The man behind Barrio Bread loves baking because it combines art, science, and movement
Bread has been Don Guerra’s calling for 30 years. For the past decade, he’s brought that calling to his Tucson community with Barrio Bread, a true neighborhood bakery with a focus on traditional baking techniques and locally grown heritage grains.
For Guerra, a 2020 James Beard Foundation semifinalist for outstanding baker, it comes down to a passion for the art and science of bread and a strong sense of community.
“All bread is different, and why is it different? It’s flour, water, salt,” Guerra said. “It’s really individual to the baker. It’s their way of seeing it — just like an artist. You’re going to put paint on a palette and paint a rose, but the way it comes out relates to who they are as people and their experiences…I’ve had so many experiences whether it’s working in bakeries or traveling the world…I’ve seen a lot, and that sort of becomes my bread.”
Art, Science, Movement
Guerra, 49, got into artisan baking after college in the early 90s. His pre-internet thirst for skills and knowledge led him to library shelves–and around the world.
Guerra grew up in Tempe, Arizona, baking bread with his mom and savoring his grandmother’s homemade tortillas.
“Those were my two favorite foods,” he said.
Guerra moved to Tucson in the late 80s to attend the University of Arizona where he studied anthropology. After college, he got his first baking job at a “whole-grain hippie bakery” in outdoorsy Flagstaff in Northern Arizona. From his first night in the kitchen, he was hooked.
“I loved everything about it. It’s art. It’s science, it’s movement. It’s creativity. It’s working with a living food. It’s having something at the end of the shift and you’re super proud of it and other people enjoy it,” Guerra said.
Research, research and more research
When Guerra got into bread in the early 90s, America’s artisan bakers were starting to bring home traditional European techniques. The New York-based baker Daniel Leader published his classic “Bread Alone” in 1993 and became a touchstone for young bakers like Guerra, who remembers going to the library in Flagstaff and checking out every how-to book he could find.
“That’s how I learned,” he said. “Back then you had to go through a lot of trials. You had to read any book you could get your hands on.”
Guerra also spent time traveling in his early 20s with a focus on bread-making technique. He hit the West Coast and the East Coast of the U.S. and traveled to Europe with a list of bakeries in hand each time. Pre-YouTube research included writing letters to his role models and hanging out at bakery back doors hoping to catch master bakers and glean some wisdom.
Guerra launched his first bakery, The Village Baker, in Flagstaff in 1995 and two years later opened a second Village Baker in Ashland, Oregon. There, he combined his love of baking with his passions for snowboarding and mountain biking. But after a few years in Oregon, Guerra was missing the sunny Southwest and moved back to Tucson with a plan to shift gears completely.
“I Had to Get Back to the Bread”
Guerra went back to the University of Arizona to get his teaching credentials and taught PE, health and math at a public school in Tucson for seven years in the early 2000s.
“The first couple of years of teaching, I didn’t bake and it was the weirdest thing,” Guerra said. “I knew I just had to get back to the bread.”
Guerra started making bread in small batches and selling to teaching colleagues every Thursday. During his last year of teaching, he had the idea to retrofit his garage into a fully outfitted bakery, inspired by creative set-ups he’d seen in Mexico and Europe. Barrio Bread was born in that garage in 2009. Guerra quit his day job and ramped up to 900 loaves a week.
“In those eight years in my garage, I made around 375,000 loaves of bread. Just me, with my own hands,” he said.
Community Supported Baking
With the launch of Barrio Bread, Guerra created a Community Supported Baking concept that involves education and working to create a strong local food movement in Tucson. Guerra worked with local farmers and nonprofits to build a movement focused on bringing heritage grains back to Southern Arizona.
During his Flagstaff days, Guerra had connected with the Native Seeds Search nonprofit that works to increase food security in the Southwest by bringing back heritage crops that thrive in arid climates. Guerra’s goal was to create a market for White Sonoran Wheat and other grains, many of which date back to Spanish colonization in the 1600s. Guerra and his partners got a USDA grant to expand production of heritage grains and funding to allow Guerra to expand Barrio Bread into its current retail storefront in 2015.
Working with Native Seeds Search and local farmers like Jeff Zimmerman and his daughter Emma Zimmerman of Hayden Flour Mills, Guerra created a truly local supply chain for Barrio Bread, starting with 10 or 20 percent local grains and building from there. Now, his flour is almost entirely locally sourced and includes a range of heritage grains, including hard and soft wheats for different flavors and textures.
“They create different flavor profiles in the bread, different appearances, different pigments,” Guerra said. “Over the years I’ve been practicing with them like an artist with paints on a palette. I blend them in different ways to get the best qualities out of them.”
“I’ve Never Had Bread Like This”
For more than a decade, Guerra has brought the magic of artisan bread — and a strong sense of community to Tucson. Using the classic French levain sourdough method with his own Southwestern twist, Guerra creates a unique chewy interior and killer crust.
Guerra says the friendly bacteria in the sourdough breaks down the starches and denature proteins, creating a low glycemic, lower gluten bread.
“People get addicted because they’re like I’ve never tasted bread like this and I’ve never had bread feel like this,” he said. “You smile because it tastes good and it feels good on your body.”
With the onset of COVID and the nation’s sourdough obsession, the Community Supported Bread concept and a sustainable local food supply are more relevant than ever.
“What I was doing a decade ago set off on the right course,” Guerra said.
Last year, he launched his Barrio Bread Lessons instructional site and says subscriptions have skyrocketed since COVID hit. Guerra also launched Barrio Grains, selling locally sourced flour blends at the retail level to give home bakers access to those unique Arizona grains.
For Guerra, it’s not just about selling loaves: he wants Tucson baking, building community and strengthening the local supply chains.
“How can we strengthen the community and become more self-sufficient and reliant on what we do?” he said. “If we all participate, we can have something really great.”
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Jan Mercker is a freelance journalist, wine lover and arts enthusiast. A former public relations pro and lifelong Francophile, she helped French Champagne houses navigate the U.S. media landscape leading up to Y2K and ran the wine and spirits department at the French Embassy Trade Office in New York before moving into a writing career. She’s an underachieving but enthusiastic tennis player and parent of teens.