One of the benefits of a trip to the local farmer’s market comes in the form of free samples.
College students, local families and even pets make sure to take advantage of this opportunity, gathering Saturdays and Wednesdays at Blacksburg Farmer’s Market to sample fresh goods and embrace the warm weather.
Yet the samples from Sweet Water Baking Company, based out of Floyd, Va., didn’t last through the morning Saturday. Children at the farmer’s market gobbled up the available bread samples as if they were pieces of candy rather than whole-wheat sourdough.
With the amount of work that goes on behind-the-scenes at the company, it’s not surprising that the bread samples found such easy popularity. In fact, Sam Siller, co-owner of Sweet Water Baking Company, said it takes a lot of work to bring the bread to the table.
Even when the market closes and farm products are packed away, the business gets right back to work to ensure quality products.
Breadmaking has always been a family enterprise for Siller, ever since his sister began the process nearly two decades ago. Although Siller has been baking bread using family recipes for nine years, he admits that the first five were full of practice.
“I kind of thought I’d pick it up within a couple of months,” Siller said. “I was kind of cocky.”
Siller and his sister both learned to bake from Alan Scott, a celebrated Australian baker who built brick ovens that were designed to evenly bake bread. Scott brought about the modern renaissance of the wood oven baking method, Siller said.
He made sure to take Scott’s aid to heart, exposing a passion for breadmaking that even friends can see reflected in his work.
Bill Egan has known Siller for at least 15 years. Although Egan mostly helps with customers at the Sweet Water Baking Company’s market stand, he knows the breadmaking process is arduous from start to finish.
“(Siller) even goes out to chop the wood from his own land in Floyd,” Egan said.
Egan explained their style of breadmaking requires a specific thermodynamic atmosphere. Sweet Water Baking Company heats up their ovens three days before baking begins.
Even the last dying embers of firewood serve a purpose. When the blackened chips of wood burn down, their heat creates an ideal thermodynamic atmosphere for the bread to bake evenly.
The hard work doesn’t stop at collecting firewood for the ovens, though. Siller and his wife Alison spend two weeks feeding the starter dough, which is made of ground wheat and ingredients that vary by loaf. Because every loaf is different, some turn out better than others.
“The bread has really been the best teacher,” Siller said.
And if bread is Siller’s perpetual teacher, then class is almost never out of session. Siller’s typical workday involves 15 hours of intensive labor. From cutting firewood to hand-mixing large batches of dough, Siller’s hands are always busy.
“I think I’ve slept 14 hours in the past three days,” Siller said.
Even so, Siller and the other employees of Sweet Water Baking Company haven’t let any demands in quantity reduce their standards of quality. For instance, all of the products sold by Siller’s company are chemical-free and free from genetically modified organisms, and even though it adds to the company’s expenses, they import flour from halfway across the country.
Whether they’re aware or not, many Tech students have had a taste of Sweet Water Baking Company’s bread. Owens Food Court’s Farms and Fields Project uses Sweet Water Baking Company’s bread in a variety of dishes, including their Panini sandwiches.
More than seven types of bread were available at Sweet Water Baking Company’s market stand on Saturday in Blacksburg, and even more exist on their website. The company also makes their own granola mix and energy bars, and sells to retailers across the United States.
Ingredients are only half the recipe, though. In the five years it took Siller to learn the art of making bread, his sister’s original breadmaking instructions began to develop and take on a life of their own. Thanks to a fortunate accident, Siller developed a starter dough recipe that surpassed the original.
“We feed the starter dough every day, and I fed it a massive amount the day before (it went in the oven),” Siller said. “It was the best mistake.”
However, Siller gets help from a variety of sources. Besides his employees, who Siller pays more than himself, Siller’s four children are becoming more knowledgeable about making bread and granola each day.
“It’s an education, and they’re also bread connoisseurs,” Siller said. “They’ll know if something’s wrong or right with the bread.”
In particular, Siller cherishes the time he gets to spend with his family in and out of the kitchen.
“When I was growing up, my dad went to work all day,” Siller said. “I’m present there with them.”
While the responsibility of running a company never lifts from Siller’s shoulders, the enjoyment he and his customers experience make the long hours worthwhile.
“I think a lot of people obviously appreciate it, but most people have no idea how challenging it is,” Siller said. “It’s kind of crazy to get into it and be so involved.”