RedBeard Bakery: Remaking history

Welcome to RedBeard Bakery, a nostalgic nod to Victoria’s goldrush days, where the gilded era of handmade wood-fired bread is still very much alive.

Located in picturesque Trentham, an hour’s drive from Melbourne, RedBeard Historic Bakery gives a new meaning to ‘baking the traditional way’.

At the heart of RedBeard, the region’s original bakery, sits a Scotch oven that has been used since 1891. The site’s original baker, John Wolff, mixed and shaped all of his doughs by hand and fired the oven with local timber. Throughout the next century, little changed. The bakery was passed on to local baker Charlie Rook and his son Jack before being taken over by Jack Groves who died on the job in the mid 1980s. Struggling to compete with supermarket bread, the bakery eventually shut its doors and lay dormant for two decades before it was renovated into a café. Surprisingly, the original oven was in near perfect condition – only the floor needed replacing and the original cast-iron doors tracked down and retrofitted. 

Eventually, brothers John and Alan Reid came across the site in 2005 and instantly saw potential for producing large volumes of high-quality sourdough. In next to no time, RedBeard was born, named after the family’s surname, which comes from a Scottish clan known for its flame-coloured hair.

Weighing a whopping 75 tonne and taking up 16sq m of floor space, it’s not surprising the oven itself is a talking point. As well as benefiting from the oven’s durability and extreme heat, the entrepreneurial Reid’s have developed a tourism arm to their business. Visitors are encouraged to watch the bakers load the oven with long peels through large viewing windows and, for the enthusiasts, free behind-the-scenes group tours run daily. 

Scotch ovens have an arched ceiling, a firebox on one side of the main chamber, and a flue on the opposite side. The shell comprises massive layers of brick and sand, which are tied together with steel rods so they can contract and expand without pulling apart. The massive masonry structure means the ovens store heat exceptionally well – in fact, the Reid’s oven stores enough heat from one firing to bake 600 loaves. The fire is extinguished before baking commences and the bread is bathed in deep and even heat that is gradually released by the bricks and the sand.

“In recent times, modern bakeries have tried to recapture the benefits of thermal mass by reintroducing fire bricks on the floor of each level of the oven, but the bread produced is still inferior,” the brothers say.

Back in the day, Scotch ovens were the most common commercial ovens in the country. Today, however, the Reid’s oven is one of only a handful of its kind still operating in Australia.

There’s no use of great tools without great skill, however, and the fifth generation of RedBeard custodians certainly know what they are doing. Their simple doughs, made from organic flours and local ingredients, are hand-shaped before being transformed by the alchemy of natural fermentation and wood-fired baking into loaves of outstanding colour, texture and flavour.

“Our authentic sourdoughs are leavened with a natural, wild culture of yeasts and healthy bacteria,” according to the brothers, to who ‘bakers’ yeast’, ‘preservatives’ and ‘additives’ are dirty words.

“Around 6000 years ago, the Egyptians discovered how to make bread rise using natural fermentation. Ever since, bakers have kept a brew of fermenting flour and water called a leaven, or baker’s ‘wort’. RedBeard’s wort was created around two decades ago from wild yeast and lactose bacteria harvested from potato skins – a traditional Scottish technique.

“Beyond sourdough, we offer sausage rolls, biscuits, cakes, slices and muesli, along with jams and chutneys, baking books, wares and flour.”

With a café on site, the constant stream of locals and tourists can also enjoy a good espresso and sit-down breakfast or lunch, with all food made on the premises using local, seasonal and organic ingredients. There’s also a decent selection of local wines, beers and ciders on the menu for patrons who want to stay a little longer.

We’re not the only ones who think they’re on to a good thing. The bakery has won the Victorian Tourism Minister’s Encouragement Award, was listed in Country Style Magazine’s “Top 100 great Australian travel experiences”, and has been recognised by the National Baking Industry Association’s (NBIA’s), taking out its Baking Seal of Excellence award and NBIA Environmental Award. It’s warm atmosphere and passionate staff even prompted celebrity chef George Calombaris to name it “the best bakery in the world” on the 2013 MasterChef program – a massive statement in anyone’s language.

“The poor imitations sold in supermarkets today shouldn’t be called bread,” the brothers say.

“Come and taste the real thing!”

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