When he wakes up in the morning, Anthony Egan “feeds” the sourdough starter that he uses to make bread. He does it again before he goes to bed, adding a mixture of freshly milled flour and water to keep the gooey mass fresh.
“It’s like a pet,” Egan said. “We’ve named him Dale. Why we came up with Dale I couldn’t tell you.”
A few months ago, Egan, 25, left his job as an accountant and joined the small but growing ranks of sourdough bakers to offer bread subscriptions in the Baltimore area. Customers pay a set fee — around $24 to $40 per month — and in return get a freshly made loaf of sourdough each week.
For Egan, founder of Loaf Bakehouse, the subscription model allows bakers to reduce waste, since they know exactly how much they need to prepare. Though he also sells at farmers markets, subscriptions “take the guesswork” out of baking, Egan said.
And for customers, it can mean easier access to high-quality bread. Every Tuesday, Egan drops his loaves off at the Prime Corner in Hampden and One Do Coffee in Canton for subscribers to pick up.
“The most accessible bread is really terrible bread,” said Russell Trimmer, 28, who formerly led the bread program at Woodberry Kitchen and now runs Motzi Bread from his home. The name is a reference to “HaMotzi,” a Jewish blessing said over bread.
While the term “sourdough” conjures an idea of a white loaf sold in grocery stores, in artisanal circles it refers to bread made using a fermented starter. This sourdough bread may also be simple called “naturally leavened.”
“It’s less of a flavor of the bread, it’s more the actual process behind creating the bread,” Egan said. The bread is not necessarily sour; Egan’s offerings may include rye or honey oat breads. Another baker says his chocolate chip bread is popular. But it is hard to get just right.
Upstairs in his Charles Village home, beneath the eyes of his watchful cat, Trimmer uses a bright red countertop mill to grind locally grown grains like einkorn into powdery white flour. The fresh-milling process makes for more flavorful bread that experts say is also more nutritious than white bread.
Even people with gluten sensitivities can sometimes tolerate sourdough bread made from local grains, said Severna Park-based nutritionist Carol Sylva.
“Most of the wheat that we have access to is grown in soil that has been sprayed with multiple chemicals,” Sylva said, which can in turn trigger allergies in the body. “You find people that will go to Europe and have no problem with the bread.”
Additionally, she said, the fermentation process used to make sourdough bread can aid in digestion.
But using local grains creates challenges from the baker’s perspective, since grain properties vary.
“In order to make a really good bread you’re always living slightly on the edge,” Trimmer said. “You never fully know how it’s going to come out until it comes out of the oven.”
Egan, of Loaf Bakehouse, said he’s hooked on the suspense of waiting to see what will come out of the oven. “You’re chasing that perfect loaf,” he said.
On a recent Thursday evening, customers scrambled up the steps of Trimmer’s home to pick up their pre-ordered loaves, which lay in a basket on his front porch. Maya Muñoz, Trimmer’s fiance and business partner, stood outside chatting with customers. One man parked illegally, his dog waiting in his Subaru, to pick up the goods.
“We’ll see if I can make it back to my house without eating the whole thing,” said customer Max Pollock. The previous week, he and his wife scarfed down the loaf during the one-block walk, with some help from their neighbors.
Trimmer said he’s been amazed by the enthusiasm for bread. Within weeks of starting, he had around 130 customers sign up. But he hasn’t disavowed the old brick-and-mortar. He and Muñoz have plans to turn the first floor of their home, formerly a liquor store, into a bakery and cafe, where they’ll continue bread subscriptions.
Trimmer said he was inspired to sell subscriptions by Arizona baker Don Guerra, who also sells bread subscriptions in what he compares to a CSA. Guerra is “very community focused in a way that I’m tying to be,” Trimmer said.
For Lane Levine, 35, of “A Friendly Bread,” the thrill of bread subscriptions comes from running his own business and in marketing to new clients. He describes himself as “a milkman for bread,” and drives a white van that he uses to deliver his loaves to various drop-off locations in the Baltimore region, including wine shops and office buildings.
Levine, who is pursuing his MBA at the University of Maryland, said the subscription model is more effective for his business than a standard brick-and-mortar shop selling only bread would be. But it also requires an aggressive approach to sales.
“We just can’t sit there and wait for the business to come,” he said. He’s hired a full-time salesperson to present his business to potential clients. “We have to fight for every sale.”
During a resident happy hour at the Fitzgerald apartment building on Mount Royal Avenue, Levine offered free samples and his sales pitch to residents, who sipped wine in the building’s lobby. “You have to have a product that’s so good that people” will change their shopping habits and go out of the way to buy it, Levine said.
Unlike Egan and Trimmer, Levine uses commercially milled King Arthur flour. “People love the quality of my bread as it is,” he said.
He bakes out of B-More kitchen, a shared commercial kitchen in Mid-Govans. There, with the help of two other bakers, he prepares hundreds of loaves per week, in varieties that range from fig and fennel to turmeric and rustic rye.
“When you have a good bake, it’s very gratifying,” he said, monitoring the loaves browning in the oven. “There’s so many things that could go wrong.”