It takes determination, passion, and confidence to open a bakery during a pandemic. That’s precisely what Kate and Ian McLean did in December of 2020 when they opened the Sunflower Bakery on the west end of Euclid Avenue in Helena. “We purposely chose this location as there wasn’t a bakery serving folks that live on this side of town,” explains Ian. “We think our bread is worth the trek out to our place.”
The McLean’s journey that has led to their skill in making exceptional sourdough bread has been circuitous. Kate is from Clancy and Ian from Great Falls. They met at the University of Montana, where Kate majored in art and Ian in music performance. During her college years, Kate dabbled in baking. This couple, married in 2013, spread their wings and ended up in western Maryland, where they worked on organic farms, farm-to-table eateries, and a creamery. “We were farm hopping,” Kate says with a smile. It was in Maryland where they would learn about fermentation and the science of sourdough. “Now, I could never go back to any other way of baking,” Kate declares.
In Friendsville, Maryland, the couple worked at a business on the Youghiogheny River that provided kayakers coming off the water both dinner and a place to bunk down. Longing to return to their roots, the couple moved back to Montana in 2015 and considered opening a similar operation around one of Big Sky’s water towns. But as Ian says, “Life happened. We settled with family in Helena for a while and then decided to stay when we found out we were going to be parents. We leased a small parcel of land where we developed Fox Valley Farm. We sold our organic produce at the Helena Farmers' Market, along with our artisan sourdough bread and sweet treats.”
In 2018, the McLeans shifted their focus from farming to production of sourdough bread and pastries. They rebranded themselves as the Sunflower Bakery and opened their storefront in December 2020. As stated on their website, “We approach baking with a whole-foods focus, seeking ingredients that are unprocessed and free from additives or artificial ingredients.”
I’m getting a lesson from Ian and Kate in sourdough, which I know involves a starter. I’ve heard other bakers rave about where their starter came from, so I’m curious about the McLeans’ process. “It’s our starter, made from water, flour, and time,” explains Ian. “It ferments over a 24-hour period by way of naturally occurring yeast and bacteria.” Salt is added later to the bread for flavor. It takes about 100 grams of starter to produce a loaf of sourdough. Ian continually adds to the starter, building it up so there is plenty for each day’s production. Kate says with a laugh, “We take the starter with us on vacation. It goes everywhere we go.”
I’m learning that several factors impact the outcome of sourdough, including humidity, outside temperature, and variations in recipes. Sourdough can vary significantly in taste depending on the technique and where it’s made. “People get very romantic about sourdough and sometimes have the wrong idea that an older starter bakes a better bread,” says Kate. “A healthy starter can be created in a week or two with just flour and water, with the result being wonderful bread. Likewise, you can take a 100-year-old starter, and if it's not healthy or if you're not using the right technique, you can make a disappointing loaf of bread.”
The bakery uses certified organic flour from Montana Flour & Grains out of Fort Benton. Beyond the classic sourdough, the Sunflower Bakery produces caraway rye, seeded rye, honey oat and spelt, polenta pumpkin seed, roasted garlic and rosemary, cranberry walnut, cinnamon raisin, multigrain, and KAMUT®. The current production, which Ian is responsible for, yields around 60 loaves of bread daily. Their website and Facebook page detail which varieties are available day-to-day.
I left the bakery with two loaves of classic sourdough — one for my family and one for close friends Kay and Tom Ellerhoff. We concurred that the sourdough flavor was subtle and not too tangy, as sourdough can be. The crust color, which Kay described as toasty light brown, was very appealing. Scoring marks made by Ian before baking resulted in an attractive finish to the loaf. The crumb of the loaf was tender and airy. The softness made the loaves a bit challenging to slice, but an electric knife worked perfectly.
Kate handles the sweets and pastries side of the bakery. The goodies vary daily but are all made using whole grains and organic cane sugar, Montana honey, local eggs, and fruit that is organic or local and non-sprayed.
Sunflower’s cinnamon rolls, babka, and brioche start with sourdough. On any given day, you might find peach and cherry galettes, scones, rye brownies, cookies, and butterscotch bars. Pie is now available, with flavors such as pecan and honey lemon meringue.
Beyond baked goods, Sunflower Bakery now offers a homemade soup daily, along with salads and quiche. Coffee and tea are available, along with an assortment of Blue Sky Sodas and bottled water. Future plans call for sandwiches on the menu. Currently, the bakery is only open for takeout, but plans are underway for indoor seating when the McLeans feel it’s safe. They hope to find themselves back at the farmers market if time and resources allow. Keeping the doors of the bakery open is their priority.
I ask Kate if she ever imagined when she was studying art that she would own a bakery one day. Her response was intuitive. “We’re able to express our creative sides through our baking.” I have nothing but admiration for this sweet couple, juggling a new business with only part-time help and raising their 4-year-old. I’ll definitely make the trek out to Helena’s west end. Slices of toasted sourdough are my new go-to fav for breakfast, topped with butter and peach preserves.
Donnie Sexton, who retired in 2016 after a long career with the Montana Office of Tourism, currently freelances as a travel writer and photographer, covering destinations around the world.
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