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays right after they come out of his gleaming ovens.Attention to details, ingredients and process are the keys to his success. Because bread is a living thing, it is almost infinite how complex and how challenging the process can be for making such a simple product.”For a lot of bakers, it is what keeps us coming back, this element of the unknown and how can I manipulate this process I am doing on a daily basis. In subtle ways I to try to achieve better consistency of this characteristic or that characteristic. It is not like I have had someone standing at my side throughout this learning process. But there have been bakers who have showed up at opportune moments that have been very, very generous with their knowledge.”The same sense of community that drew Noah into the world of baking – from the invitation and encouragement of a friend as well as the mentoring from a series of friendly bakers in The Bread Baking Guild of America – he passes forward to others who are interested in the philosophy and operation of Orchard Hill Breadworks.He welcomes interested home chefs to come spend time with him to learn a few tips in the art of baking. He embraces his community of fellow bakers in The Bread Baking Guild in lively discussion and exchange of knowledge. And he brings together his immediate community in New Hampshire by hosting Pizza Nights where pizzas are baked in his outdoor wood-fired clay oven during school vacation weeks and sold to benefit local non-profit charities.For many home bakers, part of the inspiration and joy in baking is the end result of sharing it with family and friends. For Noah, it is in the sharing with others that he has found a business. NH