Orchard Hill Breadworks: Baking Bread and Creating a Sense of Community

ALSTEAD, NEW HAMPSHIRE – What began as a seemingly modest interest in baking for Noah Elbers at the age of 17, has now risen – one artisan loaf of bread at a time – into the thriving specialty food company Orchard Hill Breadworks, the commercial kitchen and retail shop located on the family farm in the scenic hills of East Alstead, New Hampshire.

So, how does a 17-year-old high school student become interested in the art of baking bread, one might ask?

Article by Joe Milliken * Photos courtesy of Orchard Hill Breadworks

“I discovered baking in the winter of 1994, when a family friend who lived a mile from my home, had built a wood-fired oven in his backyard that fall,” Noah Elbers said in a recent Standing Room Only interview. “One day, in the middle of a snowstorm, he called to ask if I wanted to help with the bake that day. His house was literally over a meadow and through the woods (plus a lake) so I strapped on my cross country skis and headed out.

“The image that stays with me after all this time is skiing up the rise to his house, seeing the glow of the oven fire and smelling the sweet wood smoke as the snow piled up all around. Although it would be several years before I was baking for myself, that was the moment baking first grabbed me.”

That first experience of baking bread would certainly stay with Noah and about a year after graduating from high school, the same friend who introduced him to baking suggested that Noah build his own oven on the property of the family farm. He liked the idea and in the summer of 1997, Noah hosted a “work party” and constructed the outdoor oven on the premise of simply adding a new feature to the farm... baking bread and pies for the family.

However, after about a years' time, Noah's interest kept rising and now he was baking every week and along with also getting married and starting a family of his own, by 2001 he had become a full-time artisan bread baker. Then, over the next decade or so, he launched Orchard Hill Breadworks, would ultimately graduate to an indoor oven and renovate a barn into a commercial kitchen and retail space.

“We were originally operating a farm stand to sell our apples and cider going back to the 1980s,” Noah said. “I began baking in 1997 and we are now baking in our third oven. The first outdoor oven served the bakery from 1997 to 2002, then an indoor oven was built in July of 2002 and served us until the summer of 2007.

“The barn renovations and building of the oven were simultaneous.... a little work on the oven, then a little work on the kitchen until the project was complete. Now our wood-fired Spanish oven serves all the baking needs of the business and the barn addition (re-built in 1998) now houses both our oven and the retail space. Complexity has increased a lot over the years so far as the equipment and physical plant, but the basic fact that these are dynamic processes who’s needs never stop changing, yet the goal remains the same.”

Orchard Hill's main focus is making traditional old world breads, meaning breads with four basic ingredients: organic flour, natural sour dough culture, water and salt. “Incredible flavor, crust and other characteristics can be elicited through careful manipulation of the fermentation process of just these ingredients. Understanding fermentation is the heart of the bread-making craft, just as it is for cheese, beer, wine and real pickles. Other stuff that gets added needs to complement the baker’s use of proper technique and skill.”

Orchard Hill Breadworks operates a modest-sized, self-serve shop where patrons can purchase their breads, cookies and other baked goods, as well as select products such as milk, cheese, yogurt, butter, eggs, jams, pesto and sauerkraut. “We happily take email orders and update the Facebook page regularly with specials, but we do not currently sell on line or ship bread to other parts of the country,” Noah added. “It's a foolish waste of resources to encourage people to do anything other than search out their own local baker because good bread is available almost everywhere nowadays, you just need to seek it out.”

Another wonderful tradition well worth mentioning is Orchard Hill's “pizza night,” which originally started as a small gathering of friends and family at the farm, but has evolved over the years into something much more. “After a couple summers and seeing 'pizza night' grow five-fold, it was clear this was an event many people enjoyed and in December of 2008, the season when various non-profits send out fund raising appeals, I had a pile of these letters on my desk asking me to send along a check.

“2008 had been a year which saw flour prices double and sales slump, and I was not in a position to give even small gifts to most of these worthy causes. However, over a few weeks time an idea formed in my head of a way to do more for these groups than I would ever be able to do on my own. A few months later in June of 2009, we’d kick off our third summer of community pizza nights, but rather than just letting it be a fun get together, it would from then on be a way for local groups to raise money.”

The only thing that Orchard Hill asks of these sponsored groups is to assist on their given “pizza night” and they would receive all of the profits from the community gathering, as well as the donated time from Noah and the Orchard Hill staff. “Since that first year we’ve sponsored a wide variety of groups, from high school booster clubs to small arts organizations and larger grass roots initiatives like the Monadnock Food Co-op start up,” Noah stated.

“In all, we’ve raised almost $60,000 and although it’s impossible to put an exact number on it, we’ve counted as many as 400 guests on our busiest nights. Perhaps the most important aspect to recognize is the tangible feeling of community that is created around the event. Standing at the oven, I greet and thank just about every guest for coming and just about everyone shares with me what a great time they’re having. Indeed there are benefits that reach far beyond the money we give away.”

Needless to say, Noah is very proud of what “community pizza night” has done for many groups and various initiatives in the area. “For me, the heart of this event lies with the way it brings a truly diverse group of people together in one place to enjoy a meal, for gatherings around food is such an essential part of the human experience and unique in many ways. When we cook and eat together it fosters a sense of bounty, generosity and belonging. The essence of 'pizza night' has not changed and it is still very much a place where people of every age, from every walk of life and every economic circumstance come together and prepare, cook and eat a meal together... I love being a part of that.”

Orchard Hill Breadworks also hosts school groups of all ages at the bakery for field trips and various service projects around the farm property with the idea that sometimes, physical work is a lost art in the “information age” of today's society. “We live in a time where cerebral work is celebrated and manual work is marginalized and as someone who has devoted a couple decades to the humble task of making bread, I’ve learned that while much of what I do is simply labor, it is only through my curiosity about the incredibly complex microscopic world of fermentation that I’ve been successful.

“Interwoven manual labor and intellect in a way, is largely absent from today's celebrated professions and the unfortunate thing about this is that we still live in the physical world and many of the essential parts of being human are still physical actions. Finding rewarding work that exercises both mind and body is not common but it sure ought to be.

“With that said, I have hope for the food renaissance taking place right now since at its core, whether people realize it or not, it’s about this very subject. People who’ve worked desk jobs for years on-end often long to engage in a different kind of work, something that stimulates all the senses and perhaps most important of all, provides an opportunity to connect the brilliance of the mind with that potential that lies waiting in our hands.”

Now that is certainly food for thought!

Orchard Hill Breadworks is located at 121 Old Settlers Road in East Alstead, New Hampshire and fresh bread is available at the retail shop every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Their bread is also available at several stores and restaurants throughout Southern New Hampshire and Vermont. To learn more about Orchard Hill's products and where they can be purchased, please visit their website at www.orchardhillbreadworks.com.