The Outer Sunset has an under-the-radar baker who may very well be the only one in town that exclusively uses spring water for its breads. Greg Harmon, an Outer Sunset local, runs the small Bear Flag Bakery and several times a month loads his car with dozens of gallons of water from Marin, Napa and Sonoma counties. A regular at the Outer Sunset Farmers Market, he bakes at Dogpatch in Schilling Co. and sells his baked goods, such as squid ink-infused chili, cheese rounds and cinnamon buns at Upper Cut at Spark Social. Harmon’s love of local ingredients is very Californian. But his story of scouring the area in search of prime water is unique. “I thought it would be fun to do something with it,” says Harmon. “There are excellent sourdough conditions all along the West Coast.”
After a brief love affair with baking in college, her passion (and business) really kicked off once she retired and took a few classes at the San Francisco Baking Institute. All of her breads are named after the old missions in the area and all of her ingredients come from California. He prefers olives from Santa Barbara and walnuts from Old Dog Ranch in Montara. She contacted Soul Food Farms of Vacaville, Alice Waters’ egg supplier. He then turned to traditional flours and sources them from Capay Mills, as well as the new Angie’s pizzeria in the Mission. However, it was the University of Washington’s approach that led to his fascination with water quality. Rather than the ancient grains, which haven’t necessarily kept up with modern palettes, the UW says it’s the water that makes San Francisco bread distinctive. However, since 1913, the water from the Sierra Spring at Hetch Hetchy has been controlled by Pacific Gas and Electric and can only be used for the “public interest”. Even if a small business could access the repository, it has been tampered with since 1942 with fluoride and various disinfection practices. “Tap water is pretty much useless for bread,” says Harmon. “Okay, but if you’re a fan like me, then not so much.”
Unrelated to his entire search, Harmon was working as an insurance inspector. While working at Bayview, Harmon came across Albion Castle. It was built in 1870 and has two foot thick walls. “That’s military,” Harmon says. “You can mount a cannon on the roof and shoot into the bay.” More relevantly, military equipment like this needs its own water supply. For many years the building was a brewery, but the owner showed Harmon the cisterns. Half a million gallons of San Francisco water runs from the site into the bay, all glacial blue. It is basically an aquifer of water from before the 1913 public use litigation that is slowly draining into the Bay. “It’s amazing,” says Harmon. “It has some issues, mostly biomaterials, but it’s real San Francisco water.”
He asked the owner if he could use the supply for his baking interests and the owner said no problem. About a year and a half later, she started making her sourdough with him and Harmon couldn’t believe the results. “It was the best bread he had ever made,” Harmon says. Unfortunately, the relationship didn’t last, it wasn’t worth it for Albion Castles to work with such a small company, so Harmon turned to spring water in Sonoma. His nephew owns Argot Vineyards in the county Harmon hails from now, the quixotic search for him continues. When his nephew is busy, he gets the standard 40 gallons that he gets each time from a different piece of equipment; he sometimes goes to the Mayacamas Spring Water Co. (which draws its water from Cobb Mountain, near Cloverdale), and the third weekend in November he gets it from Frost Watch Vineyards. He says Tartine is excellent, as are Semifreddi and Acme, but thinks her distinctive style of just wine and spring water makes her pan stand out. “We have a lot of sourdough bakers in the area right now,” Harmon says. “But I like my bread. I think I have a good style.”
Bear Flag Bakery is at the Outer Sunset Farmers Market every Sunday and is available for custom orders through their website.