February 15, 2024 3 min read

As the owner of Barton Springs Mill, he's harkening back to the state’s agricultural past.

In 1953, the federal government created a doomsday-type vault in Fort Collins, Colorado, to pre-
pare for any manner of natural or man-made disaster. Located on the sprawling campus of Colorado State University, and formally known as the National Laboratory for Genetic Re-sources Preservation, it houses more than 850,000 types of plant seeds and materials that act as a fail-safe for the country’s food supply.

But in today’s agricultural landscape, where factory farming and monoculture cropping still dominate, the Colorado seed vault has also served as a comprehensive look back at a healthier, more diverse past. Stocked with rare heirloom varieties that haven’t been cultivated since the early 19th century, it now offers crucial genetic insight for farmers, scientists, or, in James Brown’s case, trailblazing millers.

A former church musician who’s classically trained in organ and choral conducting, the owner of Barton Springs Mill has gone from amateur baker to the future of Texas foodways—all within the span of four years. After studying Elisabeth Prueitt and Chad Roberston’s influential Tartine cookbook, and having whole wheat loaves “coming out like bricks,” he turned to online sleuthing to find the solution to his sourdough woes.

“I found this blog called The Perfect Loaf, where this guy was sourcing grain from a local co-op and grinding it in a hand-cranked mill in his kitchen,” Brown says. “I thought that sounded cool, to do something with locally sourced grain from here in Texas. But I started Googling where to find that, and there really were no good options.”

Most would have stopped there, or simply turned back to commercial options, but Brown became consumed with the search. He dug through arcane literature and attended The Grain Gathering at Washington State University, an annual three-day conference for wheat breeders, maltsters, and bakers of every stripe. He visited Hayden Flour Mills in Queen Creek, Arizona, and staged at Grist & Toll, Los Angeles’ first urban flour mill. Finally, back in Austin, he forged a relationship with Andrew Braunberg, the co-founder of Still Austin Whiskey, who introduced him to the 1919 Wheat Classification, which lists all varieties of grain that were being grown in Texas during its agricultural heyday.

In that publication, Brown discovered varieties, like Mediterranean and Quanah, that once blanketed the state. All but forgotten by local farmers and consumers, Brown turned to the aforementioned seed bank in Fort Collins in order to procure, and ultimately, resurrect them in Texas. Working with growers like Ralph Hoelscher of Miles and Henry Martens in Tokio, Brown sowed the foundation for a grain renaissance. Milling the crop from two Austrian Osttiroler stone mills housed in a 5,000-square-foot facility in Dripping Springs, he was able to produce distinctive whole-grain flours that were virtually unheard of by the public.

Starting in 2017, Brown built a quick client base out of the back of his car, handing out samples to high-profile chefs like Jesse Griffiths and Abby Love of Dai Due. Now you can’t bite into a taco (Suerte), crack open a baguette (Easy Tiger), or even sip on a glass of whiskey (Treaty Oaks Distilling) without encountering the Barton Springs Mill name. As Brown says: “Name me a place in Texas that uses grain in any meaningful way, and we’re in there.”

With eight hard winter wheat varieties, two types of rye, six corn varieties, and all three ancient grains (emmer, spelt, einkorn), among others—each used in different combinations and siftings—Brown now produces more than 65 unique offerings. That range of flavors is helping to shape Texas’ diet with an exciting new arsenal for chefs and culinary artisans to play with. The company is currently in 70 or so restaurants across the state, and major players like Treaty Oaks purchase as much as 22 tons of grain every week. Barton Springs Mill’s popularity has escalated to the point, where, this January, they nearly quadrupled in size, moving into an 18,000-square-foot building situated on two-and-a-half acres carved out of the Treaty Oaks property.

“I can’t overstate how important this is,” says Abby Love , who has since partnered with Brown on an on-site bakery. “What James has done is redefining the way we eat in Texas.”