Meet the Baker Behind the Loaves: Kevin Morse of Cairnspring Mills

Going beyond the grocery store shelf to find what makes up the foods we eat and where the ingredients that we cook and bake with come from, often leads to some eye opening discoveries. Taking one from goods defined by terms like industrialized, commodity, and preservative laden to those characterized as responsibly sourced, sustainable, and whole. One food product that portrays this epiphany quite well is bread. When delving deeper into the world of bread baking, one discovers the world of differences between Wonder Bread and artisan bread. However, one’s curiosity doesn’t need to stop there. The cultivation and processing of the varietals of wheat that turn into the flours that we bake with are worth learning about and incorporating into the development of our definition of food that is truly good for us and the environment.

“Our whole business model starts with the farmer. Part of our mission is to lift the farmers out of the commodity system so they remain economically viable and can be good stewards of the land we all depend on for our sustenance and well being.”

“We view the different varieties like wine grapes or specialty coffee. There is terroir in wheat and we are only just beginning to explore the varieties that can be grown here and provide the home and professional baker with products that they have never experienced before.”

Two quotes that exemplify the character and mission of this week’s featured baker, Kevin Morse, founder and CEO of Cairnspring Mills (Burlington, Washington). With sustainability, conservancy, and community in mind, he maintains strong relationships with individuals at every step of the bread production process. From the farmers who he pays above premium prices for the high quality grains that they cultivate and harvest to the bakeries that he works with in order to make sure they’re able to bake breads etc with the characteristics that they’re aiming for. Since 2016, Kevin and his team have been redefining what an agricultural supply chain can look like with a level of dedication that to me is quite inspiring.

So without further ado, it is my honor to present to you Kevin Morse of Cairnspring Mills.

Barry (The Brewed Palate): How has your home baking evolved since opening Cairnspring Mills? 

Kevin: My home baking has undergone a tremendous transformation. Prior to opening the mill I hardly baked at all. When I did it was yeasted pan breads or pizza dough made with industrial white flours. I never got too excited about it and the bread was just a platform to be covered in butter, cheese and sauce. There was no expectation of flavor. After tasting breads, pizzas and pastries made by our customers with our flour I could not believe what I had been missing and it opened up a whole new obsession and passion. Now I bake at least twice a week and I am constantly studying new techniques and searching for new recipes to try. I think I have also put on 15lbs. 😊

Barry (The Brewed Palate): What do you find to be most unique about cultivating and milling grains in Washington state?

Kevin: Washington’s climate and diverse growing regions offer us the opportunity to source a variety of grains that have a range of flavors, colors, aromas and baking characteristics. We view the different varieties like wine grapes or specialty coffee. There is terroir in wheat and we are only just beginning to explore the varieties that can be grown here and provide the home and professional baker with products that they have never experienced before. To me, this journey of exploration and seeing our customers reaction to these new flours is one of the most satisfying parts of the job.

Barry (The Brewed Palate): One characteristic of Cairnspring Mills that I’ve found myself truly inspired by is its dedication to its relationships with individuals at every stage of the “life of a loaf”, from the farmers to the milling staff to the bakeries that bake their breads with its flour. One such relationship is with Chad Robertson of Tartine Bakery, a well known baker and author. Can you share a brief history of your relationship with Chad and how it is a prime example of the mission of Cairnspring Mills?

Kevin: The foundation of our business is our community. Our approach to customers, farmers and team members is to establish authentic and meaningful relations that are beyond just business transactions.. I met Chad at a Grain Gathering hosted by the Washington State University Bread Lab and we hit it off right way. His passion for his craft and interest in supporting regenerative farming and bringing better tasting healthy bread to the world was aligned with my values and vision. He visited the mill frequently before we were operating and then again afterwards to learn about the mill and get to know the farmers. Today we still communicate frequently and the vision remains the same. His entire team has become like family. This holds true for many of our other customers and champions of local mills including Mel Darbyshire at Grand Central Bakery, George DePasquale at Essential Baking, Chris Bianco at Bianco Pizzeria, Scott and Renee at the Breadfarm, Leslie Mackie at Macrina, Thomas Vroom at Fernhorn Bakery, Sean Hughes at Mount Bakery, Conner O’Neil at The Cottage Blue Ridge Bakery, the bakers at the Herbfarm and the chefs at Canlis , Post Alley Pizza, Craig at Gracie’s Pizza and many others that I wish I had the time to list here.

Barry (The Brewed Palate): One hobby of mine that I can relate to grain cultivation is specialty coffee. Coffee roasters do their best to source their single origin coffees via “fair trade”, a process that leads to farmers being paid fairly for their labor. What does your process of making sure that your local farmers are paid fairly for their hard work look like?

Kevin: Our whole business model starts with the farmer. Part of our mission is to lift the farmers out of the commodity system so they remain economically viable and can be good stewards of the land we all depend on for our sustenance and well being. Cairnspring pays growers on average 30% more than commodity prices. In return they agree to our growing practices and produce high quality clean grains that meet our specifications.

Barry (The Brewed Palate): I’ll have to admit that when we first started messaging each other on Instagram I was surprised to find out that the founder and CEO of a well known mill takes time out of his busy schedule to be present on social media and interact with bakers of all levels. What do you enjoy most about interacting with home bakers via social media? 

Kevin: Interacting with our customers and community is one of my favorite parts of the job. The inquiries, appreciation and lessons learned from our customers inspire me, provide us invaluable guidance on the best uses of our flours and help us all become better at what we do. I think this is also a product of my upbringing. I grew up spending summers working with my Nonno in his six aisle grocery store, deli and butcher shop. He was my role model and I loved watching him interact with his staff and customers. It brought him great joy to serve good food to his community and family and I inherited that same passion.

Barry (The Brewed Palate): One exciting part of the continuous learning process that sourdough bakers experience is learning that there is more to flour than just buying a bag off the grocery store shelf. As someone who has an intimate relationship with the flour production process, how do you approach learning about the grains that you work with when deciding which varietals to use in your core line of flours? 

Kevin: This is also one of my favorite parts of the job. I constantly review and read about the work being done at the wheat breeding programs at WSU, UC Davis, the California wheat commission and network with other millers in the US and around the world to learn about the varieties they are milling. In particular I look at yield for the farmer, diseases resistance, milling quality, baking quality and flavor. Steve Lyon, who is the wheat breeder at the WSU Bread Lab, is one of the best in the business and he provides me with great guidance as well. I also frequently connect with our customers to better understand their needs and wishes then try to find a match.

Barry (The Brewed Palate): In line with my previous question, what are the differences between your Trailblazer and Organic Expresso bread flours? and What percentage of a bread recipe’s total flour weight would you recommend that they represent?

Kevin: Trail Blazer is a responsible conventional flour made with Yecora Rojo hard red spring wheat. Organic Expresso is its organic equivalent in terms of protein content and functionality. They both have excellent fermentation tolerance and protein in the range of 13% to 14%. The Trail Blazer flour produces bread with a slightly milder flavor, a lighter colored crumb and a beautiful dark caramel colored crust. The Expresso has a more robust wheaty flavor, a darker colored crumb and a thick more rustic crust. I frequently blend them together using the Tartine Country loaf recipe and I also mix them 80% to 20% with other flours like the Sequoia, Edison or Organic Skagit 1109 to produce different flavors and textures.

Barry (The Brewed Palate): Of all of the wheat varietals that you’ve come across, what are some that surprised you upon milling and then baking with them?

Kevin: This is a hard question. The first surprise was related to milling technique. When we compared our flour to flour produced in an industrial mill I was amazed at the aroma and flavor difference we are able to achieve using stone mills and intentionally milling more of the bran and the germ into our flours. It resulted in a much more flavorful and complex product that what you can buy on the shelves in the grocery store. There is nothing like fresh milled flour!!

 There a couple varietals that we test milled in the early days that had unique aromatic qualities. The Rouge de Bordeaux smelled like the winter flavors you find in holiday cooking such as nutmeg and cinnamon. The Yecora Rojo and Expresso continue to amaze me with their spicy and complex flavors and most recently we milled our first batch of Skagit grown Fortissimo durum flour. The rich nutty flavor is blowing the chefs minds when they use it in pasta and pizza dough. I have also recently milled a small batch of heritage wheat from my great grandmothers village in Sicily. The raw grain and bread baked with it tasted like honey. I am hoping to grow some out in the US and start milling it in a couple years.

Barry (The Brewed Palate): Having recently started milling my own flour on my new Mockmill; I’m slowly learning the ins and outs of stone milling. What is stone milling on a large scale like at your mill? 

Kevin: It many ways it is like milling with a smaller home mill. We pay close attention to the flow of grain into the mill so the stones achieve the optimal grind and maintain ideal temperature needed to achieve our desired specs. Our millers, Dave, Josh and Abby are the heart and soul of the operation. They have built the mill from the ground up, maintained it, and have developed an amazing ability to listen to the stones and the other equipment and know when they are operating correctly or not. They have truly mastered the ancient craft of stone milling and added their own creative twist using modern equipment. I am so grateful for our team and their commitment to quality and each other.  

Barry (The Brewed Palate): With home and professional bakers incorporating a large variety of whole grains flours into their breads, cakes, and pastries nowadays. How do you direct bakers towards choosing the most ideal flours for more specific situations like pizza and pastry making? 

Kevin: The different grains and flours have different functional properties so I usually start by asking the baker or chef what they want to make and then recommend which flours would be best for their desired outcomes and the process they are using.

Barry (The Brewed Palate): From your perspective, what is the relationship between nature conservancy and the quality of life improvements that come with baking and cooking with whole foods? 

Kevin: I believe that the best way to keep our communities healthy, prosperous and resilient to things like climate change is to rebuild local food systems. That includes conservation of our farmland and natural areas. They are what produce the fundamental elements of a good quality of life including food, clean water and clean air. When we can cook and bake with local, more nutritious foods grown in healthy soils or from clean water we are all better off. Know your miller, know your farmer and buy local!

Barry (The Brewed Palate): Sourdough bread is often called “living bread.” What do the terms “living bread” and “living food” mean to you? 

Kevin: Living bread to me means that it was made with fresh milled flour from non commodity grains, naturally leavened and made without dough conditioners or additives. All you need is flour, water and salt! Pane e vita!

About Barry W

NJ (formerly NYC) based home brewer and fermented food enthusiast sharing his brewing, cooking, and baking adventures on thebrewedpalate.com.
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