A product review blog primarily focusing on food + drink that is organic, sustainable, wild-harvested, ethical, or otherwise well-produced.

Tag: Arizona

Hayden Flour Mills – Crackers

hayden-flour-mills-crackers

We were first introduced to Hayden Flour Mills through the famed Arizona pizzeria, Pizzeria Bianco, who now use Hayden’s flours to make their exceptional crusts and pastas. After having dined at both Bianco locations a multitude of times over the years, we had begun to wonder if their secret lie more in preparation or source material. Of course, both are key, and Bianco had already reached great success well before switching over to Hayden’s flours, but a chef like Chris Bianco doesn’t just switch primary flour sources on a whim, and we can’t help but feel they’ve elevated their work with the addition of Hayden, at least a bit.

Hayden Flour Mills is a flour mill based in Queen Creek, Arizona, a small town less than an hour Southeast of Phoenix, building on the mythical foundations of the historic Tempe mill. They mill exclusively heritage grains, which are grown and hand-cultivated by small local farms, and ground using rare traditional Austrian stone mills, of which they have three (at the time of our writing this). All of the grain varietals are inherently non-GMO, and due to the heartier nature of heirloom stock, no herbicides or pesticides are used in their production.

While in Phoenix, we made an uncharacteristic stop in at a Sprouts and were pleasantly surprised by a decently-sized display of products local to Arizona, including Hayden Flour Mills’ flours and pancake mixes, along with their newest venture – crackers. Despite the fact that we’d been dying to bake with their White Sonora Wheat*, we were on the road, and flour is just about the silliest item we could have purchased. So instead, bound to practicality, we picked up the three cracker varieties they had available: Red Fife Wheat, Blue Beard Semolina, and Emmer Farro – the fourth and final in the series being of course the White Sonora Wheat we’d been looking to try. Still, we were excited for the other three all the same.

Their ingredients are simple: the crackers’ respective grain, followed by non-GMO canola oil, sugar and salt. Outside of just a few others, these are the cleanest crackers we’ve seen yet, and by far the most intriguing. The biggest difference between these and those is how bare Hayden leaves their grain. Most other crackers in this sphere reliantly add herbs like rosemary, and fruits such as red pepper to distract from their bland bases – generic varieties of wheat, rice, etc. It’s exciting to see such bold minimalism in a field that in the last decade has become almost parodically overindulgent in terms of flavour stacking.

As comparatively simple as Hayden’s crackers might be, we do still wish the few ingredients used were cleaner. Neither the canola oil nor the sugar are organic. And while we understand the impulse to use canola oil for its neutral flavour, better alternatives exist. Hayden is clearly committed to reviving healthier, more sustainable agricultural models, so the non-GMO canola oil and sugar choices feel like a copout.

An aside – we find it frustrating the increasingly common practice of employing ‘non-GMO’ ingredients as equivalent stand-ins for organic ones. Though we mostly appreciate the attention that issues relating to genetic modification have gotten in the past few years (especially in as much as it has helped raise awareness of heirloom seed stock), we find it troubling that so many people allow themselves to be so distracted by that one factor, to the degree that they now eschew concern for how their food was actually grown and cultivated. ‘Non-GMO’ food products are just as likely to be grown in poor agricultural conditions, with no interest in soil preservation, pollution of water tables, toxin absorption, or any of the many other issues that inspired the rise of organic, biodynamic, and permacultural approaches in the first place.

We recognize that organic certification programs often have their own – at the very least that they’re cost prohibitive for many producers, but that is where information transparency on the part of producers (Hayden has done their part in this regard where their grains are concerned) should come into play, not regressive acceptance of lower standards that distract from arguably more important issues.

Returning to the crackers – though the heritage grains call more obvious attention to themselves flavourally (see below), texturally they’re familiar in that they resemble something like a graham cracker, but with more body and heft – more or less depending on the specific variety. They’re undecorated and straightforward, as per their ingredients, and are well-suited for bearing the weight of substantial toppings (though unlike most crackers, pairing with these grains does require a bit of forethought.)

Red Fife Wheat – Though it ends on a mildly sweet note, Red Fife was the ‘strongest’ tasting of this sampling, with a very rich, full flavour strongly suggestive of some of the deeper notes found in olive oil. Similarly, the fattiness also sort of takes shape in the form of raw pecan. More than with the other two, the graham cracker similarity is most striking here, offering an especially soft texture and muted bite.

Blue Beard Semolina – Significantly crispier in texture, Blue Beard’s got a good crack to it, and a clean, bright profile that corresponds appropriately. This might be the most accessible of the three we tried, with the taste possessing something that reminded us vaguely of Wheat Thins. If it’s accessible, it’s also somewhat plain, but in crackers which seem to beg so imploringly to be paired with other foods, it feels unfair to fault them for it.

Emmer Farro – Without a doubt our favourite, this cracker had the lightest texture and best balanced flavour of the bunch. Following the initial bite, you’re presented with a nice give that upon further chewing reveals a pleasantly coarse granularity. A lovely buttery flavour couples up with the distinctive bitter fattiness of walnut. To our palettes the most complex, but also the one we found easiest to pair with.

All are made with just enough sugar to bring out the grains’ natural sweetness, without turning them into dessert items, or requiring a compensatory over-salting to make up for it. The salt they do employ closely resembles (if it isn’t in fact) pretzel salt, and is used in a similarly sparse pattern of distribution also resembling pretzels. It’s pretty pleasurable too, getting surprise bites with salt to accent the otherwise soft-spoken grains.

While we can’t say for sure that it’s directly related to their being heritage varietals, it was interesting to taste so many fatty compounds (butter, olive oil, pecan, walnut) in these decidedly unflavoured crackers. It certainly isn’t something we’ve ever experienced in crackers made with ‘regular’ grains, flavoured or not, and as such it was enough to make us wonder if those fatty tasting compounds used to be a normal part of the flavour profile of grains, accidentally bred out over the years in favour of other traits.

These are good crackers, especially considering how absolutely reductionist they are by design – early batches didn’t even have sugar in them! In a field that’s generally devoid of true innovation, Hayden Flour Mills is definitely doing something different. They’re a young company, so it’ll be exciting to watch them grow. We hope the standards they hold their own grains to will eventually trickle down to their secondary ingredients (sugar, oils, etc), but considering how few other shortcuts they’ve taken up to this point we’ll optimistically hold out for that possibility.

*White Sonora wheat is the oldest surviving wheat varietal grown in North America with a documented history dating back to at least the 1700s.

For those interested in the resurgence of ancient grains in an increasingly gluten-phobic culture, Lauren Saria wrote a great article on the topic for the Phoenix New Times.

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Wild Tonic

This is not the review we expected to be writing about Olinka Kombucha. Yes, Olinka. That was the original name of the now rebranded and reformulated brew known throughout Arizona these days* as Wild Tonic Jun Kombucha.

Arizona Honey Jun

A little over a year ago while driving through Sedona we stopped by chance at what seemed to be nothing more than your average roadside pull-off, albeit a cute one. Inside Indian Gardens Oak Creek Market we were surprised by a selection of food and drink atypical to these sorts of establishments. When we discovered that they served a locally-made kombucha on tap we had to try it. The flavour of the day was Raspberry Goji Rose, and to date it remains one of the best kombuchas we’ve ever had. (So far, its only competition in our book is Mountain Culture Kombucha.) All three named flavours were perfectly recognizable, playing off each other brilliantly, complementing and recontextualizing each other in a delightfully dynamic performance.

Who made this stuff? Not that it’s a rule, but usually these small-town, local kombuchas aren’t much to write home about. Drinkable at best, but very rarely anything approaching exemplary. Not this time. Olinka Kombucha, which upon further research seemed to be little more than a basement side-project, blew us away with its delicacy, balance, and clarity. It was a very memorable experience, one that stuck with us after a year of other kombucha tastings and travels.

When it looked like we might be swinging through Arizona again, we decided to look Olinka up and see how they were doing. After all, it had been a year. We did find them, but not at all in the form we were expecting. They had rebranded, renamed themselves Wild Tonic, and most importantly were now brewing their kombuchas with honey instead of cane sugar – a change that warrants a distinct titular designation; namely that of ‘jun’. As honey enthusiasts, we were curious and looked forward to experiencing the outcome.

Jun isn’t exactly a revolution, but simply a variation. As opposed to kombuchas, juns generally use honey as their source of sugar, green tea instead of black, and ferment for about half as long (about 3-5 days). Their SCOBYs are naturally also a bit different, but not radically. Wild Tonic makes claims** about juns as a whole being characteristically ‘lighter’ and ‘smoother’, but they aren’t exactly true. We’ve found that just as with kombucha, it’s entirely up to the brewer and the culture they nurture what flavoural and textural properties result, and we can attest to having drank both syrupy-sweet juns heavy as soda and kombuchas so light they verged on seltzer.

Our first encounter with the new brews was at the now aggressively expanding Natural Grocers, who are popping up all over the West, in this case at a quiet intersection in Scottsdale, Arizona. We saw that of the flavours they had decided to keep in their lineup, our lost love Raspberry Goji Rose had stayed the change of tides and was here on the shelf waiting for us. Other interesting options were Rosemary Lemon, Lavender Love, Tropical Turmeric, and Spiced Pear.

We’ve spent a few months now with these drinks. We’ve gone through a multitude of batches, both in bottles and on tap. It’s been an interesting process, one that hasn’t gone at all as we’d expected. Olinka and all that it represented for us is no more, but Wild Tonic certainly plays an important role in the increasingly complex narrative that is contemporary kombucha culture.

The primary issue we have with these is their consistently overwhelming honey flavour, which is so prominent that it becomes the line’s defining feature. We understand that it’s a jun, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we have to experience so much honey with every sip that it takes away from everything else. The same honey seems to be in use throughout the whole line as well, which is a pity, as honey varietals have an enormous amount of variance and fair much better when paired accordingly.

And while the honey is oppressively omnipresent, the line as a whole suffers from inconsistent quality between batches***. With each flavour we found our notes varied measurably from bottle to bottle, bottle to tap, and even tap to tap. Of course, jun cultures are alive and complex, and as such it’s unrealistic to expect their products to ever be exactly the same, but the best brewers have an incredible amount of control over their process and are able to produce a fairly reliable identity with each flavour. This in mind, our notes are an average of our tastings, with things not shared between samples omitted.

Our once-favourite Raspberry Goji Rose is definitely still one of the better flavours, and undoubtedly the most user-friendly, smelling and tasting all at once like bubblegum, watermelon sour candy and a wine cooler. These things, as well as raspberry, goji, and rose. The fact that they captured the ever-so-subtle goji, though, is most impressive. Rose here, as it often does in kombuchas, comes through wonderfully baring resemblance to ruby red grapefruit. Really, our only disappointment is in the addition of honey, the heaviness of which weighs down an otherwise deliciously ebullient flavour.

Tropical Turmeric sort of immediately offends us by its name alone. We aren’t fans of employing the generic ‘tropical’ to connote such a narrow flavour spectrum to begin with. Abbreviating the most biologically diverse region on the planet to a few of its more popular species is grossly unfair, to say the least. Once we ignore the title though, and judge it for what it is… we’re confused at best. The honey overwhelmingly dominates the nose, being far too dark for the bright turmeric and pineapple to come through much at all. On the palette, the turmeric ends up lending a slight smokey quality, which though interesting, like the honey, doesn’t leave room for the pineapple. Hints of the fruit faintly wash around alongside the here surprisingly sheepish ginger, never becoming very present. Peppercorns appear as another nearly undetectable ingredient, likely for their ability to increase the absorption of turmeric into the blood stream, enhancing its anti-inflammatory effects. While appreciated, in this instance the pepper really serves more of a symbolic purpose than anything else, as the quantity of turmeric is far too insignificant for any noticeable therapeutic effects.

Though gaining more and more attention in the culinary sphere, lavender is still a flavour difficult to find done well. While many go overboard into soap territory, Wild Tonic’s Lavender Love pleasantly does not. It actually smells and tastes like flowers, rather than cheap extract, and captures a rich, darker part of the flower that’s almost spice-like. This flavour, by far, pairs best with the line’s uniform honey, melding almost perfectly with its full body. The ingredient list states more than just lavender though, including rose hips, jasmine, hibiscus, and prickly pear. The first two of these provide much needed acidity and richness respectively, but the latter items have with each tasting been completely lost on us and seem like an empty gesture. Delicious, but a bit one-note.

Rosemary Lemon has been the least consistent from batch to batch in our experience, but it may be on average the most interesting, successful flavour Wild Tonic has to offer. To find rosemary in a drink is rare to say the least, and not surprisingly so. Its hyper-herbaceous quality is difficult to tame, but here they’ve done just that, and perfectly – balancing it between the syrupy-sweet depths of the honey and the bright cut of the lemon. Much like with Lavender Love, they’ve captured a very accurate portrait of the plant, and in their unexaggerated and perceptive technique they effectively communicate what otherwise could easily become lost in translation.

Spiced Pear is surely the gravest disappointment of the bunchIt’s a shock to us that it successfully made it to market shelves at all. While it may sound promising, especially in the cooler months, its reality is one smelling and tasting unmistakably of melting plastic. We don’t mean reminiscent of, hinting at, or subtly imbued with, we mean it literally smells and tastes like melting plastic. There’s something resembling olives snuggling up to the plastic too, and somewhere underneath all that it’s possible (kind of) to identify the presence of a pear and some spices. It’s incredibly bland, basically amounting to not much more than mildly fizzy plastic honey water.

With the exception of Spiced Pear, these flavours are far from awful. Remnants of mastery can easily be found throughout the line. The problems that are there might get worked out over time, but why the company felt compelled to rush some of these to market instead of just honing their new craft as they did their old is beyond us. Something about it reeks of a desperate, get-rich-quick sort of scheme. Admittedly, it’s one that seems to be working out for them just fine – as they’re already planning to expand nationally within the year.

As consumers, we’re always sad to see small-scale artisans sell-out as they scale-up. It isn’t at all necessary, as so many before have demonstrated. We hope that fledgling producers choose whose steps they wish to follow in wisely, for even if they both lead to wealth and success, one comes at the expense of both dignity and artistry.

*We have since learned that the founders of Olinka worked with Wild Tonic to reformulate their kombucha recipes into juns and bring them to mass market. Long story short, while the Wild Tonic project has proved to be rather successful, the relationship between the two parties didn’t work out, and the Olinka folks decided to return to their smaller Sedona-local operation with classic cane sugar brews and new flavours.

**They make a number of other claims that are either unfounded, misleading, or entirely untrue. One of them is a widely proliferated myth regarding jun’s origins – see Jenny at Nourished Kitchen‘s findings on the subject.

***As of May 2016, it appears that Wild Tonic has finally resolved their batch inconsistency issues. All recent samples over the past 3 months have been thoroughly consistent.