Someone recently called John Glagola the Yeast Jedi. He works under the name The Wayfare Baker. But I like to call him the Bread Savior, because his mission is to share both his bread and his knowledge on how to make it.
“I want everyone to have good bread, not just people who can go to fancy dinners,” he told me in an interview.
We were at a small commercial bakery in Bethlehem Township, where he was baking his artisan sourdough. Jazz music played in the background as Glagola slid back and forth across the floor in his sneakers, expertly loading and unloading the two ovens. He reminded me of a kid with socks on. I could feel tiny beads of sweat on my face as we chatted, even on a cool winter evening with the windows open. In summers, according to Glagola, the bakery can get up to 120 degrees.
“A lot of the problem in the U.S. is that bread is that really hard, warm dinner roll you get at Olive Garden for free,” he said. “So one of the things I’m working on is education. I want everyone to learn about this process. Then everyone can have good bread. We all do better together.”
Glagola starts with a white bread flour from Montana that’s unbleached, non-bromated, and non-GMO. Then, he adds in Pennsylvania-grown whole grains. He mills the grains with two mills that he keeps in the attic when not in use. I always thought of grain mills as entire buildings, but his stone mill fit on the counter with no problem.
Glagola explained that commercial mills move “so fast, the grain hits [the mill] and explodes.” The resulting heat means taste, microbiotics, and minerals are lost in the process. Commercial mills also get rid of the bran and germ, which house most of the grain’s nutrients. Only the undersperm remains—which is pure starch.
Like most sourdough bakers, Glagola doesn’t use any chemical leaveners. “Using chemical yeast in bread is like giving a 15 year old boy a Ferrari and saying ‘this goes really fast, but you shouldn’t drive it.’ Of course he’s going to crash it,” Glagola said. “Yeast goes really fast, and doesn’t care about anything else on the road, so you’re left with nothing.”
Instead, the sourdough cultures—also called mothers—capture naturally occurring wild yeast from the air and flour and allow it to grow. Glagola bulk ferments his dough for two days before mixing, folding, shaping, and baking it. He’s been here since 8:30 this morning, when he started mixing all the dough by hand. This process takes about an hour, because the flour needs to absorb all the water.
“Think of the flour as sitting in the water, and it doesn’t want to swim,” said Glagola. He hugged his arms around himself to demonstrate. “It takes about 45 minutes for the flour to loosen up and decide to want to swim in the water,” he said, loosening up.
This high hydration is important for the gluten to properly develop. “In order to be fully cooked, something needs to be fully hydrated,” he said. “Most bread is a) improperly fermented and b) doesn’t have enough water. Without water, you’re basically cooking starch. Think of this tray of bread like a tray of potatoes—if you eat undercooked potatoes, you don’t feel good.”
Glagola believes improperly cooked starch is the reason many people think they’re gluten intolerant. “Lots of people are just eating undercooked bread, and they think they have a gluten allergy because they don’t feel good.” He referenced a 2012 study that found only 1% of the population is actually allergic to gluten.
But that doesn’t change the fact that millions of Americans are now seeking out gluten free foods. That’s why Glagola is working on making a gluten free bread. “I’m playing with a buckwheat sorghum sourdough,” he said. “I’m doing something wrong, but I haven’t figured out what it is. When I figure that out, I’ll have a gluten free sourdough.”
He doesn’t let problems like that get him down, though. “Baking is not so much me telling the bread what I want to do, but my understanding and directing it. It’s my interpreting the flour, water, salt, environment, mother—all those factors, interpreting where they want to go, and then doing what they want to do without interfering,” he said. “Sometimes you get the perfect day, but mix the dough wrong. Then it’s your fault, but that’s okay—no one’s perfect.”
The Man in the Mountains
Glagola wasn’t always a baker. He worked as a chef in Boston after graduating from The Culinary Institute of America. The restaurant was part of a group that had an in-house bakery, which he walked past every morning on his way to work. “One day,” he said, “I walked past the bread table and thought, ‘hey, I’ll try that!’”
He made a couple loaves, and thought it was fun. “Then three loaves became four loaves, became ten loaves, became 400 loaves. I loved it so much, it could occupy all my time and I didn’t get sick of it.”
For a while, Glagola went in to the bakery at 6 a.m. to help bake bread before his restaurant shift, which started at noon. He would then work a full shift at the restaurant before going home, taking a nap, and doing it all over again the next day. This lasted until he was so overworked and exhausted that he showed up an hour late to his restaurant shift, thinking he was an hour early, and got fired.
After continuing to bake bread in Boston for a while, Glagola knew he could be doing better. He had heard of Richard Bourdon of Berkshire Mountain Bakery, and was curious: “Was this guy who lived in the middle of the mountains and baked bread really as good as everyone said he was?”
He made the two hour trip from Boston one morning to find out. When he got there, he said “[Richard] came out, and he’s always covered in flour. He’s broad shouldered, has this bristly hair that always sticks straight out from his brimmed hat, and large hands. So he comes out, and this dust cloud follows him.” Bourdon offered to let Glagola hang out and bake bread with him. “So I hung out all day, until about 8 p.m. I had such a good time, it felt like I just got there.”
Bourdon ended up taking Glagola under his wing, and taught him everything about how to run a bakery: “How to buy grain and why to buy from people, how to mill the grain, turn it into bread, sell it at the market, and then after the market how to keep books, hire and fire people.”
The Wayfare Baker
Back in his hometown of Bethlehem, Glagola is putting that knowledge into practice. He hasn’t had to deal with the hiring or firing process yet, but will soon. This summer, he’ll be looking for help baking, delivering, and selling at farmers markets.
Next month, he hopes to start teaching classes at the bakery. He wants to invite people to come hang out and learn to make bread with him—just like he did with Bourdon. Information will be available on his Facebook page as he works out the details.
Glagola’s two-year plan is to open a retail location for The Wayfare Baker, though he’s not sure where yet. “This coming farmers market season will help pinpoint where people are that like the bread,” he said. He hopes to sell at 5 farmers markets next season, including Trexlertown, Macungie, and Nazareth.
In the meantime, you can find his bread at Healthy Alternatives (Trexlertown), where customers rave about it.
“These are perfect hostess gifts!” I overheard one customer, named Melinda, say about the pannettonne, an Italian sweet bread traditionally served on Christmas or New Year’s. “I keep coming back for more!” When I told her I was interviewing Glagola for this post, she continued raving about him. “He’s such an asset to the valley,” she said. She loves his bread because it has simple ingredients, making it great for people with food allergies.
The Wayfare Baker’s bread is also available at Back Door Bake Shop (Bethlehem), Echo Hill (Dryville), and Nature’s Way Market (Easton). My personal favorite loaf is the olive rosemary. And Glagola’s? For savory, he likes the toasted sesame. However, he said, “I’m having an internal battle, because I also like the sunny flax.” And for sweet: “Cherry pecan has a special place in my heart.”