Rising to the occasion with heart(h) in West Rupert

By Carey Lynn Braidt

‘Jed Bread’ of Rupert Rising (All photos courtesy of Rupert Rising Facebook page)

Jed Mayer is the sole proprietor or should we say the soul of Rupert Rising. His home-based bread business of nearly 18 years is located in the small community of West Rupert, Vermont. His naturally leavened bread baking is appreciated across southern Vermont and throughout the Saratoga region of New York State. When his wood fire hearth began deteriorating, he found out just how much his customers and community believed in him.

The year 2020 took its toll on everyone, and “Jed Bread” as his Instagram handle and some friends refer to him, was reluctant to ask for help. He had dedicated his days and nights to his bread business for nearly two decades, working the 18-hour days to closely monitor this 48-hour process from fermentation, to rising, to baking and then delivering.

The naturally leavened bread technique takes dedication. Time and temperature are critical to the fermentation process. The preparation experience can be very different from summer to winter: as humidity and flour temperatures change, so does the consistency of the bread. The long-known quote about Vermont weather comes to mind: “If you don’t like the weather, just wait a few minutes.” With the daily change of seasons in Vermont, one can only imagine the commitment one makes to baking bread, which is so sensitive to the conditions.

Creating traditional hearth breads since 2003, without using any commercial yeast, is what Jed is known for, and committed to, but the brick hearth of his wood-fired oven was deteriorating rapidly with each fire. He began to set up a profile on GoFundMe, and then did nothing for a few months . . . nothing but worry about the worsening condition of his hearth. If it wasn’t repaired soon, he knew his business could be over.

He was reluctant to ask for help, but finally came to his senses and reached out to his bread-loving community with his GoFundMe request. He launched the fundraiser with the title, “Help mend the Heart(h) of Rupert Rising Breads.”

At that moment he had no idea what the reaction would be. He had been so hesitant, Jed explained, “I can’t truly express how hard a decision it was, you’re really putting yourself out there.” The response to his fundraising request was unbelievable, and much quicker than Jed had imagined. The donations ranged from small $10, $15 and $25 dollar donations from friends and customers to some surprising larger anonymous donations. He exceeded his goal of $4,000 and was able to start the reconstruction process even sooner than planned; which truly was a miracle, because the deterioration of the hearth began to worsen and crumble before his eyes during each bake. The rebuild was needed right away, and he now had the funds to do it.

As of Nov., 3, 2020 Jed had surpassed his fundraising goal in just a matter of days. The support was amazing. You could hear the joy and appreciation in his voice when he explained the overwhelming level of support he received. Less than a month after reaching the fundraising goal, the brick oven was given a chance to cool down after the busy Thanksgiving bake time. Even after five days of no baking, the hearth was still at 90 degrees on the first day of the restoration.

The build itself is an equally heart-warming story, as the son of the original hearth builder would be the one to do this unique brickwork. Kristian Moore – a native of nearby Pawlet and son of Peter Moore who had done the original year-long construction of the wood fired brick oven 18 years earlier – climbed in the warm hearth on Nov. 30.

For the next three days at nearly eight hours a day Kristian lay on his stomach surrounded by his father’s craftsmanship. Getting the first brick out was a challenge, and the skim coating of “ash clay” had disguised some of the damage that had been steadily increasing with each bake. There was a bit of necessary redesigning during the process as the oven had settled a bit after years of constant use.

Kristian Moore working on his belly inside the oven

However, the strength and quality of the construction remained strong, and Kristian had no hesitation to work inside the oven his father had built. The curvature in a brick oven like this can weaken over time if not reinforced and engineered properly, and many wood-fired ovens have been known to cave in and sometimes just collapse in time. Jed and Kristian both knew the level of craftsmanship that Peter had used in the original construction 18 years earlier and did not question the integrity or their safety at any time. The rebuild was on schedule and rekindled great memories of the original construction along the way.

On Dec. 2 the new hearth was completed, and over the coming days it was covered with ash and wood chips and slowly fired to cure the brick. Then on Dec. 8 the first bake took place and according to Jed, “The peel and the loaves glided smoothly, totally unlike the old hearth.”

Rupert Rising Bread returned to all its popular stores and restaurants, and Jed continues with his purpose. He loves his work, and it shows. His Rupert neighbors are now looking forward to some pop-up “Montreal-style” bagel days, and pop-up wood-fired pizza nights to celebrate the success once there is some relief from the pandemic.

First layer of new brick in the oven

Jed also used the remainder of the fundraising to purchase a divider press, which allows him to cut 30 pieces of dough at a time. Another recent investment was a “CoolBot,” a small device with a big impact. This device allows him to upgrade from the traditional ambient fermentation process; ultimately creating a more consistent environment and eliminating some of the daily and seasonal effects of the bread making process. It also has given him a more “relaxed” 12-hour-a-day schedule.

Jed explained that it totally changed the stress level and number of hours of sleep he gets. He had been warned by a fellow baker that he “had to do something different or you are going to burn out,” and he is glad he took the advice seriously. Not only is he less stressed and getting more rest, each loaf of bread is more balanced and refined, and he is ultimately creating a more consistent product.

Jed said, “Volume is where success is, and making 200-230 loaves at a time is a lot of work for just one baker.” The new controlled environment along with the new hearth has really helped his efficiency.

Knowing that Jed Bread is also a music-loving guy, I couldn’t end our interview without asking him what his favorite bread jam was; he knew I wasn’t referencing strawberry or blueberry. He shared that it really depends upon what part of the bread process it is, and what time of day matters too, but that he was on a bit of a Taylor Swift kick these days. He also said he is a diehard Melvin’s fan: It is slow and loud and a good hard-working bread companion. He also listens to an instrumental band from Scotland called Mogwai and some Grateful Dead, too. The early mornings when his family is still sleeping call for quieter and softer tunes, but in the evening when he is making his starters the tunes are definitely more aggressive. When his wife Mandy joins him in the bakery they usually rock out to their favorite 80s tunes. I have also been lucky enough to witness some of the fun bagel jam sessions, too, which makes buying bagels a totally rocking Rupert experience!

It is obvious that the heart and soul of this bread business is Jed and his wood-fired brick oven, but Jed also shared his absolutely, clear vision: “I know this is what I’m supposed to do, it’s a lifestyle, it’s who I am, it feels good for my soul, it always has.”

It is obvious his friends, neighbors and customers know it’s good for his soul, too. They certainly rose to the occasion when Jed needed it most.

The first bake in the newly finished hearth

His hearth now has a few more decades of baking left in it. You can find Rupert Rising Breads at numerous stores and restaurants across the region including The Pawlet Station, Hamlet & Ghost, Comfort Kitchen, The Inn at Manchester, The Barnstead Inn, The Crooked Ram, Saratoga Golf & Polo, H.N. Williams, Dorset Union Store, Wayward Goose Farm, Natures Market, Cambridge Food Coop, and Healthy Living New York to name “just a few.”

You can also follow Rupert Rising on either Facebook or Instagram, where Jed is sure to advertise his pop-up wood-fired pizza and bagel days again soon.

It is great to know that even in a pandemic a bread-loving community can come together and make sure that the bread is still rising in West Rupert, Vermont.

Carey Lynn Braidt is a freelance writer and rural visionary from Rupert, Vermont, you can find more of her work on her website alittlesliceofcountry.com.