Discovering the passion
Joost Hilkemeijer never planned to be a baker. He thought about being a chef. He got a degree in environmental science. He tried waiting tables and a public service job. But it was in bread that he discovered his passion − sourdough bread to be precise − and with bread he founded a thriving artisan bakery business.
“It took me nine years to do a three-year degree,” says Joost, now 42, with a grin.
“That should have been a sign. I kept stopping to work in hospitality, and then going back because I thought I should. Academia was not my passion.”
Finishing his degree at 28 he “got a job in Canberra and immediately realised it wasn’t what I wanted. I liked hospitality, I wanted to run my own business. It was a leap of faith, but working in the public service helped to push me to make the decision,” admits Joost.
It started at home
The sourdough bread he was baking at home − 50 loaves week to sell to local shops − was the key. “It was what I enjoyed,” he says. “I’d been experimenting with it at home, over the years, ever since I went to Europe and realised there wasn’t the same variety of bread in Australia; I started making bread on a small-scale while I was still at university.”
With $25,000 he’d saved, Joost headed back to his hometown of Berry NSW in 2002 and started baking organic sourdough bread in a historic building that had been a bakery. He constructed a masonry, wood-fired, Alan Scott oven (designer of the brick oven and author of The Bread Builders) with his brother and business partner Jelle.
Joost baked and Jelle ran front-of-house.
“I was so blinded by wanting to do bread that I didn’t think about going anywhere else. My parents settled here 35 years ago and I felt comfortable here. I never even thought about whether anyone would buy the bread. Getting a customer was almost irrelevant.”
The bread soon outgrew Berry
Fortunately, Berry Woodfired Sourdough Bakery soon gained a strong following, both wholesale and at the bakery door. “People would come at night to get a hot loaf,” he says. “Especially weekenders heading south. I started making a couple of hundred loaves a week. Now we do a couple of thousand and up to 5000 loaves in a busy week.”
Demand for the bread increased and the business outgrew its one oven. In 2008 Joost and Jelle split the business; Jelle took over the Berry Sourdough Cafe business and Joost the wholesale concern, establishing a two-oven Berry Organic Sourdough Bakery 500 metres down the road.
The perfect recipe
Each loaf is mixed from organic flour, purified water and sea salt, shaped by hand, set to rise in willow baskets and then baked. Today an efficient steam tube oven is used, but refractory materials such as brick and stone help create the taste, texture, and deep delicious crust for which Berry Organic Sourdough Bakery is known.
At the heart of the bread is the organic starter that Joost created from a combination of stone-ground rye flour and purified water, and which must be ‘fed’ fresh flour every 24 hours. No baker’s yeast is added − a completely natural leavened bread using the purest of ingredients is created.
“Sourdough takes time,” says Joost. “The culture for Wednesday’s bread is made on Monday night. We start mixing at 11am and bake until midnight.” Loaves are then distributed as far south as Bega, through to North Wollongong and Picton, and up to the Southern Highlands. In 2010 Flour Water Salt cafe was established in Bowral and expanded to Milton in 2012. Both cafes sell bread and deli products, along with a range of cakes and pastries; a selection is gluten and dairy free.
A family affair
Joost’s wife Kirsty, 37 was previously − and rather conveniently − a web designer, but now manages the two retail outlets; Joost credits much of the success of Flour Water Salt with her input. “She’s put so much time and effort into our brand, the presentation and marketing − it’s so important,” he says. “I think a lot of small business people forget how important presentation can be.”
While business growth has been organic, Joost acknowledges the daily battle between maintaining an artisan product and satisfying increasing demand. “My relationship with the bread is the same. The mixing machine is bigger now, but the bench where we shape the bread is the same as 11 years ago. I’ve made sure that any changes we’ve made in the business don’t affect the end product. It’s difficult when you’re talking about a handmade product – the business side wants to make a profit, but the other side wants something artisan. It’s an oxymoron.”
The rise of the artisan baker
For now, success means “a business that runs smoothly and efficiently” leaving time for family (wife Kirsty and offspring Oscar, eight, and Ruby, five) but with another retail outlet on the cards, and with the demand for his bread, Joost won’t be slowing down any time soon.
Besides, he’s still searching for the perfect loaf of bread. “I’m mad in the sense that I just want to get the bread right,” he grins. “I’m never satisfied. There’s always room for improvement.”
- Authentic sourdough has three fundamental ingredients: flour, water & salt.
- Factory-produced bread can have as many as 20 additives to help preserve the shelf life.
- From fermentation of the dough to the baked bread takes 36 hours.