Focus on local grains is recipe for excellence
May 24, 2022
Driving to work, Rachael Sobczak passes acre after acre of her ingredients.
The 12-year La Conner resident is owner of Water Tank Bakery, which opened last June at The Port of Skagit. She crafts sourdough bread, cakes and cookies from 100% locally milled flour made from Northwest grain.
A baker for nearly 20 years, 10 of them with the Breadfarm in Edison, Sobczak was selling bread from her home when the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Demand snowballed for product, then known as Rachael and Bread. “People were home more, less busy and willing to buy from a local person,” she said. “Plus it’s good bread.”
Renting a kitchen in Conway helped her scale up – but then she was offered, for free, a large and expensive stone oven from Seattle restaurateur Tom Douglas.
“It’s not an easy thing to find a place to put,” she said.
To operate, the oven required three-phase electric power. That ruled out most potential La Conner locations. In spring 2021, the Port offered her affordable space in a building where three-phase service was available.
Bayview Electric, in the adjoining space, brought service to her unit. Cairnspring Mills, in the building next door, brings flour to her door.
Most mainstream mills blend many grains to create flour that is consistent from batch to batch. Cairnspring takes a different approach, making each of its flours from a single variety of grain from a particular field.
“Crops are a variable product and each season the grain is different,” said Sobczak. “The weather determines how the grain protein is.”
She calls the baking process for single-grain flour “very nuanced.” She must pay attention to specific factors like hydration and how long the dough is mixed.
Cairnspring can tell her the protein level of a particular batch of flour and how it is likely to absorb moisture, but even then Sobczak cannot be sure how the batch will perform.
“We can control how long to mix it, how much water to add and how to fold it once it has been mixed,” she said. “After we do it once, we can do it again and again and each time we can refine the mixing process.
“It does require a certain level of skill to produce a consistent product and a lot of communication and attention to detail at all steps in the process.”
She views the results as a “value-added agricultural product” rather than artisan bread. The term “artisan,” she thinks, includes too many locally produced items that actually are not very good.
Sobczak uses a young, sweeter sourdough starter for her breads and pastries. Her desserts are seasonal. Right now, she is making a coffee cake with an almond filling and cardamom in the dough. Next up will be a rhubarb cupcake, but she hasn’t chosen the topping yet.
“People are enjoying the sweets as much as the bread,” she said.
“I can’t keep her stuff in stock. Customers love it!” said Michelle Calvin, owner of Beaver Tales Coffee, which gets deliveries of Water Tank goods every Wednesday and Friday.
Water Tank Bakery products are also available at pop-up sales, farmer’s markets and Viva Farms CSA boxes. Every Wednesday and Friday through Sunday, Sobczak sells through a walkup window at her Water Tank Road facility.
Sobczak’s expanded operation and capable crew are doing well, although balancing work and family can be tough. “I was with my son Abner so much during the pandemic and now not so much,” she said. “But he’s my biggest fan and advocate and a great salesperson.”
Her passion for giving customers a taste of Skagit Valley grain is what sustains her.
“I want to show people what the stuff that’s growing right here can actually be and I think we can have excellence in that.”