Barton Springs Mill Owner James Brown has Austin Geeked Out on Grains
James Brown is giving me a wheat tutorial, pointing to sheaves on his office wall. The owner of Dripping Springs’ Barton Springs Mill, Brown has become the messiah of Texas’ heritage-grain revival, inspiring an ever-growing number of food and beverage professionals and home cooks to make a sea change in their dry goods supply.
“People think flour is this white flavorless, odorless substance in our food system,” says Brown, gesturing to a 2,200-pound bag of Rouge de Bordeaux wheat, which purportedly nourished Napoleon’s troops. “This is nutty and earthy, with aromas of baking spice.”
Bloody Butcher, Wrens Abruzzi, Hickory King, Turkey Red, Hopi Blue, Carolina Gold. The esoteric varieties of heritage wheat, corn, rye, buckwheat, einkorn and other grains that Brown and millers Keith Koehler and Cody Hendricks grind daily are mostly possessed of the whimsical names inherent to vintage plant seeds.
“Heritage grains bring a wide array of colors, flavors and aromas to the baker,” says Brown. “It’s like adding all the colors of the spectrum to an artist’s palette — there’s so much more out there beyond shades of white and beige. Sonora wheat has a rich, buttery flavor excellent for pastries and breads, while Ethiopian Blue Tinge Emmer has a nutty sweetness that’s great for making pasta or used as a high-protein, antioxidant-rich whole-grain cereal.”
Barton Springs Mill, opened in early 2017, is the Austin area’s first flour mill since 1884. The business has sparked a new economy for family farms and served as divine inspiration for acclaimed chefs, bakers, brewers and distillers, including Bryce Gilmore (Barley Swine, Odd Duck, Sour Duck), Kevin Fink (Emmer & Rye), Jesse Griffiths (Dai Due), Fermín Núñez (Suerte), David Norman (Easy Tiger), Jester King Brewery and Treaty Oak Distilling (which will debut an heirloom series of whiskeys made with the mill’s grains later this year). Says Treaty Oak founder Daniel Barnes, “Meeting James was the most fruitful encounter I’ve ever had. Making bourbon is just like cooking — it’s all about the ingredients. He’s meticulous about sourcing and processing grain; for us, the result is remarkable whiskey.”
Last year, Brown was able to purchase a 2.5-acre parcel on Treaty Oak’s Dripping Springs campus, with the goal of relocating and expanding his business (he will also live above the new facility). In June of this year, he began moving operations to the new site, which has a larger mill as well as a warehouse; this fall, a 1,000-square-foot malting floor and an education and private events center will open, along with a bakery, L’Oven, run by former Dai Due pastry chef Abby Love. “She’s really immersed herself in the regional grain economy,” says Brown. “She’s totally invested, almost more than anyone else.” Love, Brown and guest bakers and chefs will offer classes and workshops on-site.
A musician and culinary professional by training, Brown grew up in Pasadena, Texas; his parents also owned a farm in Madisonville, which nurtured his love of agriculture as well as a fascination for food. “Pasadena wasn’t a hotbed of culture at that time, but we traveled a lot, and my mom was super-curious about cooking,” he says. An enthusiastic home cook, pianist and cellist, Brown earned an undergraduate degree in music at the University of Houston before pursuing a culinary arts degree at The Art Institute of Houston. While working as a cook in Houston, Brown decided he “lacked the creative imagination” to become a chef and returned to music, working toward a Ph.D. in historical musicology from CUNY.
Brown returned to Texas after 9/11 and eventually became the choral director for the acclaimed St. Cecilia Music Series (he also plays the viola da gamba and the pipe organ). A soft-spoken man with a dry sense of humor, Brown says it was a quest for “a better loaf of bread” that led him to his present occupation. “I just have a problem with not being able to do things by half measures.”
While reading “Tartine Bread,” authored by celebrated baker Chad Robertson, Brown became intrigued by the concept of purchasing and milling whole grains and began experimenting at home. He soon discovered that while there was a flour mill in Waco, Texas lacked a “bespoke mill that could … source and maintain all of the seed stock and mill grain daily, providing a fresh product.”
After meeting Austin baker Sandeep Gyawali, who at the time was operating Miche Bread, at a heritage-grain conference, the idea for Barton Springs Mill was born. Gyawali was looking for someone to mill mesquite flour, and Brown realized there was a niche in Central Texas for someone who offered traceable, seasonal, bespoke milled grains, sourced from local family farms. “We can tell you what farm and harvest each bag of flour comes from,” Brown says.
With little knowledge about growing and milling grain, Brown initially turned to Glenn Roberts, the founder of Anson Mills. “I learned a lot from him,” he says, and after initiating contacts with and contracting farmers in 2016, Barton Springs Mill opened in January 2017 in an industrial park in Dripping Springs. Using a 1930s Clipper seed cleaner, an Austrian Osttiroler A1200 stone mill for culinary use and a hammer mill for producing grist for breweries and distilleries, Brown got to work and started “driving around Austin, selling flour out of the back of car.”
While no one has been more surprised than Brown by his success, he’s quick to point out that his customers “revel in the different varieties of grains and flour textures.” He says, “They also understand that while we want high-quality grain, every harvest, and thus every flour, will have inherent differences.”
Ninety percent of the grains used by the mill are grown in Texas on eight farms, utilizing seed stock from Saskatchewan, Arizona, California, New York and Kansas, as well as gene plasm banks. “When I started out, there happened to be a glut of Indian cotton on the market, and most of the farmers I was visiting were making their living from cotton and looking for a new cash crop,” says Brown. “It was the right place at the right time, but my goal was to provide an incentive for good growing practices. We give farmers seed stock as a loan; the only out-of-pocket expenses are gas and labor. This way, if there’s an act of God, it’s a shared risk, but we also duplicate our crops on different farms for that reason.”
Currently, the mill is producing 8,000 to 10,000 pounds of culinary flour per week (“A commercial mill does that in an hour, and a human never touches it,” Brown says) and 22 tons of grist for brewing and distilling. Says Brown, “I have zero designs on selling outside of Texas and refer people regularly to local mills. The only way for us small folks to get by is to work together.”
Brown’s job at this point has evolved to more of an operations manager role. “I thought I was going to be milling for a living, but it’s turned into so much more. I need to think about the production needs of my bakers, brewers and distillers and planting schedules.” He’s also excited about his collaboration with the commercial farm in Elgin operated by Austin’s Multicultural Refugee Coalition (MRC), a nonprofit that, according to its mission statement, blends “skills-based education with social entrepreneurship to connect refugees to dignified, fair-wage work.” Brown helped MRC establish a rotational agriculture program focused on legumes; the farmers are cultivating high-value crops like heirloom peanuts, beans and sesame seeds, and the mill will package and ship them, with all proceeds going to cover growing costs.
With so much in the works, Brown winds down with his banjo or guitar (“Now I play for the joy of it”), but he says, he worries a lot about scalability: “How big can our operation be, yet still maintain quality and integrity, and enable all of us to earn a living?”
Despite the inherent challenges, Brown is keeping his eyes on the big picture that’s emerged. “When I started, I didn’t think it was possible to grow this fast, nor did I see the potential for working with brewers and distillers. Now, within steps of my home, I’ll be able to mill, malt, eat pizza and bread, and drink beer and whiskey made with these grains,” he says. “This will be a regional grain hub.”
Grist for the Mill
Heritage, or heirloom, grains come from open-pollinated antique seeds handed down through the generations. With the advent of modern industrial agriculture in the 1950s, farmers began using commercial uniform hybrid seeds that have better pest, drought and disease resistance and higher yields. There are multiple benefits to heirloom crops aside from flavor and distinctive appearance. They also, boost the genetic diversity and vigor of local plant species, provide a food source for pollinators and support local foodsheds.