The Mill City may soon mill again.
Minneapolis was a town of a few thousand people just before the Civil War when entrepreneurs built flour mills near St. Anthony Falls. Those operations grew into large businesses that attracted thousands of people to what eventually became the milling capital of the world. But Minneapolis later pushed the mills to its periphery over safety concerns and as downtown became a place for office and commercial work, not industry.
Now, a local baker is trying to open a small-scale milling operation in a northeast Minneapolis neighborhood. And officials for the first time in years are confronting the promise and hazards of the business that built the city.
The mill that Steve Horton, former owner of Rustica Bakery, hopes to establish is far smaller than the ones that once lined the Mississippi River. He wants to mill whole wheat, whole rye and bread flour to sell to bakeries, co-ops and restaurants as well as through farmers markets for home bakers.
“It’s a relatively new trend in baking and hasn’t caught on nationally,” Horton said. “If we do a good enough job and it’s well received, then maybe more will be interested in breaking into that area of business. If we fail, it may be a warning to people.”
Horton is adding Minneapolis to a small number of cities around the country where bakers are experimenting with flour to turn out more flavorful breads and pastries. And he joins a growing number of food artisans in the city who are making small batches of products ranging from scotch to beer to chocolates. He plans to locate the mill in a place called the Food Building, a food production hub that is already home to a butcher and a creamery.
Just as craft brewers did a few years ago, Horton needs government to change the rules. About 20 years ago, grinding grains was prohibited in Minneapolis’ commercial areas because of the combustible nature of flour dust, made infamous by the explosion of the Washburn A Mill in 1878. That event, which killed 18 people, is preserved in the Mill City Museum, built on the ruins, and in the minds of Minneapolitans as a sobering reminder of a riskier past.
Horton’s mill would operate differently from the large, mechanized operations in several critical ways. For starters, wheat will be ground using stone instead of steel rollers. And the milling will be done more slowly and at fraction of the volume, making it easier to control.
Horton and his partners at the Food Building for months have been working with the city’s planners, building and fire inspectors and other regulators to define parameters for the business that won’t “open Pandora’s box,” Horton said.
“I was advocating for regulation over prohibition. There’s a way to do this in a safe manner,” said Tyrone Folliard-Olson, general counsel for the Food Building and son of building owner Kieran Folliard.
The Folliards developed the building on the principle that, since many primary ingredients in food are either raised or grown in Minnesota, end products can be handcrafted here as well.
A city planning committee recently took a favorable view of a new ordinance to allow the milling of small batches of grains in nonindustrial parts of the city. “It seems kind of contradictory that in large portions of the Mill City we can’t mill,” said Council Member Jacob Frey, who introduced the change.
The proposed change limits the size of a milling operation to 5,000 square feet. While there’s no national standard for what makes a milling operation large or small, Horton expects he will mill about 2,000 pounds of flour a day — a tiny amount compared to the average U.S. grain mill’s daily output of between 1 million and 2 million pounds.
The operation must abide by the same safety protocols as larger mills, including having a dust collection system, fire separation for the milling and grinding rooms, a combustible control plan and providing reports on storage.
Horton says his flour will be milled with a high extraction of germ, which he said provides the flavor. As bakers think about flour variations and their impact on flavor, they’re in unknown territory because most of the health and nutrition science regarding flour is based on large-scale milled grains.
“So there really isn’t any science on stone milling, the proteins, benefits, et cetera. There’s just anecdotes,” Horton said. “The actual processes of roller milling and stone milling are different. What occurs to the grain on the molecular level is not quite as refined a science in stone yet. That’s where the art comes in.”
The City Council will vote on the ordinance in December. Horton hopes to have his grain mill running by April.