The heart of artisan

When it comes to creating artisan products, make no mistake: The bread comes first. That’s been La Brea Bakery’s philosophy since it made the decision to automate 19 years ago, according to Mr. Davis. At that time, the company never anticipated it would need to produce nearly a million lbs of bread every week. It was simply trying to keep up with demand. And, fortunately, demand continued to grow … as did the lines.

Mr. Davis can still remember when the bakery began ramping up production.

“I went from the fresh bakery, where people were shaping by hand, to these machines,” he recalled. “I used to hate these types of things, but over the years, I’ve learned to appreciate them. It brought a level of consistency that we didn’t have. It was a scary journey, and it was a lot of work for the team that did it, but there are benefits, and you learn to appreciate it.”

The Van Nuys facility (and later the plant in New Jersey) was designed to accommodate the time-honored process that defines a bread as artisan. There’s a fine line between scale, which is vital to producing a high volume of artisan bread with consistent quality, and speed, which must accommodate the patient fermentation process that defines La Brea Bakery’s products. That’s a line La Brea Bakery won’t cross.

“Our way of making bread is to truly craft it,” Mr. Davis said. “It’s designed. It’s created.”

The process begins — whether on the original line, which can run any of its 80 different dough types, or the latest line housed on the “new side” of the building as part of the 2014 expansion — with La Brea Bakery founder Nancy Silverton’s original starter, now housed in Zeppelin starter tanks.

“This is our bread; it’s our starter we need to maintain and the interior structure that we need to achieve,” Mr. Davis said. “Going to an automated starter tank system provides an amazing amount of consistency. When we did it manually, someone might forget or do something differently. The tank system brought out the level of consistency we needed, especially with such a temperamental, living thing as starter.”

Some La Brea Bakery products rely only on the original starter, while others, such as with the La Brea Bakery Reserve line, use a combination of yeasts and multiple preferments to achieve their complex flavor profiles.

Small batches of flour and other ingredients are scaled manually before being mixed in Sancassiano vertical mixers — single spiral on the old side; double spiral on the new. Doughs rest for anywhere from two to four hours, depending on the product. At the mixing stage, La Brea Bakery still uses ice to control dough temperature, a critical part of the artisan process, to ensure every batch is within 0.2 degrees Fahrenheit of the next. It’s just one of those little touches, old-school habits in the new world of automation.