Cairnspring CEO Kevin Morse gets into grain.

The industrial racks inside Cairnspring Mills are loaded with white “supersacks,” each holding a ton of grain. On nearby pallets, 25,000 pounds of flour await shipment to South Korea. This mill in Burlington, 65 miles north of Seattle, is no tiny boutique, but it’s putting what we think of as boutique flour back into the mainstream.

Fans—local customers include Macrina and Grand Central bakeries—evangelize about Cairnspring flour: its freshness, flavor, and character, the rustic boules and French baguettes and delicate croissants it produces while retaining nutritious bran and germ. Bakers at Canlis, Renee Erickson’s Sea Creatures restaurants, and Edouardo Jordan’s new grain-focused bar, Lucinda, all use it. Jerilyn Brusseau, best known for developing the Cinnabon, did some test bakes and then joined the mill’s board. When Nancy Lazara of Metropolitan Market heard the mill wasn’t really set up for retail, she brought 10 workers to fill 1,800 consumer-size bags of flour to get it on market shelves. (Local outlets also include the bulk bins at Central Co-op.)

That passion begins at the mill. Kevin Morse, CEO of Cairnspring, knows which strain of grain and which farm is connected to every corner of the industrial building. He even tracks whether the golden stalks in the nearby Skagit fields are dry enough for harvest. “I can tell you, that’s Hedlin Farms,” he said on a recent visit, pointing to one tote and referring to the family farm less than 10 miles away. It’s bound for the Seoul, Korea branch of Tartine Bakery, as impressive a client as a flour producer could want.

In the production area, grains are crushed and ground using a combination of modern technology and methods along with some ancient tools, like millstones of Ethiopian flint.

That mix of new and old defines Cairnspring’s very existence: Fundamentally, beyond the talk of nutty aromas and caramelized crusts, the 4,500-square-foot mill that opened in 2017 is a missing link. A local mill used to be as essential to American communities as farmers and bakers, connecting people who grow crops with places that can process, distribute, and profitably sell them.

Our locally grown grain movement mostly originates with the Bread Lab, the Washington State University research facility located right near the mill, which has spread word that flours can be as distinctive as wine grapes. But as bakers learned more about the terroir of flour and its gorgeous flavors, they had few options for obtaining practical quantities. 

Now, Cairnspring staff consults on personalized flour specs with bakers like Chad Robertson of renowned San Francisco-based Tartine Bakery, which helped jump-start the modern craze for artisan bread. Cairnspring workers discuss grains the way coffee roasters rave over beans, highlighting flavor notes like caramel, spice, and even lemon. Flour is a “fresh product” to them, out the door days after milling, not one that should be blended into anonymous chalkiness and stored in silos for years.

Now, they operate five days a week. “We can produce in a year what a large commodity mill can produce in a day,” says Morse. That’s not a lament, but a point of pride.

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