How Small Scale Millers Like Nan Kohler Are Changing Our Flour

~Originally published in Bake From Scratch Magazine, Fall 2016

I first met Nan Kohler at a grain conference. In a room packed with wheat breeders, grass seed farmers, and bakers, Nan introduced herself as a miller. Not a baker who occasionally tried making flour, or a grass seed farmer who needed to figure out how to get their product to market, but a miller, plain and simple.

She told me about Grist & Toll, a small milling operation that she’d opened in 2012 in Los Angeles. I’d never thought about how flour is made or the technicalities of turning a seed into the stuff I bake with. I knew immediately that I wanted to visit Nan at her mill.

A few months later, I rounded a corner in the heart of Pasadena and parked in front of Grist & Toll. It stood in one corner of a small warehouse-looking complex. Not the village mill I was expecting, yet not a big, industrial factory either. I wandered into the shop, and suddenly I was in another world, a quaint space lined with bags of wheat flour that had varietal names such as Red Fife and Charcoal. There were also many types of grains like spelt, rye, and corn.

I felt more like I was in a chic wine store than a place that brokers a commodity product. A few minutes later, she led me back to the milling room and switched on her Osttiroler stone mill. She watched carefully and made some adjustments to the feed tube. A few loud minutes later, the sweet aroma of wheat filled the air. Only this was wheat I’d never actually smelled in real life, but something more like the archetype of what wheat should smell like.

Later, Nan’s husband, Chris, put a rustic loaf in front of me, insisting I try some. It was made with a Grist & Toll blend of whole grain hard white and hard red wheat. I took a bite and chewed slowly, then another, trying to discover each layer of its rich, round flavor.

“You’re tasting the wheat!” Nan says. “If I made this with Charcoal, it would be completely different.”

Nan came to milling by way of baking, via a long stint as a wine rep. She was always an enthusiastic home baker and worked for a time at a small café in Sherman Oaks called Sweet Butter Kitchen. Her cookies were a huge hit, which she attributed to the fact that she sought ingredients that spoke for themselves.

“When I first started baking, I looked at the flour just like everyone else does,” she says. “It was a blank slate with no essential flavor.”

Eventually, she started experimenting with different kinds of flours—first rye, then maybe a little spelt. Barley. Around that same time, she was smitten with a particular segment of a PBS television show called Adventures with Ruth hosted by Ruth Reichl. Nan particularly liked a part with French baker Richard Bertinet, who owns a bakery in England. She watched it several times to retain one of the baking techniques that Richard demonstrates.

One day she sat down to watch the segment again and rewound a little further than usual. She landed right at an ancient flour mill in Bath, England, and although she’d seen the segment before, this time it was different. She listened to the miller as if for the first time and, as he talked about blending wheat varieties, something clicked. She had never heard anyone talk about flour with the same care as, say, heritage vegetables. She also saw for the first time that wheat for flour could be treated the same as grapes for wine, each type having unique flavor and handling capabilities.

“Why don’t we have this?” she thought. The idea of getting varietals of flour from local mills captured her, so she did a little research. With cooks and diners becoming increasingly obsessed with local ingredients, why were we still content with flour as a commodity product? She knew from her baking experience that different flours imparted distinctive characteristics. Why shouldn’t flour be as local, artisan, and sustainable as the heirloom tomatoes and grass-fed beef on our plates? It seemed impossible that freshly milled, stone-ground flour was so hard to come by, but it was. Nan realized she’d have to do it herself.

“I started this business thinking all about flavor,” she says. “But once I started doing it, interacting with all the people that grow our grains, my perspective became broader.”

She opened Grist & Toll, and has been at the frontline of the local grain movement ever since. Now that she is intimate with every detail of how grain gets to market, she sees educating the consumer as part of her mission.

“We have to take a look at our biggest crops and make some changes,” she said. “Flour is so cheap and degraded.”

How so? A whole wheat kernel is highly nutritious. The big difference between wheat that sustained early civilizations and what we eat now is largely processing. There are three main parts of a wheat kernel: endosperm, bran, and germ. The endosperm makes up the bulk, providing macronutrients in the form of carbohydrates and proteins, and it is the part that makes white flour. Much of wheat’s nutrition is found in the other two parts. For most of human history, we crushed the whole kernel into flour, which meant that the nutritive parts—fiber-rich bran and nutrient-packed germ—were ground right in. The problem is that germ is also prone to rancidity. Therefore, traditional stone milling did not lend itself to industrialization.

In the late 1800s, new technology came to market that allowed us a way to shear off the bran and germ, making flour more shelf stable. In the early 20th century, health officials began to notice vitamin deficiencies in world populations and decided to target certain food staples for enrichment. In the 1940s, the United States government  put public health measures in place to enrich wheat flour with vitamins and minerals, such as B vitamins, including folic acid, and iron, a practice still in place today. Nutritionists are now uncovering that a few added vitamins in our flour might not be enough. We know that most Americans don’t get enough fiber, and one way to correct this is by switching from white flour products to ones that contain all of the outer bran. Stone milling helps provide a solution.

Wheat has also been devalued in the marketplace, and it’s hard for farmers to get real worth for it. For years, wheat has been monocropped, which is a method of growing a single crop on the same land year after year, an agricultural practice that can deplete the soil of nutrients. Farmers also have been breeding plants for yield rather than nutrition or baking qualities, much less sustainability. As Nan was sourcing grains, she started connecting the dots between ones that are grown in more sustainable farming systems and the flavors and nutrition that consumers are getting from them.

Nan wants everyone to have access to the best flours. What makes a flour the best? First, it must taste great. Period. She believes in crushing (stone milling) rather than shearing (roller milling) the grain because that’s what leaves all of the bran and the germ in the flour. This not only gives the flour more flavor, but it also boosts its nutritional profile. In stone milling, even when the flour is sifted to make a product closer to what we know as all-purpose white flour, some of the smaller particles of bran and germ will be left in. That means more fiber and a perfect case of fresh flavor equaling nutrition. Her shop doesn’t have a bakery of its own, but she heavily tests each flour and shares recipes and baking tips. Better yet, she’ll report back to farmers to help them cull what they grow in subsequent years. Through Nan, they have a resource to know what consumers are looking for in a seed. 

“My mission is transparency and diversity,” Nan said. “I’m a conduit between what the farmer is doing and what the baker can expect. Now that I use these flours, everything else tastes one dimensional and flat.”

As I listened to Nan, it dawned on me that mills are the bridge between our primitive selves and our civilized beings. Without millers, we picked and ate grass seeds, but we didn’t know the craft of storing and crushing them. That’s why mills were once the mainstays of growing communities. Nan provides just that. She’s the anchor for a growing community of food lovers who care deeply about where their food comes from.