2/15/2014 7:00 AM
By Philip Gruber Staff Writer
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Most flour on the grocery store shelf is unremarkable. It is white, fluffy and blandly the same as all the other flour.
Robert Beauchemin is convinced that flour does not have to be that way.
Over the past 30 years, Beauchemin, a Quebec mill owner, has made a market for differentiated wheat products, benefiting farmers who want to grow a specialized crop, as well as bakers and consumers who want unique food.
Beauchemin spoke about his milling experience on Feb. 7 at the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture’s Farming for the Future Conference at The Penn Stater.
Flour can take on different colors, flavors and baking properties depending on the wheat variety and growing conditions.
Through a sophisticated research and development effort, and Extension service, Beauchemin’s milling companies, La Meunerie Milanaise and Les Moulins de Soulanges, have identified many ways to achieve those qualities through agricultural and processing practices.
About 65 percent of the mills’ business is with bakeries and industry; the rest is with retailers, Beauchemin said.
Beauchemin started out as an organic wheat farmer and opened his own milling company in 1982 when he could not find a plant in Quebec looking for organic wheat.
Now, his highly automated mills produce flours sent across Canada, the U.S. coasts, and as far as France, Italy and Australia.
Wheat accounts for 70 percent of Beauchemin’s flour output, with the rest coming from buckwheat, spelt, oats, emmer and barley. Forty percent of the grain comes from local sources.
Milanaise focuses on organic products, while Soulanges provides a market for wheat from farms transitioning to organic or working in other types of sustainable farming.
“This took off way faster than we thought,” Beauchemin said of Soulanges.
He said he had to double the Soulanges’ plant’s capacity a few years after opening it in 2006.
Beauchemin works with 300 farmers. “We follow them continuously” throughout the season, he said.
“We hold people’s hand” to make sure details as small as planting depth meet their specifications, he said.
Beauchemin said his farmers have increased their yields by 75 percent since he started milling.
“I guess they’re making real good money, and I’m glad,” he said, noting profitability is key to farm success.
Most mills offer a product that is essentially the same as other mills’, just with different additives for different purposes, such as giving pizza its stretchy dough.
“Millers don’t usually mention what they’re adding, but they’re all adding something,” he said.
Beauchemin, by contrast, uses no additives. That “clean label” is a selling point to some buyers.
Beauchemin said he uses a “cafeteria approach” to creating his flours, putting at least three strains of wheat into every flour.
Some wheat types provide distinctive aromas, characters or mouth feels. Winter blends help make it stretch.
Beauchemin also uses strong wheats for correction, croissants and high-gluten products like bagels.
He carries blends that are white, brown, gray and gold in color.
All flours need to produce volume, though: “(The baker)’s baking bread, not pancakes,” Beauchemin said.
After decades of research, his mills compose flours with an algorithm that selects wheat varieties. If a manufacturer wants to use a designer flour in his baguette plant, Beauchemin sends an engineer to the plant so that the flour can be tailored to the manufacturing process.
Beauchemin tries to keep 1,500 to 2,000 tons of each type of grain on hand so that he has a stable quality level. Bakers would rather have a slightly lower quality flour that is consistent across every package than a higher quality product with variables, he said.
Consistency is more difficult in the spring and fall, when seasonal changes cause issues.
The milling process also affects the flour quality.
“It is important when you are milling to have a certain amount of damaged starch,” Beauchemin said.
Scratching the starches allows the wheat to take on water, but too much damage hurts the structure of the bread loaf. Harder wheats get damaged more, so they are best milled with a sharp stone, he said.
Beauchemin’s mill stones need to be dressed every four weeks. A 30-inch stone takes his technicians an hour and a half to resurface. The stones are replaced every 18 months.
“We really mill a lot,” he said.
Some of the milling is also done with steel rollers.
“I’ve been at it for 30 years, and I learn almost every day,” he said.
Beauchemin hosts a harvest festival for his baker customers each year. They go to a farm, where they learn about the farming side of flour production, and get to drive a combine.
“They are just like kids. It changes their whole perspective” of agriculture, Beauchemin said.
That consumer-farmer connection has paid off. In a wet year, several bakers called in to see how their flour might be affected by the weather.
“I was glad to see there was finally this concern” instead of assuming that flour just comes out of a bag, Beauchemin said.
Protein research is a hot topic at Beauchemin’s companies right now.
For a long time, he paid a premium for higher protein content, but he found that higher protein content does not necessarily lead to higher quality.
“Buying by protein level doesn’t tell a lot,” he said. “That’s where the genome is quite fascinating.”
Most of his organic farmers keep their seed for the next year, while he suggests his sustainable farmers buy seed from a known source.
“I’m trying to avoid wheats that I totally don’t know,” he said.
Beauchemin’s organic and designer emphases make him an oddity among millers. Other millers “smile at me and say, you must be suicidal,’ ” he said.
Still, his strategy of making a market for specialized agricultural products is paying off. “It can be done. We’ve developed a lot of knowledge,” he said.
Unlike Beauchemin’s high-end flour business, “there’s never been a premium” in the United States for higher quality grains, Penn State Extension educator Greg Roth said during the question-and-answer period.
Millers said there was no point because all the wheat got mixed together anyhow, Roth said.
Among niche millers, Beauchemin is considered a “continental leader” in producing specialized flours, T. Lyle Ferderber, a small-scale organic miller from Butler County who sits on PASA’s board, said after the seminar.
While Beauchemin operates industrial-scale mills, his emphasis on quality rather than mere scale makes him unusual in the industry, Ferderber said.
“There is a renewed interest in original baking,” he said. Commodity grains are inexpensive, but milling creates a value-added product and makes the raw agricultural product more attractive to consumers.
Specialized milling practices allow producers to connect with customers “who don’t want that standard loaf of white bread,” Ferderber said.