Along with a phone number and website, each pizza box from That’s A Some Pizza on Bainbridge Island has the words “Fresh sourdough pizza from the Klondike Gold Rush” printed on it.
How did a small, family-owned pizzeria come to make pizza using a 120-something-year-old sourdough starter from the Alaska gold rush era? Lee Grant, the co-founder, befriended Phil Hausmann while they were repairing the Hood Canal Bridge after hurricane-force winds sunk it in 1979 and they started making pizza together using a sourdough starter that Hausmann’s great-grandfather got from an Alaskan family in the 1890s.
They refined their dough recipe and opened their first pizza parlor in Kingston, Kitsap County, in 1984, calling it That’s A Some Pizza. Will Grant, Lee’s son, started working at the restaurant when he was 8. Although his father’s original shop has since closed, Grant now owns That’s A Some Pizza on Bainbridge Island and the newly opened Sourdough Willy’s in Kingston.
But it wasn’t until 2014 that Grant started publicizing his use of the Alaska gold rush starter his father acquired more than 40 years ago.
Sourdough starters, you see, are having their moment. Bored during the first COVID-19 lockdowns in March 2020, the world (or so it seemed) turned to baking. Commercial yeast shortages led to a rise in sourdough baking, which led to a rise in sourdough pizza (Google trends show that searches for sourdough pizza peaked in April 2020). Many pizzerias now tout their “naturally leavened” pizza, as if simply being created without the use of commercial yeast makes for a better pizza. But does it? And does using a historical starter make a tangible difference when compared to pizza dough made with a starter created a few weeks ago? What even is a sourdough starter? We consulted several Seattle-area pizzaiolos and a bread expert from Washington State University’s Breadlab to find out.
The sourdough starter revolution
Sourdough wasn’t always popular in pizza-making circles.
Back in the day, “it wasn’t like it is now. People would say, ‘Sourdough? I don’t like sourdough,’” Grant said, on a recent afternoon at his shop in Kingston. “But it’s not sour, it’s more floral. And people were scared by it.”
Now, Grant is no longer the only pizza maker with a historical starter in the Greater Seattle area. And the dough nerds who’ve become Grant’s peers are equally passionate about their unique sourdough starters. Their starters are often named — meet Ruth, the starter named after prison abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore that lives atop the bar next to a statue of the Virgin Mary at Fremont’s Lupo, or Betty, the starter at West Seattle’s Moto, named after owner Lee Kindell’s motorcycle — and cared for like pets.
This natural form of leavening has been around for millennia. In 2019, scientists revived the yeast microbes scraped from a 4,500-year-old piece of Egyptian pottery and successfully baked a loaf of bread.
Sourdough starters are simple to create, which is why people had them during the Alaska gold rush. All you need is flour, water and time.
But that doesn’t stop people from getting romantic about it. You can argue that the yeast microbes found in that Egyptian pottery weren’t necessarily revived, but that the addition of water and flour created a brand new starter and the scrapings did nothing, says Stephen Jones, director of WSU’s Breadlab. Even though the science isn’t 100% clear, for dough geeks, finding a historical starter is still exciting and highly coveted. There are pages worth of old starters for sale on Etsy: anything from 150-year-old French ones and 200-year-old Alaskan starters to “younger” starters from San Francisco in the ’50s; and they are priced anywhere from $4 to $35 for around 100 grams — basically a few tablespoons of nondescript, tan colored goop. There’s even a sourdough library based in St. Vith, Belgium, where Karl De Smedt (the “Sourdough Librarian”) meticulously analyzes, catalogs and feeds old sourdough starters from across the globe — often with the same flour the original owner used. (Grant’s starter, called “That’s A Some Starter,” is Sample No. 104).
See, a starter is a magical living thing — there’s bacteria and yeast living in harmony — influenced totally by its environment. It’s temperamental — it likes a schedule and steady temperatures, which is part of the appeal of that “century-old” starter business in that if someone has kept it alive for a century, it must be something amazing.
Sourdough starters give dough depth and a unique flavor unlike what is achieved with commercial yeast. It can be tangy or earthy. It has a body to it — like if you substitute honey for sugar in your coffee. The longer a starter is around, the more flavor it develops and the stronger it gets. And even though starters can have a reputation for being fickle, good starters are virtually indestructible.
“You could run over it with a truck, hit it with a stick of dynamite. It can look dead — get black on top even — but it’s so hard to kill,” Jones says.
The only thing you have to do is feed it on a regular schedule. And every time you open that jar to feed the starter a mixture of flour and water, it introduces yeast and bacteria that is floating in the air. Everything matters when it comes to the microbiome of it — the temperature, the water, the flour you use, the environment where it is fed and kept.
So, does the starter that Grant uses at his pizzerias on Bainbridge Island and Kingston bear any resemblance to its original Klondike form?
“No,” Jones says.
“It’s like that old joke that it’s George Washington’s ax but it’s had three different heads and four different handles,” Jones says. “Biologically, whatever is in the air and flour, [the starter] is going to get its own character of that place.”
Kindell, owner of West Seattle’s Moto, relies on a starter’s tendency to grab whatever floats in the air to keep Betty, his special starter, flourishing.
He got the original base for Betty from his best friend’s father, who was a baker. It was one of those with a story: 100 years old, maintained in California, possibly from Alaska.
But, “there is not a huge difference between a 100-year-old and a well-done starter. It’s really what you do with that starter,” Kindell says.
After first acquiring Betty, Kindell ordered a 200-year-old starter from San Francisco and sprinkled some of that in. Then he would leave the jar with Betty open out near the ocean.
“I wanted some of that ocean yeast that’s floating around, that beautiful energy,” he said. He recently added a scoop of a 1,000-year-old starter he got online from a man in Wales.
Kindell also started grinding his own flour — not enough to make pizza with, just enough to feed Betty each day — finding it gave her a more “beautiful aloofness.”
“Betty isn’t just one story, over time she’s this little franken-starter that is a part of all the experimentation that I do. As she progresses, she becomes a richer, more complex starter that I am just in love with,” Kindell says.
To me, the pizza Kindell creates with Betty resembles Detroit-style — a deep crust with crispy, cheesy edges, achieved by baking in a pan. Sturdy, but with plenty of air bubbles creating a light bite. The crust has soul — flavor beyond the overly sweet, quick-rise doughs of your favorite cheap pizza chain. But Kindell prefers the term “franken-style.”
“It’s a Roman, Neapolitan, Midwest, Pacific Northwest pizza,” he says. And he tinkers endlessly with it, experimenting with fermentation, proofing times, mixing times. Tiny little tweaks that can add up to something different and better.
“I’m always pushing the boundaries. I don’t want to do the exact same thing,” he says.
What makes a “good” pizza?
To Kindell, the requisite ingredient in a good pizza is love.
“If you have a love for it, you’ll make good pizza, eventually,” he says. “You can have technique, store-bought flour, all the ingredients. It’s really love.”
Many pizzaiolos show that love in the form of endless tinkering, similar to what dough aficionados Shane Abbott and Matt Gorman are doing at Fremont’s Lupo.
Abbott co-owns Lupo with his friend Justin Harcus — a longtime general manager of Via Tribunale, the Neapolitan-style shop that preceded Lupo. The duo bought the place in 2018 and gradually started churning out pizzas on a sourdough base made with their starter, Ruth.
Abbott and Gorman invited me to Lupo one morning to help mix and roll out dough. Abbott doesn’t have a baking background, but soon after they opened Lupo, he fell down a rabbit hole of books, baking podcasts and research, falling in love with the process and results of baking with sourdough.
The two hours I was there went by in a flash, with Abbott and Gorman talking excitedly about the benefits of certain mixers over others, percentages of preferment, and optimal proofing windows while they expertly rolled and shaped dough, patiently demonstrating how to tighten a dough ball and check it for a taut center. Like Kindell, Abbott and Gorman are dough nerds, and their excitement for creations made with simple flour and water is infectious.
Everything, from how they stack the proofing boxes to how small they cut the mozzarella, is up for tinkering. And it’s all in pursuit of that perfect pie.
The result is a pizza crust that’s a deeper beige than your average dough, delicately freckled with blackened blisters courtesy of the 900-degree wood fired oven. Like Moto, Lupo’s pizza dough has soul; a crackle of a crust more akin to a baguette or well-shaped loaf than your average floppy base, mostly there as a toppings delivery system.
Abbott identifies with New York-based chef Marc Forgione’s (another sourdough pizza guy and arguably one of American pizza’s biggest names) belief that throughout the course of an evening service, he might only make one or two pizzas that are “just right.” This is because the dough can change as it warms up; just enough, and it expands beautifully in the oven. Too much and it can collapse, creating more of a sad, deflated flatbread.
“In sourdough, though, as much as you want to be in control, you definitely are not,” Gorman says.
Good pizza to them means a beautifully risen dough, created from a perfect storm of conditions. It’s Ruth, sure. But it’s also in part a result of the advanced baking techniques they use — a gentle mix with a spiral mixer, high quality flour, a 72-hour recipe that promotes a long fermentation time, meticulously tracked temperatures and copious notes on what worked and what didn’t. Put together, it all gives their pizza a bite worth remembering. Like Kindell, they’ll never quit reaching for perfection.
Back in Kingston, Grant admits to mixing a commercial yeast into his dough — 0.05% exactly — to maintain a more consistent product.
“I want to make the same pizza every time and [with sourdough], heat is such a variable. If it’s too hot or too cold it won’t rise,” Grant says. “Flour, water, salt, that is a true sourdough bread.”
Putting it into perspective, a nearby pizzeria uses three cups of yeast to a 25-pound bag of flour. Grant uses three ounces of yeast and 12 pounds of starter for a 50-pound bag of flour, just to give the dough a bit more predictability and forgiveness. That commercial yeast makes the dough less temperamental when it comes to temperature.
But even though Grant strives for consistency, he, too, never stops tinkering.
At Sourdough Willy’s, he’s got three ovens set at different temperatures cranking out five styles of pizza. There’s a foldable New York slice, a square Detroit, a Sicilian pan, a Roman In Pala (meaning “on the shovel”) and Neapolitan. He’s using three different doughs at different hydration levels to create the pizzas, all fermented for varying lengths of time.
And while he’s worked with sourdough pizza his entire life, Grant says he’s really leaned into the science behind it in the last decade or so.
In 2017 he became a certified pizzaiolo through the International School of Pizza in San Francisco, an extension of the Scuola Italiana Pizzaioli in Italy and run by Tony Gemignani, a 13-time World Pizza Champion who has multiple pizza-related Guinness World Records. He’s traveled with Gemignani to some of the oldest pizza shops in Italy, learning how Romans make “Roman In Pala” pizza.
The sourdough starter is the basis for it all — and yes, the “Alaska gold rush” part of it is certainly a play to get people in the door.
Ultimately, what makes a “good pizza,” Grant says, is “the knowledge of working with the pizza. It’s not just the starter, it’s how long you let it ferment. Fermentation and maturation.”
Jones from WSU’s Breadlab agrees. Another factor essential to good pizza is time: “It is one of the most important ingredients and it’s one that’s been taken out over the years,” he says.
After eating all these pizzas, from Moto’s delightful franken-pizza to Lupo’s leopard-spotted dough kissed by fire in their domed oven; Grant’s award-winning Gorgonzola vegetarian and squares of his Detroit-style finished with a squirt of hot honey; or his crunchy-crisp Roman In Pala — each one unique in flavor, crumb texture and bite thanks to the likes of Ruth, Betty and That’s A Some Starter — I think Jones is right.
The time that each one has poured into the craft is what makes these pizzas special. None are perfect, but these pizzaiolos do not claim perfection — they merely strive for it.
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