by Lynn Olson, Member Services Manager
Responding to an ad for baker positions in Middleton, WI, two brothers in post-war Germany were facing a bleak outlook at home. Already trained as Master Bakers, the Clasen brothers set out to the US and worked for two years with a Wisconsin employer before opening their own bakery, Clasen’s European Bakery, not far from the current location on Donna Drive in Middleton, WI. In addition to a long list of traditional European breads, the family continues to make Old World treats here in the US through a large array of cherished foods.
Today, hundreds of thousands of loaves later, Michelle Clasen is continuing the family tradition of excellence in baking and in business. Although she had been baking since age 5 with her family, Michelle worked and trained in Germany as a Pastry Chef for over three years before returning home to the business, eventually purchasing the operation from her father and mother.
Michelle admits that watching her father, who did most of the baking himself for the business while she was growing up, has had an enormous influence on her own business philosophy. “He’s an honest business man and I follow the same idea: that the product, the customer and the employee comes first and after that follows the profit if you’re doing all of that right. It isn’t just about making money, it’s about being proud of what you make, it’s about treating the staff like people.”
Clasen’s 42 employees manage the baking, receiving, retail and delivery on a nearly 24-hour time schedule. Employees are provided health insurance, matching 401K accounts and holiday pay, as well as competitive wages. Among them, more than a handful of employees have been with the company for more than 10 years, with a few close to 20. Throughout the long history of this company, the family of owners has continually worked closely with or alongside their staff, creating a thriving sense of community.
Another win/win commitment the family has held to throughout their history is the German Master Baker program that provides recent graduates of German Master Baker programs an 18-month experience working with the Clasen’s crews. Two-fold, this program provides housing, transportation and a valuable opportunity for those who participate during their stay. In return, Tom Siewert, Clasen’s Bakery Manager, summed it up by saying, “The German master bakers bring a new perspective, new ideas, sometimes it translates into a better or new way to do things.”
To remain competitive and maintain consistency, Clasen’s production area of the bakery is somewhat of a technological playground, bedecked with some of the finest French and German baking equipment available. French-made sourdough starter vats, called Fermentalevains, look oddly like R2D2 (from the movie Star Wars), and consistently produce over 200 pounds of signature sourdough starter in only two days’ time. Traditionally, artisan breads do not add yeast granules, but harness the yeast that occurs naturally in the environment by combining flour and water and allowing nature to take it’s course over time. Other sourdough starters for Clasen’s German and rye bread recipes require only a room temperature, low-tech method to attain their particular “ripeness.” Rye flour fermentations referred to as a “crazier kind of beast” by Tom, ferment faster than wheat flours and can be considerably harder to perfect.
While conducting a tour of the bakery, Tom began by saying, “The single biggest thing that makes a loaf of bread better is pre-fermenting part of the flour. Whether it’s a yeasted sponge or a sourdough bread, that’s the biggest single thing that can turn an ordinary loaf of bread into an extraordinary loaf of bread.”
Beginning at around 9:00pm each night, staff begins mixing 400-lb. batches for the day’s production. A hydraulically assisted mixer was added to the production line to relieve the physical demands on staff to move large batches of dough. The hydraulic feature on the mixer allows staff to easily tip the dough from the mixer directly onto the adjacent table for dividing and weighing into smaller amounts. Between each step, the dough rests for approximately 15-30 minutes.
Another marvelous machine, the loaf cutter, uses the dough from the last step and systematically divides the larger slabs of pre-measured dough into individual loaf pieces. Resting again for about 15-30 minutes, the loaves are then traditionally hand-molded by the bakers. Baguettes, a more labor-intensive loaf, are the only breads molded by a specialty machine in order to maintain consistency in its shape and texture.
Next, the loaves are placed in a room-sized, temperature- and humidity-controlled proofer before baking to allow enzyme activity to perfect the loaf’s volume. After spending hours in the proofing box, another crew begins preparing the individual loaves and, as Tom illustrated, a systematic process of using a conveyor belt to move the breads into the oven for baking.
Tom was pleased to display their new German-made oven. “The [oven] is really the secret to our beautiful crust we have and the nice blistering you’ll see on the loaf of bread. It’s really a limiting factor if you don’t have a good oven. You can make up for a lack of equipment in other areas of the production, but [not] if you don’t have a good oven.”
On the conveyor belt, crews cut or “score” the loaves before baking. Tom says they’re “creating a guide for the loaf, telling it where you want it to grow and letting out excess carbon dioxide.”
Asked about her business and food philosophies for Clasen’s, Michelle said, “We bake honestly; we don’t use any garbage in our breads, just flour and water and yeast.
“In Germany, one man I worked for taught me, ‘if it’s not good enough for your mother to eat, don’t sell it,’ so that’s the philosophy I follow. And really you’re doing it for yourself as much as for the customer. At the end of the day, when I see one of [our products], I want it to look good to me.”
Willy Street Co-op is pleased to feature the following breads from Clausen’s European Bakery in our bread aisle: Artisan Sourdough, Multigrain Sourdough, Rosemary Potato, Multigrain Wheat, Oatmeal Artisan, Olive Sourdough, Italian Country, Wheat Artisan, Cracked Wheat, White Artisan, Italian Rosemary, French Cinnamon Swirl, French Country Six-Grain, Farmer’s Rye, Sourdough Rye, Classic French, and Pumpkin Seed Bread.